Zora J Murff pushes the boundaries of photography

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The American photographer whose work tackles subjects affecting himself and others discusses his ever-evolving, multi-layered practice 

“It feels like being in a maze sometimes,” says Zora J Murff of his creative process; uncharted realms of thoughts and themes; no clear path nor form. “Everything is always up for negotiation in the process of making,” he continues, “something that seems like a good idea today, doesn’t necessarily tomorrow”. J Murff’s considered and reflective approach registers in his images. Formally, they are two-dimensional, well-composed, and aesthetically-interesting. But, beneath the surface, they are laden with meaning. They do not purport to represent some objective truth, instead, they stem from his reflections and experiences; they question, consider, and expose. 

J Murff studied psychology at Iowa State University before working as a councillor in the social service field for three years. He never considered being an artist or professor. But, he struggled with the inequity of the social service system. The job did not fulfil him, and he bought a camera, “I just wanted to do something that was mine.” The pursuit enthralled him and J Murff began delving deeper, educating himself about the medium, “Getting an idea of what photography could accomplish as an art form.” Eventually, he studied photography at the University of Iowa and enrolled in an MFA at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Today, he is the Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Arkansas.

Jerrod and Junior (talking about fatherhood).
2017. From the series At No Point In Between © Zora J Murff, courtesy Webber Gallery and the artist.
Growth. 2019. From the series At No Point In Between © Zora J Murff, courtesy Webber Gallery and the artist, courtesy Webber Gallery and the artist.

J Murff’s employment and educational experiences have undoubtedly shaped his practice; both its subject-matter and his approach. His photographs are not so much documents, as they are points from which to engage with much broader subjects. Take his first series Corrections, which Murff began making while working in juvenile corrections. The job became  the project’s starting point, but, ultimately, it investigates the role of visual representation in the context of incarceration. Composed of blurred portraits, hidden faces, still-lives, and landscape shots, the series captures markers of juvenile detention: sparse rooms and single beds; security cameras; a jumpsuit. But, in its refusal to reveal its subject’s faces, it also enters into a conversation about photography’s role in perpetuating visual profiling in the criminal justice system and beyond it. 

“As an image-maker, it is crucial to understand your role and how you employ a medium that has legitimised imperialism and colonial desires,” says J Murff, who cites the American photographer and critic Allan Sekula’s 1986 essay The Body and the Archive,, which delves into the emergence of photography in the context of surveillance; as an agent of social categorisation and control. Among other examples, Sekula interrogates the work of the Paris police official Alphonse Bertillon, who conceived of the first modern system of criminal identification in 1882, which incorporated a series of bodily measurements, physical descriptions, and photographs to identify criminals. “Bertillon built a criminal type based on the physical characteristics of people who commit crimes, and that was reinforced and supported by photography,” Murff continues.

Cross. 2018. From the series At No Point In Between © Zora J Murff, courtesy Webber Gallery and the artist.

He also cites the activities of the Swiss-born American biologist and geologist Louis Agassiz. In 1850, Agassiz commissioned J.T. Zealy to create the so-called slave daguerreotypes. These were discovered at Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1975, and comprise 15 detailed images of seven southern slaves photographed in Colombia, Southern California. Agassiz commissioned the daguerreotypes to analyse the supposed physical differences between Europeans and Africans. He believed that by illustrating the physical superiority of the white race, he could legitimise his theory of “separate creation”: the notion that different races are separate species. It was a racist endeavour, which, again, the new medium of photography helped facilitate. By disguising the identities of the subjects in Corrections, J Murff interrogates the medium of photography itself, refusing to play into its perpetuation of the inequity of the system from which the project stems.

Brian Wallis’ article Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Aggasiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes also provided a point of contemplation for his subsequent project At No Point in Between, for which, alongside his most recent project American Mother, American Father, he has been awarded the Aperture X Baxter Street Next Step Award. Similarly to Corrections, the series appears to have an initial focus, this being flash-points of anti-Black violence: the lynching of Will Brown in Omaha, Nebraska, 1919; the shooting of Vivian Strong by a white police officer also in Omaha in 1969; and the murder of Lacquan McDonald in Chicago, Illinois, by the Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. Archival images of these acts of violence sit amid portraits and landscapes of North Omaha, which Murff visited for the first time soon after watching the video of McDonald’s murder. Again, it was Murff’s lived experiences, which spurred a project that delves deeper into interconnected issues: “It was the culmination of watching the video of Lacquan McDonald and then visiting North Omaha for the first time,” reflects Murff. “I was having these disparate experiences: watching this video, which is telling me what it means to be Black in the US, and then visiting this neighbourhood, which is majority Black in a white place. The place validated my existence without question; I could navigate through it and not be concerned about my safety.” 

American Mother. 2019. From the series American Mother, American Father © Zora J Murff, courtesy Webber Gallery and the artist.
Gas Money (Affirmation #1). 2019. From the series American Mother, American Father © Zora J Murff, courtesy Webber Gallery and the artist.

However, as J Murff learned more about the neighbourhood’s history and the social forces that have shaped it, he discovered subtler forces of oppression at play, notably redlining. “In the simplest terms (and I feel that I must emphasise simplest), redlining functions by discouraging investment in communities of colour,” explained J Murff in an interview with Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda for Lens Culture. “Over time, those neighbourhoods become financially depressed and experience an economic decline. Those communities then continue to be neglected by local governments, and later become targets for gentrification.” Redlining began in the 1930s with banks denying mortgages and loans to Black and Latino communities in urban areas. The term itself derives from lenders outlining areas of a city considered to house individuals at higher risk of defaulting on payments, in red ink. Although several federal laws, including the 1968 Fair Housing Act and 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, worked to prohibit such discrimination, it endures. 

In At No Point in Between all these realities coalesce in North Omaha: the site of J Murff’s investigation; a microcosm of the various forms of oppression afflicting marginalised communities nationwide. J Murff highlights the “fast” and “slow” violence, as described by the sociologist Rob Nixon in his publication Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, directed at the neighbourhood’s majority Black community. ‘Fast violence’, in this case, the flash-points of anti-Black violence against Will Brown, Vivian Strong, and Lacquan McDonald, is violence that is obvious and immediate. While ‘slow violence’, in this case, redlining, is subtler: the relationship between the cause and the effect is not so conspicuous. “I am trying to make the point that these modes of oppression are interconnected,” says J Murff. “These things are not different. It is all oppression. It just gets a software update with all these subtler features, which are implemented to make things more invisible, so we can no longer point out something and say that’s wrong because it’s harder to see.”

Self Portrait as a Dreamed Man (after Bayard). 2020. From the series American Mother, American Father © Zora J Murff, courtesy Webber Gallery and the artist.

Reflecting on At No Point in Between, J Murff began to describe it as a personal archive. “I referred to it in this way because I wanted it to be clear that this is my perspective and my take. These things are true. They are happening, have happened and will likely continue to happen. But, this is my experience and my connection to them.” This approach shapes his most recent body of work American Mother, American Father, which again developed from a lived-experience and in which J Murff employs himself as a site for broader social critique. The series’ earliest photographs emerged as the photographer was simultaneously experiencing upward social mobility while exploring his ancestral landscapes: Arkansas, from where his mother’s family originated, and Mississippi, from where his father’s did. He implicates himself in the work as a starting point from which to explore the question of: “How do we challenge these systems by still having to participate in them?” And his relationship to these landscapes provides a ripe place from which to begin. He recounts travelling to Mississippi and meeting his Dad for the first time in ten years; he visited the family’s cemetery plot and was moved, deeply. “So it is having these experiences, which are really meaningful and then thinking about how these landscapes are tied to the country we are tied to. How do I talk about being an American, while criticising all of the things that this country stands for?”

J Murff takes nothing at face value, and neither do his photographs. They are multi-layered and self-critical, and many are also beautiful: the light is warm and the frames composed; at once academic, documentary, and stylised. J Murff’s work feels fluid, as though by engaging with the images we are accompanying him on a meditative and investigate journey. One which we can follow along with as far and as deep as we choose. As J Murff explains: “I want the work to raise questions. I want people walking away and thinking more deeply about what the work might be bringing up for them.” 

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.