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John Edmonds
American Gods, 2017Photography John Edmonds

John Edmonds’ photos celebrate the family we create, not the one we get

The photographer appears alongside Carrie Mae Weems and Gordon Parks in a new exhibition that explores notions of family

In 1952, Roy DeCarava became the first African American photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship and he used the grant money to create a stunning series of black and white pictures documenting intimate moments of daily life of his native Harlem. The resulting work was a warm and wondrous portrait of the familial spirit of the community when Harlem was the Mecca of black life in the United States.

After book publishers rejected the work, DeCarava packed the photos up and kept them in his closet until epiphany hit. He decided to share them with his neighbour, the poet Langston Hughes, who immediately recognised the beauty of the world in which he lived. Hughes sifted through the 500 photographs DeCarava gave him and began to pen a fictional account of their hometown, a story of family among stranger that became The Sweet Flypaper of Life, the landmark photography book released in 1955, a feat of publishing to which countless artists and authors continue to aspire.

The Sweet Flypaper of Life has been chosen as the starting point for Family Pictures, a group exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, opening February 16, 2018, that spans a period of 60 years. Bringing together an intergenerational mix of some of the greatest African American photographers of our time – with works from John Edmonds, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lyle Ashton Harris, Deana Lawson, Lorraine O’Grady, Gordon Parks, Sondra Perry, Ming Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems – the exhibition illustrated the ways in which family is a vital force in shaping the black community from the Civil Rights era to the present moment.

Hailing from Washington, D.C., John Edmonds is one of the youngest artists included in Family Pictures. Now 28, the Yale MFA graduate is a rising star on the photography scene, best known for creating a series of portraits that reveal a poignant and potent sense of intimacy that occurs in the act of creating art.

Growing up in the Christian church, being queer became a source of inner conflict that drove Edmonds in search of an understanding of self, of queer blackness, and of a place where he could be among family – a family he built himself through the act of making portraits. His photographs featured in the exhibition, made between 2012 and 2017, illustrate how one’s passions can create an empowered space for agency, community, and self-actualisation.

Edmonds, who will be publishing his own book with Capricious later this spring, speaks with us about how to create a portrait of your family in every sense of the word.

“Coming into photography had a lot to do with coming into my own as an individual at 14 and 15-years-old and feeling a sense of agency in that” – John Edmonds

KNOW WHAT FAMILY MEANS TO YOU

“For me, family is where love is present. Growing up there was always love present in my immediate family. Coming to my own as a young adult, there were people who served as key figures that became very close friends and who in time became an extension of my family. A lot of this had to do with coming into the development of my own personhood, sexuality, and sense of self.

“Many people in my life and the photographs featured in Family Pictures have had a tremendous effect on me growing into my own person. In that way, family is also people who nurture you and help you grow into your best self. Family is people who treat you as you are, and also as their own, so that there is a reciprocated sense of respect, love, and admiration.”

USE ART FOR AGENCY & SELF-ACTUALISATION

“I came into photography when I was 14 and one of my older sisters let me borrow a point-and-shoot Kodak digital camera. This was back when digital cameras became much more accessible to the public; you can think of it in the same way as the 1920s, 30, and 40s when Kodak cameras and film became accessible to everyday people and there was a surge of picture making because people have more access to doing it.

“From that point on, I continued to envelop and submerge myself in the act of making pictures because I realised it was something I had never done before in a way that I could actually see. It was like I was photographing and I was seeing things happen as I was doing it. Because of that, I continued to make pictures because it was a point of discovery.

“Whenever you make something – whether you are writing, photographing, or painting – there’s a sense of agency and a feeling as though you are creating a legacy for yourself. In that way, coming into photography had a lot to do with coming into my own as an individual at 14 and 15-years-old and feeling a sense of agency in that.”

HAVE A SENSE OF URGENCY & DESIRE

“Growing up in the church, there is a sense of invisibility around the idea around queerness, one’s sexuality being sensual and an integral part of who they are. For many people going through adolescence, you are trying to learn more about who you are and there is an inherent sense of longing and belonging in that. When you add in identifying in a way that is not favourable in a religion, a barrier occurs.

“I started making photographs of myself, my friends, my family, and my loved ones out of a curiosity of who I am as an artist, who I am in the world, and the people I surround myself with. Over time, there’s a sense of community with the pictures. When I say community, it’s in thinking about the black community, the queer community, and the black queer community intersectionally. In the media and in art, we don’t see a lot of those stories or that community as recorded from within. We usually see it recorded from a gaze from the outside. For me, it was very important to make these pictures.”

CLAIM YOUR SPACE

“I lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when I first started making the du-rag pictures in late 2016. I was thinking about Crown Heights as a new sense of home. One thing that is very important about my work is the idea of place, where I am working, whether it is identifiable or not. As a photographer, the studio is a moving place.

“Malcolm Cuthbert, who appears in the image titled “Biker Jacket”, lives in Crown Heights and I met him at a happy hour in 2016. He is a hairstylist and he usually wears all white. That really stood out to me because at the time I had been thinking a lot about my work in terms of the divine and by wearing all white, it was like he was proclaiming that he was divine.

“The New Yorker commissioned me to make photographs with clothing from the exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern? which was at the Museum of Modern Art.

“I asked Malcolm to put on this biker jacket. He was leaning against this green backdrop with green hair and it was just so perfect. The way I view that photograph is: he is his environment.

“When I think of black queerness it is about claiming space. In that picture, he is so comfortably himself. Anyone who knows him knows that is his general attitude, that he is creating more space for himself. It is one of my favourite photographs in the exhibition and is a central piece in the installation.”

BUILD YOUR COMMUNITY

“For the installation of my work in Family Pictures, the photograph of Malcolm is in the centre, and then on the right side is Tylan. On the left, is Destiny Brundidge, a good friend and a fashion designer in her own right, also from Washington DC. I’ve photographed everyone in their bedrooms.

“The beautiful threshold in the work is that you get a sense of not only the way they present themselves in the world but the way they think in the world. I love that all three of the people in the centre, are all wearing all black and there is a real vibrancy and vitality in each picture. They are alive and thriving, the way their eyes are connecting is very powerful. The gaze is returned in a way that is reciprocal and powerful.”

BE AWARE

“The idea of my gaze as a black queer individual is the way that I look at people and how I desire for them to be seen in my work comes from a place of camaraderie, understanding, and a sense of a reciprocal relationship in the act of being photographed.

“There’s an essay called “The Civil Contract of Photography” by Ariella Azoulay about the relationship between the photographer and subject, as well as the third eye – the viewer when they come to the work. Azoulay is talking about photojournalism but I think it can be applied to all types of image making and visual art. The idea is that everybody is implicated in that relationship.

“We live in the world where images are so proliferated, we are used to looking at them with a sense of apathy. But even if something happens in the world that we feel like we have no relationship to, we are all involved in the act of seeing and how that seeing informs how we live in the world. If work can show you how to empathise, love, or desire the same way the artist does in that moment, then the viewer can take it back out into the world and make a part of their life.”

BE AN INDIVIDUAL

“I am beyond thrilled to be included in the exhibition because as a student of photography, many of the artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Lyle Ashton Harris, and Deana Lawson, were people that I looked up to and admired in my introduction to photography. I have a deep respect and admiration for everyone in the exhibition.

“All of the artists are really successful at using family as a metaphor for how we can look at and relate to where we exist in the world. They are thinking about family as a way that complicates the traditional notion of family as people who have a singular monolithic identity. Instead, they crack that open and show all the different and complex forms of family.”

CREATE THE WORLD YOU WANT AND NEED

“I took it upon myself to create the space for myself and my own work and in doing that I also wanted to create a space for other people and their stories to show how they interweave – not only through my own voice but how these people who are part of the world bring something dynamic to the work.

“Create the space you want for yourself and for others. For me, that desire has to be from a place of inclusion to be effective, and there really has to be a sense of urgency and desire to do that because that’s where great art comes from. Great art comes from a place of urgency and desire.”

Family Pictures runs February 16 – May 20, 2018 at the Columbus Museum of Art, in Columbus, Ohio