In his pivotal photography series Seeing in the Dark, Rashid Johnson renders painterly portraits of the homeless people he came to know in downtown Chicago as a young artist working out of his South Michigan Avenue studio. In these intimate portraits, Johnson’s subjects are not merely photographed but rather seen, treated, and depicted with dignity, with their names serving as titles for each individual work. Working in 1998-99, just as digital photography was replacing the chemistry of analog, Johnson purposefully employed antiquated nineteenth-century photographic techniques, including gelatin silver and Van Dyke Brown printing processes, and conceptually layered photograms with symbolic elements such as black-eyed peas and chicken bones. This series of unique photographic works is perhaps the earliest example of Johnson’s use of material as conceptual framework. In the decades since, Johnson’s distinct materials and methods—as well as his powerful voice—have drawn acclaim, particularly for his contribution to placing the African-American experience squarely and permanently into the public discourse of the twenty-first century.
Seeing in the Dark launched Johnson’s career, bringing him widespread international attention from curators and collectors. The series was included in Freestyle, Thelma Golden’s seminal 2001 exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem, and in Johnson’s 2002 solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, among others. Photographs from the Seeing in the Dark series are held by numerous public institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African-American Art. Works from Johnson’s photograms series also reside in the collection of the Art Institute, as well as in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Brooklyn Museum.
THE ART NEWSPAPER
A BRUSH WITH... RASHID JOHNSON
Hosted by Ben Luke
Produced by Julia Michalska, David Clack and Aimee Dawson
August 26th, 2020 | 12:29 BST
Produced by The Art Newspaper, A Brush With... Rashid Johnson is an in-depth podcast conversation spanning the artist's biggest influences, his beginnings as a photographer, and the importance of his early Seeing in the Dark series. Ben Luke talks to Johnson about the cultural experiences that have had an impact on his life and work and how the artist quickly occupied a "post-medium space," working in everything from film to sculpture, installation and, as with the other artists in the series, in painting. Through the conversation, Rashid reveals the influence of cultural figures as diverse as the hip-hop star Rakim, the jazz composer Sun Ra, writers including Toni Morrison and Paul Beatty, and artists as diverse as Roy DeCarava, Jean Dubuffet, Richard Tuttle and David Hammons.
A DIFFERENT SPACE OF ENCOUNTER
By Shelley Rice
In David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson’s notable photographic series, The Fishermen and Women of the Firth of Forth (1843-47), 130 salt paper prints from paper negatives portray the fishermen, the fishwives, the lads and lasses of New Haven. Hill and Adamson didn’t generalize the villagers, make them beautiful, or ascribe them dignity and humanity. They simply looked at them, long and hard, and allowed that gaze to register a meeting point between fellow travelers. It is precisely this open-endedness that makes me connect these nineteenth-century masters to Rashid Johnson, whose 1999 project Seeing in the Dark is a shout-out to these early pioneers of the medium. An undergraduate studying photography at Columbia College, Chicago, at the time, Rashid (a student of the community-oriented Dawoud Bey) became interested in historic processes after taking a class in experimental photography. This interest was widespread at this time: Sheila Metzner, Joan Myers, and Martha Madigan, among others, explored cyanotypes and pinhole cameras as well as Pictorialist techniques, seeking alternatives to the fast and facile imagery of the late twentieth century. What was unique about Johnson is that he decided to use historical methods—photographing with an 8-by-10-inch Deardorff camera to create traditional portraits developed using the Van Dyke process—to depict the homeless men he met in his Chicago neighborhood. Inviting them out of their environment and into the intimacy of his studio, engaging and recording them, close cropped, in slow time, and then describing them in the rich brown, painterly tones of yesteryear (in ways they would never have been seen historically), he moved them into a different space of encounter.
There was much discussion, during the years when Rashid Johnson was in school, about the appropriate “codes” for photographing the less fortunate; social documentary was a contested terrain, and power relationships were front and center in theories put forth by Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, and John Tagg. Johnson was, of course, aware of them, and of the politically correct ways to use the descriptive capacities of his medium. But these rules presupposed certain well-established advantages, hierarchies, and identities that were understood and clear. Johnson chose a more nuanced and less traveled path. He was a Black man photographing Black men, in encounters electrified by the affinities and tensions between race and class, as well as varying levels of trust, resistance, and revelation. His aim was never to define or clarify his sitters, or to presuppose their willingness to reveal themselves to him. The faces of Jonathan, Eugene, and others emerge from darkness, shine forth from the obscurity of the background. The men react to the camera individually, not monolithically; Jonathan’s gesture is even reminiscent of Irving Penn’s photographs of Miles Davis. Hidden under hats or behind closed eyes, looking to the side or directly engaging the camera, showing their wrinkles, their religious symbols, and the weight of their thoughts, Johnson’s sitters perform not poverty but complexity.
Johnson’s admiration for Roy DeCarava is obvious in these works. DeCarava’s depictions of the Black experience are among the most introspective in the history of photography; they are, in essence, the embodiment of the private life. Whether seen in New York City streets or at home, in dance halls or jazz clubs, with strangers or family members, his sitters exude an interior life as deep and rich as their dark skin tones. As Teju Cole wrote, “Instead of trying to brighten blackness, DeCarava went against expectation and darkened it further. What is dark is neither blank nor empty. . . Its subtle implications: that there’s more there than we might think at first glance, but also that when we are looking at others, we might come to the understanding that they don’t have to give themselves up to us. They are allowed to stay in the shadows if they wish.”[i] Johnson’s men have moved off the streets but they are allowed to stay in the shadows, to reveal or withhold themselves from him (and us) as they grow into their images.
Most of these pictures are simple: they show a face, an upper body. There is little detail, but when a crucifix is central to the image or a hat works to both stylize and obscure a face, we notice. Eugene is almost performative, as it enacts a drama between revelation and resistance. We see Eugene’s face, to the right, at the rear; looking off to the side, his expression is tense, and closed. But the hands pushing forward, large wrinkled palms pressed against the picture plane on the left, dominate this photograph and seem to block our access to the man behind. Are they his hands? Is someone else there? The answers are unclear; clues are illegible in the shadows. Are these hands barriers, warnings that push us away? Or are they reaching out? Or both?
It is precisely this tension—this internal battle—that animates Rashid Johnson’s Seeing in the Dark series and makes it so very special. His homeless sitters lived outside, in public; by definition, they were deprived of a domestic environment, a private space. But enacted within the theatrical space of Johnson’s prints, their relationship (or not) with him becomes an affirmation of interiority, of a complex subjectivity impervious to social degradation. Johnson uses the luxury and antiquity of his medium to work against the “bare life” experienced by his sitters, thus making his technique an active participant in the creation of meaning.[ii] This same duplicity is the basis of another early series of Van Dyke prints, in this case abstractions created at the same time as Seeing in the Dark.
Two of these works, Beans and Chicken Bones, forgo the human subject to focus on elements of modernist design—but in this case the pictures are constructed by arranging staples of the Black kitchen on printing-out paper, and then exposing them in the sun to create negative images. Referencing nineteenth-century contact prints by W. H. Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins as well as photograms by Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy made during the heyday of the European avant-garde, Johnson’s abstractions highlight, not the objects of industry, luxury, or botany chosen by these photographers, but the most basic ingredients of the African American lifestyle. Beans lines up its contents in a centralized (and leaky) circle; Chicken Bones allows the recognizable subject matter to cohere into an overall and lively composition. Beautiful and amusing, these prints make a statement once again about the hybrid nature of both Rashid Johnson’s art and his life.
Interestingly enough, there is a well-known body of work by Irving Penn, controversial and admired, which certainly would have been on Johnson’s radar during his student days. Entitled Cigarette Butts and shown at The Museum of Modern Art in mid-1975, this series was a wild departure for one of the most famous fashion photographers in the world. Close-up and monumental, Penn’s depictions of urban detritus—of used butts discarded and found on New York City streets, then brought into the studio—are sumptuously beautiful. Printed in platinum, they reference the rarified artistic techniques of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On every level, these pictures were an egregious subversion of norms, an affront to the codes of luxury and high art; Penn made clear that his intention was to upend the normative pyramid of cultural and economic values. Johnson’s contrast of form and content in his abstract works of 1999 is less aggressive and, as it were, more synthetic than Penn’s. Instead of a conflict, Rashid Johnson proposes a merger of the Black quotidian with the language of high modernism—thereby envisioning a new multicultural space where the avant-garde and kitsch live in harmony and beauty. Rashid Johnson’s Seeing in the Dark and abstract photograms are arenas of action, places where people come together and cultures comingle. The portraits are encounters that help him to test, and sometimes bridge, the social divides within his life and his community; the abstractions, on the other hand, are an almost utopian space where the bedrocks of two cultures can coexist and flourish. However different they might seem, they both explore the conflicts and convergences of the artist’s race and class, and the dual spaces he inhabits as a middle-class Black American.
Rashid Johnson (American, b.1977) is a sculptor and photographer who works in a wide range of everyday materials, including wax, wood, steel, brass, shea butter, ceramic tile, and such found objects as books, records, VHS tapes, live plants, and CB radios. He finds inspiration in the work of a diverse group of visual artists, actors, musicians, writers, activists, and philosophers, including Carl Andre, Joseph Beuys, Eldrige Cleaver, Bruce Conner, Joseph Cornell, David Hammons, Kasimir Malevich, Parliament Funkadelic, and Sun Ra. Often identified with the post-black art movement, Johnson's work engages questions of personal, racial, and cultural identity, producing a unique synthesis of historical and material references that are grounded in African American and art history while expanding into questions of mysticism and cosmology. Johnson was included in the landmark 2001 exhibition Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem, an exhibition of twenty-eight important young African American artists curated by Thelma Golden. The following year, he had his first solo museum exhibition, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Since that time, he has had solo shows at SculptureCenter, New York; the Memphis PowerHouse; and the Kunstmuseum Magdeburg, Germany. His work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington D.C.; the Institute of Contemporary Photography, New York; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut; the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago; and the Rubell Family Collection, Miami, among others.
ABOUT SHELLEY RICE
Shelley Rice is an Arts Professor at New York University, with a joint appointment between the Photography and Imaging Department, the Art History Department and the Institute of Fine Arts. She is the author of Parisian Views, the editor of Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman and the co-author of numerous books and catalogs. Her essays have appeared in many publications, for instance Art in America, Artforum, The Art Newspaper, Bookforum, Aperture, Tate Papers, French Studies and Etudes Photographiques. Rice is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Fulbright Grants (to France and Turkey), National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arts Awards, a Hasselblad Research Fellowship and the PEN/Jerard Award for Non-Fiction Essay. In 2010 she was named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters in France, and in 2015 she was awarded the David Payne Carter Award for Teaching Excellence from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.
[i] Teju Cole, “A True Picture of Black Skin,” New York Times Magazine, February 18, 2015.
[ii] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 10.
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Newhaven Fishwives, Jeanie Wilson and Annie Linton, 1845, Salted paper print from calotype negative, Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund.
Anna Atkins, New Zealand, c. 1853-54, Cyanotype, Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund.