An exploration of paternity, masculinity, race: Alex Christopher Williams on Black, Like Paul
The Atlanta-based photographer is currently exhibiting the series inspired by his father in New Orleans until 9 February 2020.
- Jyni Ong
- 28 January 2020
As part of this year’s Currents exhibition currently on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, 11 artists have been selected to explore the theme of “reimagined histories and rewritten futures”. One of the 11, photographer Alex Christopher Williams was chosen amongst Meg Turner and Courtney Webster, Matthew Cronin and Cheryl St. Once (just to name a few) to provide an overview of contemporary photographic practices today. In Black, Like Paul, the series currently exhibiting at Currents, Alex showcases a deliberately vague mix of portraits, landscapes and scenes to explore the nuanced complexities of masculinity and Black life in America.
Somewhere in between the candidness of documentary photography and the staged, he probes the questions of what it means to be mixed race in America in the present climate. Through poignant photography and archive imagery, Alex explains, “I am continuing to attempt to understand how different my life would be had I looked more like my father.” In this vein, Alex’s latest series was never an endeavour to obtain answers but rather, a way to emphasise the precarious historical narratives that shape our ideas of identity today.
“I’ve worked as a photographer making some semblance of a living since I was 18,” Alex tells us of his background as a photographer. Having worked editorially in New York, he soon became disillusioned with this particular sector of the industry, he explains, “I quickly became dismayed at the popularity contest and left the career behind.” His primary intention thus became all about “making art at all costs.” As he developed his practice over time, photography revealed its ability to act as a visual time capsule for past memories. He remembered the photographs he took as a teenager of friends, snapping a moment that feels so long ago but fresh in that one image. So he made it his goal to use photography as a means of remembering what his brain could not.
In turn, Black, Like Paul came about initially from a desire to photograph his father, but due to their close proximity, it proved a challenge to capture an objective view. But while on a trip to Atlanta back in 2015, he made a photograph of a man at a water fountain, encapsulating the multiplicity of ideas he was hoping to explore in the project. In the significant image, he saw “all the issues of paternity, masculinity, race and identity that [he] wanted to explore” in the project. From there, the project evolved through the photographing of men’s silhouettes, the chosen vehicle to explore said narrative.
He chose to create his images using large format photography; a technically challenging medium steeped in the tradition of documentary photography but not well populated by Black artists. “So by using these tools,” says Alex, “I had to actively work against stereotypes, cliches and typical depictions of the Black body that are largely violent and derogatory.” Addressing this gaze, Alex’s photographs are in turn, vulnerable and innocent. They evoke a sense of brotherhood and mortality, but “not for some political agenda, but in search for moments of passivity.”
Importantly, much of Alex’s series was created at a particularly charged time, spurred by the ongoing conversation surrounding the legality of boys and men. “That certainly pressed the issue of privilege onto the work in a way that it might not have otherwise,” adds the artist. “I wore hoodies and had plastic guns when I was a child and wasn’t executed for it. So I started working with kids at an age where they are not quite the man they are going to become but they’re also not young either. That really pushed me to enter the state of mind of being young again and address what kind of man I wanted to become. In many ways, it was my father.”
GalleryAlex Christopher Williams: Black, Like Paul
Alex Christopher Williams: Black, Like Paul
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.