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Clifford Prince King’s While Night Comes On Gently
Photography Clifford Prince King

Clifford Prince King photographs the highs and lows of Black male desire

While Night Comes On Gently reveals moments of tenderness among the LA-based photographer’s friends and lovers

Clifford Prince King’s debut solo show While Night Comes On Gently is as tender and poetic as its title suggests. The Los Angeles-based photographer continues to explore themes of Black male queer identity by documenting shared, intimate moments of human camaraderie and vulnerability among friends and lovers. 

Suffused with golden LA light, his pictures combine a sense of optimism with the unflinching reality of the human body. “Night Sweats” (2018) was taken within days of King’s HIV diagnosis – showing his body’s reaction to the infection – and many of the images seem to ask questions about what it means to inhabit our own body. 

Capturing moments of sensitivity and communion, While Night Comes On Gently challenges the stereotype surrounding Black, gay men by making public these private intimacies. 

Below, we talk to Clifford Prince King about queerness, the human body, and his hopes for the future. 

“I’ve had my chance to anatomise and live deeply in this work. It’s time to share, pass along, and give the opportunity for the images to mean something for someone else” – Clifford Prince King

Can you tell us more about While Night Comes On Gently?

Clifford Prince King: While Night Comes On Gently is a selection of photographs taken from 2017-2020.

The majority of the work is centred around the time of day when the sun meets the horizon and creates a familiar tonal light often referred to as ‘golden hour’. The images suggest an end of the day mindset, which could take on many forms, like frustration, bliss, solitude, or the feeling of being reunited with your lover after another triumphed day.

Your images are so tender and poignant. How does it feel to display such personal work in a public space? 

Clifford Prince King: There are mixed emotions, definitely. Some are waves of nervousness, but I remind myself that these photographs are moments in time that are very special to me, and I’ve had my chance to anatomise and live deeply in this work. It’s time to share, pass along, and give the opportunity for the images to mean something for someone else.  

I’m really grateful to see the works printed at this capacity and framed so carefully. It’s a huge blessing.

I love the title, While Night Comes On Gently – which I believe is taken from the poem ‘Dream Variations’ by Langston Hughes. Could you tell us about why these words struck a chord with you? Does the poem have special significance?

Clifford Prince King: Yes! ‘Dream Variations” is my favorite poem by Langston Hughes. The poem is about his dreams to live carefree without the burden of racial discrimination and inequality. The joy, pain, and understanding within this two stanza poem is absolutely timeless. Hughes’ language has always been my escape: warm and nostalgic. While Night Comes On Gently stood out for several reasons. The placement of the words – direct but also mysterious and layered. The selected images in my exhibition are dusk-toned, the few moments before the sun fades; imagining what it looks like for us while we wait for the night. ‘Dreams Variations’ shows us a back and forth battle between feeling joyous yet weak at the incompletion of our overall dreams and desires. 

Some of the images were taken around the time of your HIV diagnosis in 2017. How did this diagnosis inform the work you were making? 

Clifford Prince King: My diagnosis gave me a different perspective on the work I was beginning to make at the time. Themes of pleasure, permission, and lust behind the shadows suddenly had this huge spotlight – almost like I was caught. In my head, my diagnosis was a consequence to my actions. The weeks after were a lot of figuring out how to get help, and begin this new chapter of survival. ‘Night Sweats’ is a photograph in the exhibition that shows my sweaty bed as a result of my body working really hard to fight the infection. I would wake up in the early morning, covered in sweat, but that stopped once I was medicated. 

Once I started shooting again, the work became more focused on relationships, communion and self-worth. I had to tell myself that I would eventually be open about my condition, and that this wasn’t a death sentence. I looked to Essex Hemphill poems and learned about Robert Rayford, the first Black, gay man who died of Aids before anyone knew what Aids was. 

From that point on, I’ve prioritised breaking down stigma and creating open dialogues to reduce this built up horror story that we used to validate.

How integral is Los Angeles itself in your artistic process?

Clifford Prince King: Los Angeles has been good to me, as far as community and access to work related opportunities. However, creatively I’m not geographically bound to LA. My artistic process is best when I’m in new environments or when I travel to the south.

Growing up, I visited Louisiana every other summer and would take trips through wetlands. 

Changing my surroundings is vital for me.

What dialogues would you like this exhibition to enter into? What questions would you like it to raise in the mind of the viewer?

Clifford Prince King: From the exhibition, I’d like for people to consider what it is they strive to achieve in their lives, daily. 

I’d like for people to digest their thoughts about their everyday endeavors, what they have to go home with, and what they think about before they have to awake the next day to do it all again. The works presented in While Night Comes On Gently are a nod to self-preservation and acknowledging that the tasks you set out to accomplish on a daily basis are a constant work in progress. How are you healing yourself at night? What are you shedding in order to take on the next day? What are you taking away? What is waste? I suppose this exhibition is my response to these questions, and how I have been taking care of myself the last three years, and who I’ve let in – and out – of my life. Where I rest my head, and how I’ve been able to survive this all.

While Night Comes On Gently feels hopeful and optimistic to me, perhaps because it’s so full of humanity. Do you feel hopeful and optimistic in general? 

Clifford Prince King: In general, I do. There’s a lot on the line right now as a nation and in the world. 

I revert to my late grandmother’s mindset and just try my best, mind my manners, and my business, and pray for the loves in my life. 

While Night Comes On Gently by Clifford Prince King  is showing at The Gallery September 26-November 7 2020