Zora J. Murff, At No Point In Between

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Dais Books (here). Hardcover, 9×7.25 inches, 100 pages, with 53 black and white and color reproductions and inserts. Includes texts by Terrance Washington and Lisa Riordan Seville. In an edition of 155 copies with 5 artist’s proofs. Design by Shawn Bush. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: With a smartphone camera now in the hands of most citizens, many of the acts of violence that used to happen off screen in our country are now being documented with first hand video footage. This technological revolution has changed the nature of witnessing – a single traumatized witness is now routinely multiplied into thousands or more, as clips are shared across the Internet and stark truths are exposed in ways that are hard to refute. There is no substitute for seeing scenes of police shootings, excessive brutality, or other harsh injustices with our own eyes (as the recent case of Ahmaud Aubrey is yet another painful example), and as difficult as it is to watch these moments unfold, they are often evidence not only of a specific individual crime, but of larger systemic problems and prejudices whose roots reach back decades.

Zora J. Murff’s powerful photobook At No Point In Between tries to photographically unpack some of this complexity. His is by no count the first project to use the outrage over police shootings as an artistic catalyst, but Murff moves beyond the very human impulse to center our attention only on honoring the victims. Instead, he pays somber tribute (without commodifying the images of bodies), and then bridges to a layered visual exploration of some of the underlying causes of the flood of such incidents.

Murff cleverly uses the front and back covers as well as the initial pages of At No Point In Between to bookend his thinking. The deep black covers seem to suck all the light away from anything they touch, and only after a moment of looking do we see the symbols carved into the panels. At first glance, they look like chalk talk diagrams of sports plays (you run here, she runs there), but the abstract clustering of the circles soon gives way to a grimmer conclusion – these are renderings of bullet holes, in particular the entry and exit wounds of 17 year old Laquan McDonald who was shot 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. As we open the book, Murff presents us with a portrait of a young African-American man standing in the street, his face and front enveloped by shadow, making him anonymous, essentially everyman. This is followed by the title spread, which includes a small loose insert – an image of a young black man running. It isn’t until we reach the end of the book that this video still is given additional context – a second loose insert dangles from the last spread, picturing a white police officer aiming to shoot. These two frames come together to document the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott, who was shot (from behind) and killed after a traffic stop for a malfunctioning brake light.

With these two incidents of split second violence as a frame, Murff then steps back to slow things down. Many of the photographs in At No Point In Between essentially document real estate – not fancy homes with curb appeal, but a parade of vacant lots, overgrown buildings, empty alleys, and faceless apartment blocks. All of these images were taken in the Near North Side neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska, and indirectly document the results of the systematic practice of “redlining”. Redlining is an umbrella term that gathers up a range of discriminatory housing policies, from how loans and insurance are structured and offered to what kinds of businesses will be supported (or not) by federal monies in such areas. The net result is prejudicial and/or segregated treatment of black families, and the limiting of credit options, home values, home ownership, and retail services.

Murff’s landscapes show us these humble locations – fenced off tracts near the highway, wild looking expanses of urban greenery, decaying buildings with boarded up windows, aging piles of dirt and construction rubble, half built houses with exposed wrapping, and corner locations marred by traffic lights, concrete barriers, and more fencing – leaving us to consider for ourselves how local residents could make lives from such meager, wrecked options. Murff sees these places with surprising tenderness, noticing a rusty padlock, the flowering vines that overrun a roofline, and the overlapped geometries of weathered boards used to cover the side of a former business. The roughly chainsawed tree toppled over in the parking lot is just one final smack in the face, even when Murff captures its tactile details in lush black and white.

To reinforce his point about this systematic racial injustice, Murff interleaves a variety of archival materials, including images of newspaper clippings, more video stills, and older historical photographs and texts. A 1919 photograph of a crowd of onlookers at the burning of a lynched man’s body is perhaps the bleakest of these artifacts, but group images of white men in suits and police officers taking their oaths aren’t any less chilling, given this context. Murff also adds more video stills and death stories, and even if we can’t entirely identify the specifics of each incident, the aggregation of this kind of imagery reminds us that the pattern is longstanding.

Murff’s portraits link all this material into an integrated whole, giving us faces and individual personalities to hold onto. Murff is a talented portraitist, with an eye for gestures and subtle moods. His women lean on an elbow with a hint of resignation, close their eyes in a moment of introspective release, and hold themselves upright in dappled shadow. His men cover an even wider range of emotions, from the wariness of a young boy with a basketball and two beaded braids to the gentle but steely-eyed protectiveness of a young father with his baby. And Murff is particularly adept at seeing nuance in hands. He captures hands in clasped in intense prayer, the weary anguish of a momentary touch to the brow, and the rhetorical spark of a fist pounding an open hand or reaching out to connect.

Seen as blended artistic statement, At No Point In Between is understated, but persuasively sophisticated. Murff successfully connects the dots between bodies, policies, and the landscape itself, mixing the past and present into a potent cocktail of deliberate inequity that continues to simmer. While some of the violence the Murff shows us is fast (and deadly), taking place in the intensity of a charged moment, much of it is quite a bit slower and more insidious, stretching out over lifetimes, disadvantaging black citizens in dozens of layered and often hard to see ways. In this way, At No Point In Between photographically shows us the tragic end point consequences and systematic unfairness that slowed down black families that wanted to buy a house, start a business, or invest in building something for themselves. And by making both cause and effect artistically explicit, he gracefully leaves us nowhere to hide.

Collector’s POV: Zora J. Murff does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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