Welcome Intervention: Two Recent Events in the Visually Speaking Series

A photograph from the Waheed Photo Archive. Courtesy Adreinne Waheed.

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Since its launch in 2012, Visually Speaking, a series of public discussions organized by photographer and curator Terrence Jennings, has provided space for photographers to talk about their process. At the events, which take place roughly every other month, audiences learn about what remains invisible on the flat surface of images: photographers’ relational experiences in planning, taking, and disseminating their work. Visually Speaking serves as a much-needed resource for the legacies of photo-based work, from journalism to multimedia installations, by photographers of color. Jennings’s curation reflects a rare commitment to a range of photographic genres and styles that are often considered apart from each other.

This year alone, the series featured longtime New York Times staff photographer Michelle Agins and the release of MFON, a new biannual journal representing the work of women photographers of the African diaspora. Visually Speaking has honored influential figures, such as Deborah Willis and Jamel Shabazz by hosting retrospective conversations, while also taking on urgent issues in the medium, a recent one being the preservation of vernacular photography. Because they can be planned and carried out more quickly than an exhibition or a book, the public programs of Visually Speaking provide an agile platform for oral histories to challenge gestures of inclusivity at historically white institutions. Compared with other photography talk series, such as Forums on Contemporary Photography at the Museum of Modern Art—which is by invite only—or insular lecture series offered by university photography departments, Visually Speaking is more accessible because it is hosted by public libraries: the series began as part of the programming of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and relocated to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in fall 2017.

This past April’s event, “The Lost and Found Photographs,” featured two avid collectors of black vernacular photography, Adreinne Waheed and Zun Lee, who shared their work and then took part in a discussion moderated by art historian Grace Aneiza Ali. Vernacular photos, while often shot by an “unknown” photographer, reveal portals of personal communication between family and friends; they look considerably different from the images laced with commercial and political motivations that populate advertisements, stock photos from agencies, and news footage. The person taking the photo usually feels some kinship with those standing before the camera. An implied intimacy vibrates around these images as an aura of trust.

The majority of images we look at today are informal, taken by people who are not trained photographers and viewed on a smudged screen rather than as printed photographs. Waheed and Lee discussed highlights of their print collections, from milestones like graduations and weddings to more modest gatherings in living rooms and at the beach. In one image Lee shared, three people gather around a Polaroid as it develops before their eyes. They lean on a kitchen table, their arms aligned and faces in profile, their bodies poised in focused excitement. The self-determination that characterizes vernacular images has specific significance for black representation in the United States, because these image archives defy misrepresentation and under-representation of black life in the mainstream media, which, as Ali observed, often focuses on “the icons” like the Obamas or Beyoncé.

Since Waheed began collecting in 2011, she has maintained a popular Tumblr page displaying both images and available contextual information written on or near the image, eliciting unpredictable connections and an open channel of dialogue. Waheed’s theme for collecting is black love, as expressed in both momentous rituals and quotidian gestures. With more than ten thousand images, the Waheed Photo Archive was recently acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. This move will sustain a collection that was once stored in a spare room in Waheed’s home, expanding its reach to more researchers, curators, and interested members of the public.

At the panel, Waheed reflected on the urgency of her collecting, particularly of whole albums in order to preserve the visual narratives of families over time. Waheed noted that sellers of vernacular photography on eBay, for example, often break up albums and sell the images individually. She mentioned the disturbing resonance between isolating “black memories” for sale and the auction block of the slave trade. One of the most evocative slides in her presentation showed the space where an image once sat, now marked only by the four corners glued to hold it to the album page and the wavy handwriting of the caption. The image had either slipped out or been intentionally removed; its absence offered a metaphor for photography’s vulnerability to discontinuity and decontextualization.

Zun Lee began his presentation with an ethical question about the responsibility of holding the memories of strangers who can no longer keep their own images. Lee is motivated to collect quotidian images in part because of the current crisis of displacement. When people lose their homes, whether by natural disaster or eviction, they also often lose troves of photographs. Lee personally has few pictures of his childhood, since he was left to his own devices when growing up poor in Frankfurt, Germany. He connected his desire to collect images of black fathers to his memories of black soldiers on a military base near his home taking care of him. These father figures showed him their own portable family memories, often as Polaroid images.

Both Lee and Waheed reflected on a scarcity of their own family records leading them to think of family expansively. When images are separated from their makers, they invite new viewers to imagine their histories and find connections that don’t rely on knowing the people pictured. In the moderated discussion, Ali asked how Waheed and Lee navigate the potential pitfalls of presenting “intimate things” that were initially intended to have a more private audience. They both offered a vision of their work as a form of caretaking: for themselves as photographers, for those separated from their photos, and for image culture.

While speed and instant availability define current vernacular photography, Lola Flash, a guest at Visually Speaking this past June, also showed portraiture rooted in the self-determination of the underrepresented, but from the other side of the technological spectrum: analog, large-format photography. After nearly four decades of steadily making work, Flash had two exhibitions in New York in 2018, at Pen + Brush and the Leslie-Lohman Project Space. Art historian Jonathan Michael Square began the conversation with Flash by reflecting on an image of her, where she is in one of three pairs who lock lips in profile against a white backdrop in the iconic “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do” public health campaign from 1989–90 designed by ACT UP working group Gran Fury. In the conversation, Flash recalled taking buses bearing that ad to work as a high school teacher in the Bronx, without any of her fellow passengers recognizing her as one of the faces debunking myths about HIV/AIDS.

Flash gave a tour of her work, starting with its inextricable connection to AIDS activism. In Flash’s images from the 1980s and ’90s, scenes of street protests and staged vignettes are flipped in an experimental cross-color process, generating saturated opposites of what eyes would have seen, as if inviting viewers to enter a memory distorted by the pain of the AIDS crisis. In 4 Ray (1990), the wheelchair of her friend, artist Ray Navarro, sits alone in the middle of a grassy hill turned dark yellow with post-production technique akin to solarization. What may have been blue sky is a monolithic hot orange, while the grass turns a fiery red.

After twenty years of reversing color slide film in her final prints to encourage the reversal of pernicious stereotypes in society, Flash turned to traditional large-format color portraiture. To a crowd of mostly young people unfamiliar with her work, she spoke affectionately about edifying the people she photographs by using majestic poses—one series of queer luminaries is titled “Legends.” As subjects look at her big camera on a tripod, she prompts them to feel proud and imagine someone they admire. When her often life-size photos hang side by side on a gallery wall, the eyes of those who pose for Flash form a horizon line of dignity. Her projects represent mostly queer, black, and brown individuals through the enduring themes of women aging, perceptions of race and gender, and, most recently, incarceration.

When someone in the audience asked about Flash’s hope for the future, she said, in a single word, “equality.” Flash makes photographs to challenge people’s mindsets, that is, if they need to be challenged. But she still feels that her work has been neglected. “When I google ‘queer photographer,’ I don’t see myself,” she said. “When I google ‘African-American queer photographer,’ I don’t see myself.” Yet the incremental work of her portraiture—which requires patience both for shooting on film and for courting subjects as she works around a full-time teaching schedule—creates bonds that speak to the collective process of changing the way a culture sees. We learned from her that if she wasn’t already friends with a subject, they often became friends after making the portrait.

Jennings, who tirelessly promotes those in his extended social and professional circles of photographers, works in photojournalism and fine art photography, across the genre divide that Visually Speaking so adamantly straddles. Jennings was photographer in residence at the Schomburg Center, documenting their events for eleven years. Partly out of habit, he cannot sit back at the events he now organizes and refrain from creating photographic records of them. With two cameras strapped across his torso, he buzzes around the affair, documenting Visually Speaking from multiple angles.