Antwaun Sargent’s first book celebrates a new forefront of genre-bending photographers “using their cameras to create contemporary portrayals of black life”
This article was published in issue #7890 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.
“The beauty of photography is that it starts a dialogue about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going,” says Ruth Ossai, a young Nigerian photographer, in The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion. This hefty anthology, published by Aperture, draws on the work of 15 emerging international image-makers – a “new black vanguard”, according to the book’s author, writer and critic, Antwaun Sargent, “using their cameras to create contemporary portrayals of black life that are reframing established representational paradigms”.
Sargent has included Namsa Leuba, Nadine Ijewere, Arielle Bobb-Willis, Dana Scruggs and Tyler Mitchell (the first black photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue, in 2018), who hail from Europe and North America, and will already be familiar to regular readers of BJP, alongside others working on the African continent, such as Jamal Nxedlana, Daniel Obasi and Stephen Tayo, who combine photography with art direction, styling and entrepreneurial pursuits.
More than a portfolio of their images, the book explores “what it means to be a young black photographer creating right now, thinking about blackness,” says Sargent. He argues that black bodies are under-represented in fashion – or when they are represented, it is not done correctly. As Ossai muses, perhaps the “who we are” has been missing, while the “where we come from” has simply failed to mirror reality. “We have an audience that has been totally starved of a reflection of themselves in the media,” says Sargent.
His view is shared by many of the photographers interviewed in the book, who affirm that their work is inspired by an urge to show life as they find it — something that has hitherto been missing. “I can see myself within my work. I want to give that platform to young women of colour and show that beauty is not just one universal standard,” says Ijewere. Adrienne Raquel adds, “As a black female artist, I make a conscious effort to depict black women because they are ultimately a reflection of myself”.
“Obviously, this is changing, but up until fairly recently, and especially when I was growing up, if you looked at South African advertising, you wouldn’t find many black people, which is super weird when 80 to 90 per cent of the population is black,” says Nxedlana. “That was always something that I wanted to redress.”
Sargent points out that this doesn’t necessitate the creation of a monolithic sense of blackness, but rather urges fashion to open itself up to a multiplicity of voices and experiences. In one interview, Tayo and Obasi talk of the importance of specificity, such as reflecting on people and experiences particular to their homeland, Nigeria, rather than an overarching, vaguely conceived ‘Africa’. Other photographers go further, picking out individual histories that have found their way into their work.
“I carry this very scenic backstory, growing up in the Bronx,” says Renell Medrano. “I try to portray that in my images.” Bobb-Willis “grew up in a beauty shop” run by her mother, while her father was a policeman who also ran a tailor store. “For me, beauty had this sense of inner reflection.”
Sargent has respected these various voices in his book, allowing a generous space for each photographer to show their work, preceding each portfolio with a text that includes their biographical details and quotes. Furthermore, at the end of the book, we find extended transcriptions of longer interviews and discussions. “The photographers whose work we selected is so distinctive,” Sargent says. “They may be thinking about the same issues of beauty and identity, but their work is wildly different.”
But if these images draw on a kind of documentary impulse, they also speak of an element of fantasy – of Ossai’s “where we are going”. Informed by the photographers’ experiences, these fantasies explore various possibilities, such as the urge “to hide away while wanting to communicate” in Bobb-Willis’ work, or to explore gender, beauty, and masculinity in black communities in Quil Lemons’ hands.
And, as Sargent points out, in creating these fantasies, the photographers in The New Black Vanguard are making work that is relevant to everyone, no matter what their background – and also drawing on one of the central tenets of fashion photography. “These photographers are making images that allow people to dream a little bit bigger about possibilities,” he says. “Isn’t that exactly what a fashion image is supposed to be all about?”
The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion by Antwaun Sargent is published by Aperture. An accompanying exhibition runs at Aperture’s gallery in New York until 18 January.
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy