“When it comes to photography, there’s been a lot of text written about how pictures lie. That’s complete bullshit,” assesses John Edmonds. “The fascinating thing about pictures is that they contain a multitude of truths.” At first glance, Edmonds’s images are disarmingly formal portraits, primarily of young black men, often nude, or who he’s encountered on the street. Many of his subjects, warmly lit, or configured in an unassuming pose, project an air of beatification. But aside from creating objects of beauty, for the Washington, D.C.-raised, Brooklyn-based artist, photography serves better as open-ended material to confront and dismantle hegemonic constructs of race, gender, and sexuality, and to pick apart the rifts between public performativity and the private self.
Take his recent series “Hoods” and “All Eyes on Me,” completed during Edmonds’s MFA studies at Yale. The former, which captures a succession of individuals from behind, dressed in hoodies and hooded jackets, their faces obscured, probes the tension between invisibility and hyper-scrutiny in a nation where black male bodies are surveilled, policed, and misidentified by innocuous sartorial cues. Likewise, “All Eyes on Me,” which Edmonds presented at his MFA graduation show “Reviver” at New York’s Danziger Gallery: Eleven almost identical images of a young black man dressed in a ski mask and baseball cap, his leonine eyes and bodily gestures subtly shifting in each frame. Writing about “Hoods” on his Instagram account, Edmonds said, “As the series progressed, I began to realize that the topics I started to address were much larger than myself. I became more and more interested in how the photographs were essentially pictures of an unidentifiable subject—and how I could use the psychology of color as a way to allude to the mutability of emotion, identity and complexity of bodies—my body, our bodies.”
But Edmonds’s first solo exhibition at Long Island City’s Deli Gallery, “Lovers & Friends,” now on view, features new work that delves into a more personal strata of his ongoing dissection of intimacy. (In a move of synchronicity, a billboard of “Hoods” was unveiled last week on 29th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue as part of 14×48’s public art initiative). According to Edmonds, “Lovers & Friends” tackles, “A personal investigation about the artist/model dynamic,” a meditation on the conceptual possibilities of portraiture, and the indeterminate area between subject and object for the photographer’s gaze, as well as how that gaze ends up reflected on the self. “We’re just getting so far away from human contact, that when someone actually sees that, especially within an image, to connect with someone else or to have a certain kind of trust, that can be very powerful,” notes Edmonds.
Edmonds put together a series of images from his travels over the past few years, of friends and strangers, recontextualizing these documents of past lives and experiences with collages that feature his own handwriting and musings on relationships and desire. “Taking them out of the rectangle creates an alternative kind of space,” Edmonds says. “It frees the picture in a way.” There’s also a tactile, layered method imposed with installation: Edmonds includes photographs shot on 4×5, with a Canon 5DS, 35mm, and even disposable film. Collaged compositions sit next to painterly framed prints; a pin-up style shot of a guy with scruff in supple looking black leather (Tyler in a Leather Jacket) is clipped to the wall like a tear sheet in a teenage bedroom; Devin in Dress, printed on a sheet of newsprint, portrays its eponymous subject in repose on a swath of grass.
“I think that it’s inevitable for artists making portraits to get away from yourself,” Edmonds says. “I’m always looking for a certain type of nuance, whether it’s a part of the experience of that particular time that I spent with the person, or if it is a sort of nuance that I think that only I can recognize. That to me helps me gain a greater understanding of connection to the image.”
“LOVERS & FRIENDS” IS NOW ON VIEW AT DELI GALLERY, 10-16 46th AVENUE, LONG ISLAND CITY, UNTIL OCTOBER 9, 2016. JOHN EDMONDS WILL BE GIVING AN ARTIST TALK ON “HOODS” AT THE INTERNATIONAL CENTER OF PHOTOGRAPHY ON SEPTEMBER 28, 2016. TO LEARN MORE ABOUT JOHN EDMONDS, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.