Justin Solomon on Making Black Work, Masculinity, and Being Seen
The artist speaks with Antwaun Sargent ahead of his new show "Just Pictures," which opened at projects+gallery in St. Louis this week.
Justin Solomon, Courtesy of the artist and Projects + Gallery
Last year, the writer, critic, and curator Antwaun Sargent published The New Black Vanguard, a now-seminal book that gathers the work of fifteen Black artists working within—and around—the realms of fine art and fashion photography. Earlier this week, “Just Pictures,” a new show he curated, opened at projects+gallery in St. Louis, Missouri, featuring works by Arielle Bobb-Willis, Yagazie Emezi, Joshua Kissi, Mous Lamrabat, Renell Medrano, Ruth Ossai, Rafael Pavarotti, Justin Solomon, and Joshua Woods, all with a distinct point of view, but unified in their pursuit of creating indelible and unequivocally Black work. GARAGE brought together Sargent and Solomon, whose haunting silhouetted images blur the line between photography and abstract art, and pushed play on their recording. Their honest conversation touched upon photography as an archive, the inherent agency in making images, and Black masculinity. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Antwaun Sargent: How did you come to photo?
Justin Solomon: I feel like my journey to photography is really similar to most young Black photographers. My dad always had a camera, he was always documenting things. My relationship to my parents' past was always through photos: like I'd stumble across photos of my dad with big hair… but my dad is bald now, so I learned early on that photography was like this archival thing. I used to borrow his camera when he was at work and play around with stuff. I was doing a lot of freeze-frame images. I'd be jumping on my bed and doing poses in the air and catching it with flash and stuff like that from a young age.
As I got older technology advanced, and social media came about, my brother was on MySpace and Facebook. That was kind of like when people really started editing images of themselves, like when you had to actually go to a website, and people would put all the text and everything on the photos. When I saw that I was like, yo, this is fire. I was like 12, making myself green in Picnik .
I feel like all of that kind of really brought me to where I am with photo now. My first camera was a smartphone. I started playing around with that. Then there was the emergence of VSCO and Tumblr. But it was interesting because when all that arose, I didn't have an iPhone. VSCO didn't have apps for Android so I was using this one app called Magic Hour, and you had to make all the filters yourself. It really taught me a lot about the editing process of an image. So that was dope. I would literally look at images and be like, okay I like those colors in that image. I want to try to get that into that. I never really got close to it but it was the start of the process of really thinking about color and tones and all the practical aspects of photography.
What I think is sort of interesting is that in our community, the camera, particularly the vernacular photograph, plays such an outsized role as an archival document but also sort of helping to think through the possibilities of who we can be, ideas around style, and ideas around presentation. Those sort of live in our grandmothers walls or in family photo albums, and so many of us come to photo through that frame. You’re talking about that, Deana Lawson talks about that, Mickalene Thomas talks about that… the list goes on and on and on.
For me, I think the images of Black people in James Van Der Zee's work of 1920s Harlem, like the couple in the raccoon coats. Photo has been one of the most consistent ways that Black people have impressed themselves onto, say, the historical, visual record, overall, and yet the "official" history of photo, the one that we're taught in schools, the one that the art world is obsessed with, the one that the fashion world is obsessed with, is unbelievably white, right? If you weren't paying attention to the ways in which Black people take photographs in the space of community, you would think that Tyler Mitchell was the first Black fashion photographer. I mean, Tyler is like my little brother, but there's a history that we need to sort of reorient.
That was one of the things that led me to The New Black Vanguard, but also led me to “Just Pictures,” is this idea that there are "fashion images.” When you talk about changing your color to green, that is self presentation. What is fashion if not a mode of self presentation? I was moderating a panel between Paul Sepuya and Deana Lawson at Art Basel last year, and I asked them how they came to photography. Paul goes, “Oh, the reason I became a photographer is because I saw that Interview magazine cover of Lil’ Kim shot by David LaChappelle with the Louis Vuitton logos all over her body, "I wanted to become a photographer because of that." You don't see any traces of that in his work, right? But it is often these images, it's often the fashion image that leads us to these more conceptual works. The show is happening in St. Louis, you're a local artist, how has the local history of St. Louis influenced your practice if at all?
I don't think it affects me in this direct way of where I'm pulling things from its history. But I think St. Louis is this weird place where once you find it, the art is very rich. It's very underrepresented. You hear this a lot, like, I only see people doing shit in LA and New York, and I'm like, yo, me and my homies are doing stuff like that literally here, right now, in the places we can find. The resources might not be here but the talent is definitely here.
I feel like not having access to certain resources kind of provides you with the space to think and contemplate a bit more about the work you want to make, it's made my work a lot more serious in that manner. I feel like the things that I pull inspiration from aren’t like, a show that I went to, but a conversation I had with my dad or a conversation I had with my friends. Or it might be the lack thereof. It might be the lack of those things. Obviously, in a space where artists as a whole are underrepresented, imagine how it feels to be a Black artist in that space.
I think a lot of us get pigeonholed into this one single cramped idea of what an artist is like. Most people in St. Louis, if I told them I was an artist, they'd probably have an imagination of the type of work that I make. Then, if I showed them they'd be like, oh shit, this is not what I imagined at all.
Yeah I think it's about the conditions in which artists find themselves—which are different from place to place—and how you respond to those conditions. They restrict a practice or they make you more sort of experimental. We're showing images from your “Silhouette Series.” How did you develop that series?
I feel like that's a series that's still evolving and still gaining its character from me personally. I feel like my practice kind of exists in these two spaces. On the one hand there is the experimentation and the very practical, mechanical aspects of photography. On the other hand, there's a part of me that’s trying to ask these questions in images.
Like what kinds of questions?
Like say for instance in the image, "Wrestling Under the Sunset Sounds Very Romantic.” The piece functions in two ways where the title itself is an aspect of the piece. I’m saying wrestling under the sunset… that sounds kind of like a romantic process, but when you look at the images it's these two guys wrestling. So the question that I'm posing is, in what ways does language kind of dictate our perspective of a certain situation or certain actions?
Specifically, with that piece, the question that I'm really asking is what are the limitations that currently exist on the way we understand romance and brotherhood? For me, when I think about a lot of my relationships with my guy friends, my straight bros, there's a lot of things that we do that's like high-key romantic. It's like, if you don't text your bro back, if you don't text your homie back he might feel some type of way. I think for me the idea came because I talk shit with a lot of my homies but when I thought about it, I was like when I was in high school when I was flirting with girls that was the same shit I'd do with them. We'd talk shit to them. That was kind of how the romance built. If I was like, yeah I was wrestling my homie under the sunset, that can elicit certain thoughts. I remember being young and having one of my cousins teased because he told a guy he loved him. On the other hand, girls are having sleepovers and expressing all these things to each other.
With the silhouettes, I'm hoping to pose questions like that and really make people think about those things, you know? The silhouette itself, the actual physical manifestation of the silhouette is also, I feel like there's always been this negative connotation associated with darkness and shadows. So in that way, I think the silhouette really functions as this device to really communicate these underrepresented ideas of traditional Blackness. I think right now we're in a place where we’re either talking about the struggle of Blackness or we're talking about the joy of Blackness. I think there's this space in between, and what I hope to be able to communicate with my work is that I really want Black people to be liberated from just those two very extremes, either struggle or joy. I want us to be able to experience that entire spectrum. I want to be able to fail and experience that without feeling that pressure specifically as a Black man.
What you're talking about, I think, is photos’ capacity to see identity, whether that's gender identity, whether that's racial identity. It's almost a sort of critique of the limitations of language, obviously, but also the way in which we are. The way that when you're talking about the relationships you have that are really sort of intimate and tender within heterosexuality and how that's not sort of allowed or it's frowned upon or it's called gay, it's discredited.
I was my brother's best man two years ago at his wedding. As the best man, I helped plan the bachelor party. So it was me, and I'm gay. We went to some place in California he wanted to go. It was me and all these straight Black dudes. It was all his straight friends and he's a basketball player. But I also grew up with all these guys, so it's really sort of interesting to see them interact because of the ways in which they were just so loving and so touching and so all these things that people are told that they can't be. Then, as a Black man you have an added set of restrictions in the ways which they say that your body should be performing.
In this really interesting way, it's what led me to the Silhouette Series because it reminds me, sort of photographically, of the things that Ming Smith, Roy DeCarava, and Kerry James Marshall do with Black skin. The ways in which they are making Black skin more difficult to see in their renderings. It's difficult to see because out of a sense of a protection, out of a sense of trying to make sure that there's not a misrepresentation.
Kerry James Marshall has definitely been a big inspiration in my work. Both him as an artist, and the work he makes in the way that he depicts Black people. It's like there is no denying that that is a Black person. There's no denying that this work is about Black people. It's also the way he frames those characters in creating this pantheon or this mythology around them, like he gives them space to really be human and not just Black. It doesn't make a spectacle out of Blackness. It allows for an entire range of all human traits to be spewed into a Black character. That's the same thing I wanted to get at with the silhouettes as well.
What I love about the work is not just that he's using renaissance techniques, tempera, or that he shows a real mastery of painting, but that there is also, humanity, yes, but then there's also the position, the stakes of the work. So his conceptual conceit is that there are not enough of these humane depictions of the Black body in the art historical cannon, or as he uses the word, pantheon, sometimes, in the pantheon of western culture, so he’s making images that supplant white supremacy essentially. I think that sort of intentionality is something that frankly, a lot of artists are not working with. This provocative sort of proposition, that I want my work to do X, and really believe it, and achieve it through the techniques that you're using, but also in the things that you're depicting. Then also, this is not to even speak about his writing. He writes so much about art, about other people's art, about the contemporary moment. He was doing a conversation with someone from Zwirner about “Black and Part Black Birds in America,” and she goes, "With times being what they are.” And you know, she was a white woman. He could have gently said it's always been this way, you know? For Black people it has always been a pandemic.
Bro, that is like my biggest thing and that's the thing that's pissed me off most. Like this shit ain’t new. This is not new. Why is it 2020 and people are just figuring out that racism exists? Like you said, that's why image makers like Kerry James Marshall are important because that's the thing he talks about, like all artists should be but we are not the only ones. He's not the only one. He wanted his shit to be in a museum and he made that happen. He wanted to express these things in his pieces and he made that happen. But, he's not the only person with that intention. That's why, I know one thing you do is make sure—I feel like some people address photographers as photographers—but you make a very specific point of distinguishing photographers and image makers, particularly Black image makers.
Part of that is because yeah they're photographers, true, whatever, but there's this sort of passive thing with when you say photographer. When you say image maker, I think there is this idea that there's a construction happening. You're making an image, you're thinking through an image and you are making that image. That's not the same thing as reality. Right? So it's not exactly the same thing as fiction either, right?
The history of photography, is a history of image makers making images that has largely left a lot of people out. Can we sit with that fact for a second. We appreciate the fact that people were making conscious choices about how Black people and white people were seen. They were saying that white people were going to be seen one way and Black people were going to be seen another way. Can we address the fact that that was racist as shit? Instead of just looking at a white photographer as an image maker… he was a photographer, he just photographed, as if he was just sitting there pointing and shooting. He went out into the world. He just happened to have his camera. It wasn't by chance. None of this is by chance. For me, you need to disrupt that idea. I think there's a lot of power in knowing that you have agency to create the image you want to create.
I think that agency is empowered by the existence and the knowledge of other image makers existing. For me, it wasn't until I saw a Kerry James Marshall piece. It wasn't until I saw a Kehinde Wiley piece in a museum that I really felt moved by something. I also felt this sense of… I can be here as well. I belong here as well. That's been the biggest thing. When I listen to Kerry James Marshall speak, I'm like, this dude sounds like my dad. I've never heard an artist talk and sound like my father.
We need to see it. Whether the work is good or bad, people need to know it exists. Young Black kids need to know that in this world they exist outside of these ideas that white people have of them. You are not a response to those ideas. Those ideas are a response to you. The more we have that exists, the more artists we have, the more image makers we have, the more publications that present these images and all this stuff in the way that we want to be seen, that information becomes more readily available, then that thought process becomes more readily available.