Beautiful, ominous, and comic compositions animate the images that compose Amen Break: Thomas Prior’s reflection on the tumult of this year, as echoed in New York City’s urban fabric
Feelings guide Prior’s work. His images exude the sensations he must have experienced when taking them: emptiness, unease, anxiety. A stack of delivery bags press against the window of a deserted restaurant; a deep red, drip — paint or blood — creeps down a white car door; a mannequin stands alone, consumed by plastic.
Prior framed these intricate details and unexpected compositions as he wandered around Manhattan’s main commercial districts in the depth of the pandemic. Areas once flooded with tourists and traders were empty; lockdown had stripped everything away. “Even the windows went through different phases,” reflects Prior. They were a mirror as to what was happening; a reflection of things outside. The journey was the destination, so to speak; Prior wandered with no direction.
Such scenes compose Amen Break: a photo book published by Loose Joints, which exists in a broadsheet newspaper format. The title borrows the term for the ubiquitous six-second drum break, which originated on the instrumental B-side of The Winston’s 1969 hit Color Him Father. With the rise of hip hop in the 1980s, it became a staple of the genre, but despite its popularity, (it is one of the most sampled recordings of all time), the drummer who first performed it, Gregory “G.C.” Coleman, received no royalties. He died without recognition or compensation in 2006.
Prior stumbled across the story in 2019: “The unfairness of this amazing drummer, who changed 20th-century music, dying penniless and destitute is such a tragedy. It really resonated with me because there is a profound and rapidly growing inequality that you can see all across New York City today. It is very disturbing.” 2020 pushed the city’s inequality into full focus: issues of welfare, race, civil rights, and the economy. Hints of these pepper New York’s urban fabric and Prior captures them in his photographs: looted shopfronts, political posters, remnants of protests, make-shift morgues, signs of economic depression.
Prior began photographing in mid-April, guided by his senses amid an empty city. Following the murder of George Floyd by the police officer Derek Chauvin on 25 May 2020 and the subsequent protests and unrest, which erupted across the country, the tone became more sombre, and references to this emerge through the work. Ultimately, Prior coopts Amen Break to give form to observations captured amid a desolate city; details of historical events that have punctuated and shaped the past year. The act of creating photographs while walking also has a rhythmic element, which connects back to the drum break: “The beat of my footsteps; syncopated and multiple,” as Prior describes it; a sensation that ripples through the work.
Amen Break by Thomas Prior is published by Loose Joints.
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.