The multilayered images in Williams’ latest book are veiled with a sense of surrealism, exploring a clash of themes: power and subservience; control and chaos; ecstasy and pain
“I have always been a visual person. Ever since I was a child, I knew I was going to be an artist,” says D’Angelo Lovell Williams. Growing up, the Mississippi-born photographer was surrounded by art – whether it was drawing, music, sculpture or theatre – and was introduced to photography around the age of 15. “In my junior year, in 2009, the film Avatar came out,” they say. “That changed a lot for me. I was introduced to digital photography and Photoshop, and that’s when this visual stimulation took over.”
Back then, Williams was taking photographs of friends and placing their bodies in otherworldly landscapes. They laugh about these early experiments now, but this impulse to create surreal images continues to surface in their practice today. The 29-year-old has just released their first monograph, Contact High. It presents a sequence of 45 images that depict Black queer figures – themselves, friends, family and lovers – where bodies are contorted, manipulated, or in a state of unrest. Hands reach from beyond the frame; bodies blend to appear as one. Visceral and intimate, the images are layered with meanings relating to queerness, Blackness, gender, history and Williams’ own experiences.
Published by Mack, the book was formed from a core edit of 32 photographs that were exhibited at Brooklyn’s Higher Pictures Generation gallery in 2020. The work was made over the last five years; the earliest images date back to their time in graduate school at Syracuse University in New York. These photographs are not presented as a series, but as single images. Each one demands its viewers’ attention, confronting them with often uncomfortable themes that are embedded in the complexities of contemporary life.
The cover image [above], for example, is a self-portrait of Williams pressing a gun into their mouth while staring soberly into the lens. “The image Blow was a reference to scenes I’ve seen in films, where a character would have someone suck on a gun for pleasure, or as an act of violence,” says Williams. “When I showed it in class [at graduate school], one of my peers started crying, saying, ‘I don’t want that to happen to you’.”
These dichotomies exist throughout Williams’ images: sex and violence; power and subservience; control and chaos; ecstasy and pain. “I wanted to make this image to have control over my own life,” they explain. “If I want to be this sexual person, I’m gonna be that. If I want to end my own life, that’s my power. A lot of our narratives haven’t been our own as Black queer people, and that’s what I wanted to get at.”
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.