What Matters Most: Photographs of Black Life, ed. Zun Lee and Sophie Hackett

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2022 by DelMonico Books (here) and Art Gallery of Ontario (here). Hardcover, 6.75 x 9.25 inches, 192 pages, with 242 color photographs. Edited by Zun Lee and Sophie Hackett, with essays by Stephen Jost, Dawn Lundy Martin, Stefano Harney & Fred Moten, and the editors. Design by Polymode. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In recent years, the photography world has undergone an overdue recalibration, as the white male hegemony that has traditionally dominated its institutional underpinnings has given way to a more inclusive community. Women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and a more globalized field have gained increased voice and power. This shift has come in fits and starts, occasionally in sharp rebukes of the patriarchy (e.g. Justine Kurland, reviewed here), and elsewhere in historical reassessments (e.g., Tarrah Krajnak, reviewed here). Whatever its pace, the direction seems inexorable. A sampling of Collector Daily reviews from the past few years illustrates the broadening spectrum of photographic voices over time.

Although the transition is welcome and well established, many photo projects still conform to the fusty dynamic of skilled photographer examining the other, and recording exterior subject matter as an objectified document. But more egalitarian alternatives exist. Vernacular snapshots, for example, might provide a less mediated perspective than third-party observation. This is the premise and the promise of What Matters Most: Photographs of Black Life, the recent exhibition catalog edited by Zun Lee and Sophie Hackett.

The squat hardcover packs inside hundreds of instant prints, all shot, collected, and treasured by Black Americans in the second half of the 20th century. The fact that they were eventually discarded and reassembled does nothing to discount their power. “The daily life scenes reveal a richness and complexity,” writes Lee, “reflecting the way Black people saw themselves on their terms and in ways not intended to be seen, or judged, by others.” This is a collective portrait of Black Americans by Black Americans for Black Americans, subverting the traditional gatekeeper roles of editor, institution, and curator.

What Matters Most began somewhat innocuously in 2012 when artist/archivist Zun Lee stumbled on a set of Polaroids abandoned on a Detroit sidewalk. They depicted Black Americans, but beyond that fact Lee knew nothing. For photobook aficionados, the incident might recall Found Photos In Detroit, the acclaimed monograph by Arianna Arcana and Luca Santese published that same year. But there’s no connection beyond the strange peculiarities of happenstance and anonymized imagery.

Back to Lee’s 2012 sidewalk discovery: he tried unsuccessfully to track down the Polaroid owners and return the pictures. Earlier life events laid the groundwork for what happened next. Zun Lee had been raised in Germany by Korean parents. He then became a practicing neurologist and later a health care consultant, but his career path was shaken up by a mid-life revelation. It turned out his biological dad was not his legal parent, but instead an Black American stranger fathered through an affair. After this jolting news, Lee found the practice of photography to be therapeutic. He eventually transitioned to art as a full-time profession, catalyzed by his newfound identity as a Black man. The stage was set. When he stumbled across the abandoned Polaroids and considered what do to with them, his own reformulated roots came into play. (Note: although helpful to know, Lee’s family background is not included in the book). Lee became fascinated with second-hand Polaroids, which he thought of as “orphaned ghosts”. He began collecting them through online sleuthing and word-of-mouth, gradually compiling a mammoth physical archive. He called it “Fade Resistance”, and it eventually totaled 2975 Instant prints and 1384 gelatin silver and c-prints.

“Fade Resistance” was acquired in 2018 by The Art Gallery of Ontario. AGO’s curator of photography Sophie Hackett then worked with Lee to organize a large exhibition of the instant prints, which ran for six months last year before closing in January 2023. For those like me who missed the show, the catalog offers plenty. It reproduces 242 of the photos in the exhibit, filling much of the available page space. The reproductions are generally faithful to the originals, albeit with occasionally over saturated colors. Almost all are Polaroids shown with borders intact. Formats fall heavily on the reliable workhorses Polaroid 600 and SX70, with several other types and even a few Kodaks thrown in for good measure. A rear index supplies format, name, date, and location when known.

The book’s snapshot-friendly layout seems to emulate Lee’s real world encounter. The assorted cover and end pages show photographs tilted, misaligned, and piled, as if tossed haphazardly onto a page, or perhaps a Detroit street. Most interior layouts are also haphazard. Some hew to conventional coordinates, but with frames deliberately offset lest they seem too orderly. Adorned with handwritten notes, stains, creases, and color shifts over time, many prints have a physical, tactile presence. Presented on the wall at AGO as original artifacts they may have smelled like musty like old heirlooms. Of course no book can reproduce the scent of an old Polaroid, but Lee explores issues of tangibility and touch at some length in his title essay “A Whole Mess And A Half: The Matter of Most”. 

Whether writing or collecting pictures, Lee is most interested in everyday domestic life, as experienced and photographed by participants. Polaroids were commonplace in late 20th century America, and right up his alley. Instant cameras were frequently brought out at parties, gatherings, or whenever the mood struck. Even when used by amateurs, the format served as a subterfuge against institutional norms. They could be shot, developed, and collected privately, safe from prying eyes and opinions. If shooting nudes, vice, or illicit activity, Polaroids were a desirable option. But of course they were used mostly for mundane exposures.

What Matters Most sweeps up a big dollop of Black life: ages, locations, classes, seasons, and moods vary widely throughout the book. The years run from the 1970s into the early 2000s. Most subjects are captured in situ with a fleeting “hey-look-here-a-sec” quality. A man standing near an outdoor gazebo pays attention for a moment. Another photo shows a shirtless man peering up from the bathroom sink. In other spreads adults, kids, and relatives flash a “say cheese” smile, mug for the camera, then proceed with whatever they were doing. The pictures are decidedly non-candid, and might even be considered inauthentic on some level. But whatever they lose in staged performance is made up for in real world connections and patterns. Plucked from the stream of life, these snapshots are as revealing as any dinner plate, laundry pile, or conversation snippet heard by a fly on the wall. 

Not that What Matters Most is an objective view. As with any sampling of family albums, dispositions are unnervingly sunny. Toothy grins brighten almost every page, represented at a much higher ratio than in everyday life. If the curation feels Panglossian, it might be a deliberate rebuttal to mainstream depictions of Black culture. Black and brown subjects have endured centuries of negative imagery up to the present. If What Matters Most goes overboard in the other direction, it might be a small gesture toward balance. Seen on the hallowed walls of AGO, the effect must have been amplified further.

Snapshots have captured the imagination of photo curators for a few decades now, and What Matters Most joins a rich tradition of similar collections. Thomas Sauvin in China, Guadalupe Rosales in East LA, and Lucas Birk in South Africa and Myanmar are among several curators exploring the field.

But the timing and focus of this book help set it apart. As Lee writes, “recent events from Ferguson to Cleveland to Baltimore reveal that stereotypical media depictions of African Americans continue unabated. These Polaroids remind us that there is a vivid history of Black visual self-representation that offers an eerily contemporary counter-narrative to mainstream distortion and erasure.” That text was written before George Floyd’s murder. The case has become more pressing since, and What Matters Most may soon be joined by other efforts. Renata Cherlise’s new book Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration Of Black Life has a similar spirit and strategy. Perhaps these two collections signal an impending wave?  We shall see.

More photos remain unpublished in the “Fade Resistance” collection, probably enough for another show or two, and future books. A curation of the non-instant photos would be interesting. The possibilities are yet unscripted. For now, What Matters Most is a welcome project in its own right. It’s a multi-decade summation of recent history, and a line drawn in the curatorial sand: here’s where we are now. In twenty years time, this reference point might look primitive. But it offers a promising direction for other curators, toward a more democratized framework to represent diversifying identities.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a survey of a collection of found photographs, we will forego the usual discussion of gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories found here.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Zun Lee, Art Gallery of Ontario, DelMonico Books

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Mark Steinmetz, ATL

Mark Steinmetz, ATL

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter