Photography at the 2017 Whitney Houston Biennial

Photography at the 2017 Whitney Houston Biennial

Posted by on Mar 23, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

This past Sunday the 2017 Whitney Houston Biennial: Greatest Love of All opened at chashama at XOCO 325 to a packed crowd of NYC art lovers and creatives of all kinds. This year, I had the honor of being invited to submit work and was accepted into the second edition of this unique group show which features only women artists, a move I can only attribute as a response to the gender inequality that is so rampant in more “established” art exhibitions.

No surprise this underdog biennial had already gotten TV and press coverage before it opened, so the line to get in was a block long. As I made my way into the exhibition space with my family, our eyes/hearts/minds became full of the glorious spectacle that is this all-female group show. The exhibition space itself is small but the floor-to-ceiling, salon-style hanging is democratic and accommodates humans of all sizes. My son and other children I saw there were thrilled by the work at their eye level.

Part of the artist submission process included having to write about a pioneering female that inspired your work. This requirement was easy for me given my current obsession with the black, PreRaphaelite model Fanny Eaton who I wrote about for the show. So not only is the show a visual celebration, but it also honors female legends big and small like Ms. Houston and 125 other women who have marked the world.

For me the biennial was a great way to discover new artists and below I highlighted the photographs, collages and lens-based images that were some of my favorites. All are available for purchase on the 2017 Whitney Houston Biennial website. The WHB is on view until March 29th so be sure check the website for other readings, panels, performances and other events.

Featured (Top) Image: Suzanne Wright – “8 Shuttles”

Nichole Washington -

Nichole Washington – “I Considered Her My Blood and it don’t come no Thicker”

 

Marissa Long - "Forever Melon"

Marissa Long – “Forever Melon”

 

Juliana Paciulli - "Uh-huh (Basketball)"

Juliana Paciulli – “Uh-huh (Basketball)”

Gianna Leo Falcon -

Gianna Leo Falcon – “No Love”

Nick Alciati - "xoxo, Darlene (Bedroom View)"

Nick Alciati – “xoxo, Darlene (Bedroom View)”

Maureen Catbagan -

Maureen Catbagan – “Hidden Sites – Blanton Museum Stairwell”

Nasrah Omar - "Azia 2"

Nasrah Omar – “Azia 2″

Conversation with Marco Scozzaro on Digital Deli at Baxter St

Conversation with Marco Scozzaro on Digital Deli at Baxter St

Posted by on Mar 16, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

Qiana Mestrich: Can you talk to me a little bit about the title and its reference to NYC bodegas (neighborhood convenience stores)?

Marco Scozzaro: That was the starting point. The work is an exploration of the current visual vernacular and I wanted to take different elements from the visual landscape and digest and work with them to create multilayered photographs and sculptures. As you can see the work is very diverse and in a way I like this idea of the deli as a place where you can find everything and anything… opposite elements that by being in the same space kind of make sense together. I’m playing a lot with natural vs. artificial/synthetic and opposite elements that seem unrelated but in the way I work with them they become organic.

Marco Scozarro. BETA 909, 2016.

Marco Scozarro. BETA 909, 2016.

This piece BETA 909 is where the project started from, the backdrop is a vinyl tablecloth that I found in a 99cents store in my neighborhood in Williamsburg, BK. In this still life I use obsolete technology like a Beta VHS player and a drum machine that I use to make music. I like the idea of the cheapness of the background that references nature against these electronic objects that were futuristic when they came out but are now obsolete and almost organic in this constructed image. So  these elements don’t seem related but to me they make sense. From this point on I started playing with images and opposites, incorporating visual tropes or cultural artifacts like a Calvin Klein advertisement or referencing commercial photography, even appropriating my own work. In a way this work is a comment on the identity of photography and the inherent paradox of representation.

Marco Scozzaro. DAMASO LUNARE, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. DAMASO LUNARE, 2016.

Is this a departure from the way you usually work or is more of you having a conversation with contemporary trend(s) in photography?

I wouldn’t say it’s a departure but I’m definitely exploring new possibilities and being open to new layers of interpretation. This image titled DAMASO LUNARE is what my previous work looked like. I guess the subject matter is very related. I’ve always been interested in exploring the relationship between society and personal identity. The previous work was more existential and with this new project I’m talking about the same things but using humor and adopting different strategies to deliver the same message. I’m also trying to make the work more accessible. I realize that the first layer of my images seems funny but if you dig deeper they’re not as accessible.

Marco Scozzaro. OMINY TANDINY, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. OMINY TANDINY, 2016.

There’s definitely a lot to unpack in all of these images. They look simple on the surface and they’re very attractive and shiny but there’s lots of symbolism. I feel like there some larger social statement you’re trying to convey.

There is, I’m glad you noticed that. It’s not just a collection of nice pictures. I’ve always been interested in not glamorizing an image and non-conventional beauty but sometimes that intention has been misunderstood. I like playing with different languages in photography. I’m using still life, landscape… I’m rephotographing my pictures.

Marco Scozzaro. 516N0RJ1N4 D16174L3, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. 516N0RJ1N4 D16174L3, 2016.

Yet there’s also decay and death and playing with the idea of the vanitas, not literally but in that same still life tradition.

Sure! In this picture 516N0RJ1N4 D16174L3, for example I’m making a comment on stereotypical images of the female body in mass media. This is an appropriated ASCII alphanumeric code. I found it interesting that this silhouette of a woman was totally unrelated to the content of the document where I found the image. And then I pasted the silhouette on a photograph of a landscape, that I made using film. Actually most of this work was shot on film, so I became very interested in this idea of using hybrid technology as a consequence of what the work is dealing with.

Marco Scozzaro. DIGITAL CLOUDS, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. DIGITAL CLOUDS, 2016.

There’s also a sculptural quality in your work. The largest piece in the show is a blanket. Is that an image you’ve taken as well?

Yes, all of these images are mine. If there’s any appropriation it’s an image that has been rephotographed or inserted into my composition, like the Calvin Klein advertisement or the Giant Single record sleeve. That image titled DIGITAL CLOUDS on the blanket was a photograph I exhibited at Aperture last summer (Aperture Summer Open: Photography is Magic, curated by Charlotte Cotton). I’ve been thinking and playing around the idea of different materials and how they work with photographs. So at some point I found these digitally woven blankets – you have a jacquard loom that you can hook up to a computer to weave an image. The machine deconstructs the image in six threads to recreate all the colors. I like that this image was shot on film, then scanned and now it has a new life as a woven blanket instead of a print. And it’s also interesting as a “meta photographic concept” because the blanket references the blanket in the image.

Installation view of PALMS ON PALMS over BLANKETTO, 2016.

Installation view of PALMS ON PALMS over BLANKETTO, 2016.

It looks very painterly as well, so you’re tying multiple mediums together: the art of weaving, painting, photography…

Exactly. Also like this piece PALMS ON PALMS over BLANKETTO, which is one of the newest pieces… as you notice I’m trying to expand the two-dimensionality of photography in the space. The pictures themselves become objects. This particular fluorescent plexiglass that the photographs are back mounted on cast a glow on the white walls.

Installation view of Marco Scozzaro's Digital Deli solo show at Baxter St in NYC.

Installation view of Marco Scozzaro’s Digital Deli solo show at Baxter St in NYC.

In this sculptural piece titled TUBBI, 2016 I wanted again to use opposites, images coming from fields that seem unrelated like rocks or a glitch from my computer or tiles or a pool or clouds and a carpet. The cylinder shape references the way you roll the paper when you make a large print that you just put on the floor and it stays in that shape. So I found a technical solution to let the prints stay in shape there a little longer… I like the idea of having these elements linked together, they become just texture. In a democratic way they are in the same space like when you are viewing multiple images on the monitor of your computer.

Marco Scozzaro. SVIAGGIONI, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. SVIAGGIONI, 2016.

I would say SVIAGGIONI is the mood board for the project. I started taking visual notes with my iPhone and then at some point I realized there was something going on. The photos were re-posted to my Instagram and tumblr, so I had a template and I would see the pictures on my monitor in random order and in slightly different sizes. I printed all those pictures and played around with them and then I made a book. I photographed the book for a magazine feature (OSMOS) and I thought the picture itself was more interesting than the whole book. Then I rephotographed the image of my book in the magazine using different nail polish on the same hands holding the book open.

I thought it was interesting to have this double meaning that reflects the paradox of representation. This mood board combined organic with non-organic elements, associated by the color or shape, creating something visually pleasing but at the same time creating a starting point for new relations. From that book I realized I was working on something but I wasn’t 100% happy with the small prints so I used them as the starting point to make new images – either sculptures in the studio or created in post-production.

Detail of PLEASE and TUBBI, 2016, both by Marco Scozzaro.

Detail of PLEASE and TUBBI, 2016, both by Marco Scozzaro.

What about the word “Please” in this wallpaper?

Please was a way to explore the “bodega vernacular” like Thank you for your business or Have a nice day graphics on plastic bags… So I photographed those 80s/90s fonts, isolated the word “please” and started making this repeated pattern similar to the red carpet backgrounds with the sponsors on them that celebrities are photographed in front of. This piece is making a comment on how sometimes we’re over apologetic and over thankful and this gesture doesn’t even mean anything.

Marco Scozzaro. SMILE!, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. SMILE!, 2016.

Yeah it’s not genuine, it’s just our own programming.

This way of working allowed me to play with text. Like this piece SMILE! I photographed this hot dog stand in midtown. I was on the street and I saw this grumpy hot dog guy and someone just passed and said “You’re never gonna sell a hotdog if you don’t smile!” And I thought that phrase was a metaphorical way of describing our society.

Marco Scozzaro. ISLE OF MOTTE, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. ISLE OF MOTTE, 2016.

Do you think this work is a statement on American culture or is there a more of a world view here?

It definitely starts from an American point of view. I’m not American but I’ve been living here for seven years assimilating into the culture of course. Also I realize that I grew up with Western influence through television. I don’t want to talk about American imperialism but there is a cultural hegemony that in a way is coming back. Now as an adult being here and experiencing everyday American life a lot of it seems like déjà vu and I’m starting to understand the messages that I couldn’t understand as a kid.

Marco Scozzaro. VISA, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. VISA, 2016.

The work definitely talks about mass media and how our perception is influenced by them. Like this image of the Hawaiian shirt and the VISA credit card, which is also a reference to my own situation as an immigrant… These are not literal but hidden or unconscious links, thoughts that come to mind when I look at the images after the fact.

Marco Scozzaro. GIANT SINGLE, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. GIANT SINGLE, 2016.

It’s nice because the aesthetic is not overtly political but as you dig deeper you do get some undertones.

I didn’t want to make political work but I realize that…

Everything is political.

Exactly. Especially looking at what is going on now in America, I see this work as very political. For example, in Italy we had Prime Minister Berlusconi who as a media tycoon became a politician because of his fortune and influence. So in a way with Trump we are kind of seeing the same thing happening. I didn’t want to mention Trump because he’s not relevant here but I think the work is observing what mass media can do, good or bad. So I wanted to create images that look good but also give a starting point for a conversation that is not about being frivolous.

Installation view of Marco Scozzaro's Digital Deli solo show at Baxter St in NYC.

Installation view of Marco Scozzaro’s Digital Deli solo show at Baxter St in NYC.

Marco Scozzaro’s solo show, Digital Deli, is on view at Baxter St now through March 25, 2017.


 

Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures.

Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog:
Five Visual Motifs in the Photographs of Ren Hang
Photography and the Black Panther Party
The Black Female Self in Landscape
In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes
Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers
New Image Library Specializes in Race and Cultural Diversity

Five Visual Motifs In the Photographs of Ren Hang

Five Visual Motifs In the Photographs of Ren Hang

Posted by on Feb 27, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

On February 24th after suffering from a deep depression, Chinese photographer Ren Hang took his own life just weeks before his 30th birthday. Despite his young age, Hang leaves behind a large body of photographic work. Known for his “racy”, erotic images, Hang’s photographs visualized a provocative and constructed world that simultaneously referenced a uniquely Chinese aesthetic and contemporary youth culture.

When I look at Hang’s work, I am less interested in his exposure of genitalia and the titillating effect of his images. As a photographer, I’m drawn to his storytelling techniques, specifically the aesthetic patterns that emerge when seeing the work as a whole. In memoriam I’d like to highlight five visual motifs that Hang repeatedly employed to thus create his signature style. 

 

The Color Red
Considered the most popular color in China as evident by the red field featured in the country’s flag, Hang used this symbolic color in a variety of ways. In traditional Chinese culture, red is associated with celebration and creativity, good fortune and joy. In its most political meaning, red is associated with communism or socialism which in this case may relate to the form of government Hang was always in conflict with.

In Hang’s images you’ll often see red painted on the lips and/or nails of his female models and also as a backdrop color. Whether a face is immersed in crimson-colored bathwater, or as in this image where both model and snake are laying on red bedsheets, Hang uses the same blood-red shade to highlight an idea or frame his subjects.

 

Polycephaly
Popularized in literature by Greek mythological creatures, polycephaly is a condition of having more than one head that can also realistically occur in animals and humans. In several images, Hang has played with the concept of a double-headed being, focusing less on the condition itself and more on the idea of two that share a body. In other images, he’s posed his models to resemble a multi-limbed being, an act that comes across as pure play, fitting bodies together in an exploration of the fantastical human form.


Hair

Sporting medium to long, black hair, Hang’s female models uphold stereotypical and historical visions of Asian femininity. Draped over faces and limbs, jet black hair shines in the glare of Hang’s almost-violent flash lighting. In the art of dream interpretation, hair is recognized as a symbol of sensuality, seduction and vanity – all descriptors commonly used to interpret Hang’s work.  


Flora

Hang often staged his images in nature and in his studio shots, cut flowers and various types of exotic flora also appear, sometimes competing with the model(s) for the viewer’s attention. In the above image, the cherry blossom tree obscures the model as its intricate branches and blossoms dominate the frame. A historical symbol of desire and sexuality, Hang has used various species of flora ranging from the innocuous tulip to the Anthurium with its sexy, patent-leather like red leaves and erect pistil.


Birds

Lastly, one can’t help but notice the winged creatures in Hang’s images. Although domesticated animals (like reptiles and cats) mingle amongst naked bodies, the birds are limp, tamed, as if to be prepared for consumption. Not knowing for sure I insist they are dead or at least taxidermy, as I can’t fathom any bird would cooperate in such foreign, artificial conditions. Hang’s repeat use of birds seems obsessive. He even poses his own mother in the series My Mum with an excess of doves, ducks, peacocks and swans.

In his most complex compositions, Hang arranged several of these motifs together to make a single, confounding image. And though there are bodies, except in the case of his mother, there are no characters. Alive or not, Hang arranges his subjects like objects. It is because of this that I’ve come to appreciate Hang’s work as still life photography. RIP Ren Hang.


 

Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures.

Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog:
Photography and the Black Panther Party
The Black Female Self in Landscape
In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes
Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers
New Image Library Specializes in Race and Cultural Diversity

Forthcoming Photo Books by African American & Black African Photographers

Forthcoming Photo Books by African American & Black African Photographers

Posted by on Feb 22, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

Every year as I browse newly published photography books, I can’t help but notice an immense shortage in the number of titles being published by or featuring the works of photographers of color. “Why?” I wonder and yet no reason I can imagine seems acceptable. Consider this Amazon list of 2017 photography books by individual photographers, only 7 of the 307 books (just 2.3%) are by Black photographers of African origin or descent despite the hundreds if not thousands of well-known, working photo-based artists out there.

There’s still no lack of photo books about the “tribes of the world”, made by photographers with an insatiable need to scratch their itch to photograph what they’ve identified as “vanishing” cultures. The artistic value of books like these is often questionable as they are filled with images that cross the line from art photography to blatant cultural appropriation.

What makes a B&W photograph of an indigenous artist at work in a photo book that will sell many copies at $50 a piece any less offensive or disrespectful than the mass-produced goods that formed the basis for the Navajo’s trademark dilution claims against Urban Outfitters and its subsidiaries?

So what can be done to diversify the photobook medium? Here are a few thoughts to inspire a conversation if not action:

  1. I urge the major and independent photo book publishers of the world to notice the work of photographers of color and dare to publish their work in an effort to close this racial and cultural disparity.
  2. I call out to photographers of color who have published photo books to regularly share their own knowledge of the (self) publishing process with others like them.
  3. We must form a community of photobook makers (that can pool financial resources and other design/production support) to help the non-published reach their publishing goals.
  4. Beyond the typical survey or monograph, the publishing industry at large must commit to diversifying the photobook medium by releasing books every year featuring unique bodies of work by individual photographers of color.
  5. At the very least, curators can help fill the gap by budgeting for and publishing catalogs of the solo exhibitions featuring photographers of color that they organize.
  6. Organizers of art book fairs should recognize this underserved group and take measures to diversify the titles displayed at their events.

Lastly, to get back to the point as specified by the title of this post. The following is a list of those 7 photo books to be released in 2017 that I mentioned earlier and including Adger Cowan’s book which was just published this January:

Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs by Jamel Shabazz (2017)

Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs by Jamel Shabazz (2017)

Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs by Jamel Shabazz
Publisher: Damiani (March 28, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Consisting of 120 color and black-and-white photographs taken between 1985 and the 2000s, most of which have never been published, Sights in the City is the testament of Shabazz’s visual journey.

 

Leslie Hewitt (2017)

Leslie Hewitt (2017)

Leslie Hewitt
Publisher: OSMOS BOOKS (June 27, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
That cinematic rumination on historicity and the relationship of the archive to memory, minimalism, lived experience and time, sets an exemplary precedent for this first monograph surveying Hewitt’s oeuvre.

Gordon Parks: Collected Works: Study Edition (2017)

Gordon Parks: Collected Works: Study Edition (2017)

Gordon Parks: Collected Works
Publisher: Steidl/The Gordon Parks Foundation (April 25, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
This five-volume collection surveys five decades of Gordon Parks’ (1912–2006) photography. It is the most extensive publication to document his legendary career.

Koto Bolofo: Printing (2017)

Koto Bolofo: Printing (2017)

Koto Bolofo: Printing
Publisher: Steidl (May 23, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Innovative fashion photographer Koto Bolofo (born 1959) is well known for his portraits and fashion shoots, and published in such prestigious periodicals as Vogue, Esquire and i-D. In this volume, his images lead readers through the corridors and stairways of the Steidl printing center, documenting the magical formation of some of the most beautiful visual books ever made.

Koto Bolofo: Paper Making

Koto Bolofo: Paper Making (2017)

Koto Bolofo: Paper Making
Publisher: Steidl (May 23, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
In Paper Making, Koto Bolofo graphically captures Hahnemühle’s artisanal processes and antique machinery alongside today’s most advanced technologies, uncovering the attention to detail, vision and pride that have sustained the company’s unmatched reputation for centuries.

 

Santu Mofokeng: Stories 5-7: Soweto-Dukathole-Johannesburg (2017)

Santu Mofokeng: Stories 5-7: Soweto-Dukathole-Johannesburg (2017)

Santu Mofokeng: Stories 5-7: Soweto-Dukathole-Johannesburg
Publisher: Steidl (May 23, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
This three-volume publication, which continues a groundbreaking reappraisal of the photographer’s archive, presents aspects of life in Soweto, where Mofokeng grew up; Dukathole, a township in the East Rand of Gauteng Province; and Johannesburg, the city in which he worked.

 

Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge (2017)

Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge (2017)

Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge
Publisher: GILES (March 3, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911–1994) was one of Nigeria’s premier photographers and the first official photographer to the Royal Court of the Kingdom of Benin.

Personal Vision: Adger Cowans (2017)

Personal Vision: Adger Cowans (2017)

Personal Vision: Adger Cowans
Publisher: Glitterati (January 27, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Master American photographer Adger Cowan’s predominantly black-and-white photography is collected in Personal Vision: Photographs, his monograph of original images taken over the past forty years.


 

Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther PartyThe Black Female Self in Landscape and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.

New Image Library Specializes In Race and Cultural Diversity

New Image Library Specializes In Race and Cultural Diversity

Posted by on Feb 15, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

Autograph Media is a recently launched photography licensing agency from the people who run Autograph ABP, the British-based photographic arts organization. Specializing in all aspects of race and cultural diversity throughout history, Autograph Media’s image library is comprised of a multitude of collections from various media partners like Getty Images and Magnum Photos.

Indian suffragettes on the Women's Coronation Procession, London, 17th June 1911. Mrs Fisher Unwin, who had links with India, was in charge of this contingent, which was part of the Empire Pageant. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Indian suffragettes on the Women’s Coronation Procession, London, 17th June 1911. Mrs Fisher Unwin, who had links with India, was in charge of this contingent, which was part of the Empire Pageant. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Covering a wide range of subjects, while browsing through the Autograph Media archive online one quickly realizes what a treasure trove it is. Well tagged and contextually/conceptually linked, during my first look I quickly went from 1950s images of newly arrived West Indian immigrants in London to documentary work on the British in India… and yet Autograph Media doesn’t stop at visualizing the history of Britain’s colonized subjects.

27th May 1956: Immigrants from the West Indies arriving by ship at Southampton Docks, Hampshire. Original Publication: Picture Post - 8405 - Thirty Thousand Colour Problems - pub. 1956 (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

27th May 1956: Immigrants from the West Indies arriving by ship at Southampton Docks, Hampshire. Original Publication: Picture Post – 8405 – Thirty Thousand Colour Problems – pub. 1956 (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

During my Autograph Media search I discovered images from the Afro Newspaper/Gado archive. Founded in 1892 by John Henry Murphy Sr., a former slave who gained freedom following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, The Afro-American newspaper was formed when Murphy merged several church papers together. With a large circulation in several cities, the Baltimore-based newspaper was instrumental in effecting social change on a national scale from pushing for black representation in the legislature, to establishing state-sponsored education for African Americans, fighting the implementation of Jim Crow segregation and even collaborating with the NAACP on civil rights cases.

Three women in lavish dress stand with nooses around their necks in protest of lynchings, 1946. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Three women in lavish dress stand with nooses around their necks in protest of lynchings, 1946. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

With its nontraditional and inclusive hiring practices, The Afro-American employed notable black intellectuals (Langston Hughes, Romare Bearden) and journalists and while many of the images in the newspaper’s archive don’t give photographer credit, we do know that they employed women photographers like Erika Stone. The image of Little Miss Black Liberty below from Autograph Media’s online archive is by Stone, a photojournalist, magazine photographer and member of the Photo League. After she had children, Stone exclusively photographed children and family. (For more work by Erika Stone, take a look at this portfolio of her Ellis Island images  from a previous Baxter St blog post by Patricia Silva.)

A child wearing a Statue of Liberty headdress on National Freedom Day in New York City, USA, circa 1988. National Freedom Day commemorates the signing of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery on 1st February 1865. (Photo by Erika Stone/Getty Images)

A child wearing a Statue of Liberty headdress on National Freedom Day in New York City, USA, circa 1988. National Freedom Day commemorates the signing of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery on 1st February 1865. (Photo by Erika Stone/Getty Images)

Autograph Media is a compilation of several photography archives, many of which you can access individually from their own websites. Yet the value of Autograph Media lays in its mission of making visible a multitude of historical images that offer a more fair representation of human history at the intersections of race, culture and gender. Visual resources like this remind us of our past, our humanity and ultimately what’s worth fighting for in this era of uncertainty and political instability.

Group portrait of three Chinese children standing in a room in Chicago, Illinois, each holding an American flag and a Chinese flag, 1929. From the Chicago Daily News collection. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Group portrait of three Chinese children standing in a room in Chicago, Illinois, each holding an American flag and a Chinese flag, 1929. From the Chicago Daily News collection. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther PartyThe Black Female Self in LandscapeIn Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes and Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers.

Photography and The Black Panther Party

Photography and The Black Panther Party

Posted by on Jan 27, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

Sadie Barnette’s Do Not Destroy solo show opened last week at Baxter St to a roaring reception. It’s not every day that you get to see a gallery show that features the classified FBI documents of an ex-Black Panther Party member. That Panther is Rodney Barnette, who founded the Compton, California, chapter of the Black Panther Party of Self Defense in 1968. The centerpiece of Barnette’s show is undoubtedly the wall filled with copies of her father’s surveillance files, embellished in the artist’s signature “graffiti” and faux jewel treatment.

170118-Sadie_Barnette-Do_Not_Destroy_018

Barnette’s show features minimal photography. Opposite the wall of FBI files stands two seemingly life-sized portraits of a young Rodney Barnette that his daughter/the artist has rephotographed. On the left we see him smiling in his US military uniform. In opposition, to the right is Barnette captured in harsh flash donning a black beret, t-shirt and leather jacket; his dark shadow looms large behind him as he looks off camera. This photograph of Rodney is untitled, and yet we need no explanation that this is a changed man, reincarnated as a BPP member.

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Huey's Apartment, Oakland, California, 1971

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Huey’s Apartment, Oakland, California, 1971

In the juxtaposition of these two portraits, the viewer contends with the use of photography as a witness to Rodney’s shifting identities and ultimately the medium’s political power. Without going into the internal politics and covert government action that caused the party to disband, I’d like to briefly discuss what art critic John Berger considered to be “the crucial role of photography in ideological struggle” and the Black Panther Party’s strategic use of photography (and posing) in crafting their own brand of Black anti-fascism.

Elaine Brown (bottom left) and to her side Huey P. Newton leading the Black Panthers at a press conference in San Francisco. (October 1971)

Elaine Brown (bottom left) and to her side Huey P. Newton leading the Black Panthers at a press conference in San Francisco. (October 1971)

Many B&W photographs exist of the high profile BPP leaders. Both male and female members are pictured in socio-political context: raising fists, encouraging crowds, marching in demonstrations, standing in formation, working at their headquarters, being interviewed by and addressing the press, conversing critically with each other, meeting other political leaders, performing community service or even just relaxing at home.

Wanted by the FBI, Interstate Flight - Murder, Kidnaping, Angela Yvonne Davis. Gift of Brian Wallis, 2010. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Wanted by the FBI, Interstate Flight – Murder, Kidnaping, Angela Yvonne Davis. Gift of Brian Wallis, 2010. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Then we see the isolated figure: numerous solo portraits of Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. This image of the lone revolutionary becomes ubiquitous just a few years earlier with Cuba’s Che Guevara and the Black Panthers utilize their portraits on paraphernalia like flyers, buttons, posters, t-shirts, publications. Sometimes these solo portraits were used to vilify the Panthers, like in the wanted poster below of Angela Davis. (Side note: you can view this poster in person at the ICP Collections at Mana Contemporary in NJ. It’s quite an amazing experience!)

Stripped to the waist in the afternoon sun, Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers shakes hands with followers and friends who greeted him as he walked out of the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland, Calif., Aug. 6, 1970.

Stripped to the waist in the afternoon sun, Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers shakes hands with followers and friends who greeted him as he walked out of the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland, Calif., Aug. 6, 1970.

The Black Panther Party’s visual message also conveyed their unique style and sex appeal, both aspects of the party’s identity that no doubt helped with recruitment efforts. Jet black leather jackets, Ray Bans, berets, perfectly coiffed afros merged effortlessly with the sleek profiles of .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols to create an impressionable representation of Black power.

Portrait of Kathleen Neal Cleaver by Howard Bingham.

Portrait of Kathleen Neal Cleaver by Howard Bingham.

Both Kathleen Cleaver (BPP communications secretary and wife of Eldridge) and co-founder Huey Newton became the party’s default sex symbols. Newton was pictured exhibiting his bare-chested, muscle-toned physique both at home and when he was freed from prison in 1970. Bingham’s images of Cleaver portray her as a thing of beauty though she may not have intended this to be her role. Yet Cleaver did play with fashion by often sporting a large afro, hoop earrings and the radical above-the-knee length skirt style thus creating a new revolutionary aesthetic in clothing for (Black) American women. The Black Panther style was even appropriated in advertising as seen in this vintage ad for Newport cigarettes.   

A Black Panther feeds his son at the “Free Huey” rally in Oakland, California. February 17, 1968.

A Black Panther feeds his son at the “Free Huey” rally in Oakland, California. February 17, 1968.

Not only did the Black Panther Party provide political power for many Black Americans, but they also affirmed the notion of family. This familial bond was forged mainly through offering life-sustaining services like free breakfast programs and community schools operated in cities like Oakland, CA. So not only do we see Panthers providing children with nutrition and education, but we also see children in attendance at rallies and marches. Of course, the most famous BPP child was Tupac Shakur, son of party member Afeni Shakur.

Knowing that the photographic image is only as empathetic as the photographer behind the lens, the BPP leaders were strategic in appointing Stephen Shames as the party’s official photographer. In another move to control their image, Muhammad Ali’s personal photographer Howard Bingham was contracted for six months to shoot a 1968 cover story for LIFE magazine upon the insistence of party leader Eldridge Cleaver.

British Black Panthers take to the streets of London. Photograph by Neil Kenlock.

British Black Panthers take to the streets of London. Photograph by Neil Kenlock.

Despite the negative reports and judgements about who they were, the Black Panther Party members were in full control of their own image as surely they knew their supporters and haters around the world were watching. The BPP’s strong message spread overseas in areas where other Black communities were struggling for their own civil rights, inspiring regional groups like the British Black Panthers – see the work of Neil Kenlock. In this time post-US election where many are preparing for struggle once again, we are fortunate to be able to reflect on these images.

For additional viewing, I’ve created a Black Panther Party Photography board on Pinterest. Also, the Smithsonian Institute has an excellent BPP archive of black & white, documentary photographs from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Sadie Barnette’s Do Not Destroy, curated by Alexandra Giniger, is on view at Baxter St now through February 18, 2017.


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: The Black Female Self in Landscape, Forthcoming Photbooks by African American and Black African Photographers and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.

In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes

In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes

Posted by on Jan 25, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich, Uncategorized | No Comments

Earlier this month, noted art critic John Berger passed away. His death immediately sparked ripples of mentions throughout photography and art communities online. Though his writings may have been eclipsed by the more-celebrated musings of Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Berger’s observations on the propagation of the photographic medium are nonetheless as crucial and still relevant today.

When I heard of his passing, I immediately looked for my copy of About Looking (Pantheon Books, 1980) which I happened to find years ago amongst a pile of books left on the street. The book is a collection of essays by Berger written over ten years which were all previously published in New Society magazine and The Guardian UK newspaper. About Looking not only discusses the act of looking at photographs, it is “a fascinating record of the search for meaning within and behind what’s looked at.”

Berger’s most direct critique of our lens-based medium is an essay titled Uses of Photography, in which he writes down “some of my responses to Sontag’s 1977 book On Photography.” Without publishing the entire essay, below I’ve highlighted select quotes that introduce and elaborate on Berger’s idea of “an alternative photography” to counteract the medium’s nefarious functions and realize it’s altruistic possibilities.

WARNING: The following quotes contain radical (or what could be considered socialist) views on photography’s historical role in modern, Western society. Proceed with a decolonized mind.

“The speed with which the possible uses of photography were seized upon is surely an indication of photography’s profound, central applicability to capitalism. Marx came of age the year of the camera’s invention.”

“Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances.”

“A mechanical device, the camera has been used as an instrument to contribute to a living memory. The photograph is a memento from a life being lived.”

“Has the camera replaced the eye of God? The decline of religion corresponds with the rise of the photograph.”

“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.”

Upon (re)reading this quote I immediately recalled photographer/ethnologist Edward Curtis who made it his mission to document the North American native population because of his imperialist belief that they were “a vanishing race.”

Edward Curtis. “The Vanishing Race – Navaho”, 1904, volume 1, portfolio plate 1, photogravure, 46 x 31 cm., Special Collection, Honnold Library, Claremont.

Edward Curtis. “The Vanishing Race – Navaho”, 1904, volume 1, portfolio plate 1, photogravure, 46 x 31 cm., Special Collection, Honnold Library, Claremont.

“… the current systematic public use of photography needs to be challenged, not simply by turning round like a cannon and aiming it at different targets, but by changing its practice. How?”

“The truth is that most photographs taken of people are about suffering, and most of that suffering is man-made.”

Certainly this quote speaks to the historical and systematic utilization of ethnographic photography of native and indigenous populations around the world. In our globalized era, suffering is injected into (public and private) visual culture through images of war and illicit pornography which is a byproduct of modern slavery or human trafficking.

“It is possible that photography is the prophecy of a human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved.“

“The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory.”

“The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.”  

Next Berger argues that photographs are typically used in a “unilinear way… to illustrate an argument, or to demonstrate a thought…” Consider the way a forensic photographer records the initial appearance of a crime scene as the first encounter and experience it through their subjective perspective. Berger also cites a photograph’s more common, tautological use so that it only “repeats what is being said in words.”

Although Berger argues that memory is not linear and works radially, with an “enormous number of associations all leading to the same event.” This radial pattern of memory is compared by Berger as being like the spoke of a wheel, which is a bit simplistic with just a single radiating plane. In my opinion, memory’s radial pattern has multiple (perhaps intersecting) planes and instead mimics the fractal-like, radiating pattern of a dandelion seed head.

Diagram of a radial pattern.

Diagram of a radial pattern.

Radial pattern of a dandelion seed head. By Avenue (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Radial pattern of a dandelion seed head. By Avenue (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“If we want to put a photograph back into the context of experience, social experience, social memory, we have to respect the laws of memory. We have to situate the printed photograph so that it acquires something of the surprising conclusiveness of that which was and is.”

“A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.” 

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this profound “radial system” and ways in which it can be used in storytelling and to display photographs in physical locations (galleries, public sites, etc.) More importantly I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps Berger was signaling our use of the #hashtag as a descriptor and curator of images on social media.  


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther Party and The Black Female Self in Landscape.

The Black Female Self in Landscape

The Black Female Self in Landscape

Posted by on Jan 12, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

A recurring theme within contemporary art photography has been the imperative to address the biased or unavailable historical representation of the Black, female body. Since the 1990s’ artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Renee Cox, Xaviera Simmons and now Nona Faustine, have used photography to recognize Black womanhood in all its unattested complexities. In the photographs shown below, each artist has settled their melanated bodies within their landscape of choice – sites that have witnessed unspeakable violence, marooned existences and/or enlightened encounters.

Carrie Mae Weems. Dreaming in Cuba, 2001.

Carrie Mae Weems. Dreaming in Cuba, 2001.

Arguably the most prolific in her use of self-portraits within landscape, Carrie Mae Weems’ elegant figure has crossed the lens of several different bodies of work starting with her 2001 Dreaming in Cuba series. Unlike the other artists discussed, Weems more often than not stands in opposition to the lens, as if leading a group behind her. Exaggerated by robes or gowns, Weems’ figure floats into the frame, inserting the Black, female body into spaces from which its presence was forgotten or previously denied entry.

Xaviera Simmons. Denver, 2007.

Xaviera Simmons. Denver, 2007.

Launching her art career after a two-year pilgrimage retracing the TransAtlantic slave trade with Buddhist monks, Xaviera Simmons’s concern with wilderness explores spirituality in art. In previous works, Xaviera has used photography to create (self) portraits in both constructed and natural environments that question African-American identities and their relationships to those settings.

Renée Cox. River Queen, (from the Queen Nanny of the Maroons series), 2004.

Renée Cox. River Queen, (from the Queen Nanny of the Maroons series), 2004.

Although all of these artist perform for the camera, Renee Cox’s work is most dramatic in its telling of the stories of Black female figures like Queen Nanny, the only female national hero of Jamaica. Taking advantage of the physical strength expressed by her own, muscular body, Cox is concerned with self liberation and challenging the predetermined roles imposed on Black women.

Nona Faustine. “ ‘. . . a thirst for compleat freedom … had been her only motive for absconding.’ Oney Judge, Federal Hall NYC,” 2016.

Nona Faustine. “ ‘. . . a thirst for compleat freedom … had been her only motive for absconding.’ Oney Judge, Federal Hall NYC,” 2016.

Continuing this photographic tradition, Faustine’s work brilliantly hits at the intersection of two major socio-political conversations of the 21st century: the #BlackLivesMatter and body size acceptance movements. Standing on sacred, scarred or political North American spaces, Faustine’s self-portraits ultimately function as archaeological documentation. In its robust form and stoic posture, her body is a blatant reminder of chattel slavery yet also channels (art) historical representations of the feminine – from fertility goddesses/Venus figures to ancient Egyptian statuettes.

Faustine’s use of poetic captions with each photograph is particularly unique as she educates the viewer of what lies beneath these commonplace landmarks and tourist attractions. As commentary on issues that haunt our past and present realities, the images in White Shoes and in Faustine’s follow up exhibition at Baxter St are timeless, visualizing the cycle of (our country’s) birth, (economic) growth, death and rebirth.  

Nona Faustine’s solo exhibition, My Country, closes this week at Baxter St. You can also see her talk at the Brooklyn Museum this Saturday, January 14th.


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther PartyThe Black Female Self in Landscape and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.