Ones to Watch 2021: Donavon Smallwood

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 20 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 450 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing profiles of the 20 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct with an 1854 Subscription

Smallwood’s meditative series Languor centres upon Central Park’s wide-open landscapes and Black individuals pictured at rest amid them 

Donavon Smallwood regards photography as a collective project. “A tradition [every photographer] is contributing to and building upon,” as the native New Yorker articulates it. And photographic histories echo throughout each of his brooding black-and-white images, which nod to the work of Vanessa Winship, Judith Joy Ross, Dorothea Lange, Robert Adams, and many others. 

Self-taught, aside from a photography class he took in high school, Smallwood’s voracious study of books and the internet account, in part, for his deep understanding of the medium. “When I first started, early masters like William Eggleston, Walker Evans and Bruce Gilden most interested me,” he reflects. “I was walking around trying to sneak up in front of people in the street. But after a while, I developed a style of my own.”

© Donavon Smallwood.
© Donavon Smallwood.

Distinct from Gilden’s confrontational, tightly framed urban portraits, Smallwood’s images have a stillness running through them. It is a serenity enhanced by the photographer’s preference for photographing in verdant settings (for both commercial and personal projects), devoid of the chaos and infrastructure of the city. As Ones to Watch nominator David Brandon Geeting describes: “Donavon’s images are a rare hybrid of being simultaneously calm and striking… The emotional vulnerability he pulls from his subjects, both animate and inanimate, feels more akin to music: a song that engulfs you in its warmth. A chord that gives you goosebumps. Donavon is a visual poet.”

Smallwood’s affinity for green spaces partly stems from his growing up in New York’s Harlem, where he still lives, alongside Central Park. He describes the city of his youth as a labyrinth of perpetual development: dirty streets, construction, open lots. Central Park was a refuge, a place to relax. “Working out how to translate that into photography always interested me,” Smallwood continues.

© Donavon Smallwood.

The pandemic provided a pause in which to figure this out. The result is Languor – a meditative series for which Smallwood won the 2021 Aperture Portfolio Prize and which is currently on show at Baxter Street, NY, until 25 August and which Trespasser publishes as a book this summer. The project centres upon Central Park’s wide-open landscapes and Black individuals pictured at rest amid them. A portrait of “Black tranquillity,” as Mikelle Street, writing for Aperture, describes it, and one that focuses on young people, who Smallwood found inside and outside of the park, to express the space’s significance in escaping the intensity of the city. 

The word ‘languor’ itself has several meanings, including laziness and lethargy, calmness and tranquillity; a duality Smallwood regards as encapsulating the work, which alongside celebrating the park, also has troubling undertones. Indeed, Smallwood’s relationship with the green space changed after watching The Lost Neighborhood Under New York’s Central Park, a video documentary revealing the destruction of the 19th-century, predominantly African-American community Seneca Village to make way for public space. In this way, Languor also becomes a “reflection of self-expression through the history of a place,” as Smallwood puts it. “A reflection on the history of racial tensions in the city.”

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.