John Edmonds is a Brooklyn-based photographer whose tender imagery and portraiture hones in on the “performative gestures and self-fashioning of young black men on the streets of America”. With a significant body of work exploring themes of identity, community and desire, John’s first monograph titled Higher brings together four series made between 2011 and 2018.
Titled Immaculate, Hoods, Du-rags and Tribe, and presented over nearly 100 pages, each series is as intimate and challenging as the last, presenting a panorama of John’s photographic voice, as well as the experience of being a young black man. The first series, Immaculate marks the first “intentional” series the artist made and explores colour and chiaroscuro, in connection to Biblical or Renaissance painting. Born and raised in Washington DC, John spent his time looking at classical artworks in the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art, and the symbolism from this early introduction to art has seeped its way into the series.
In Hoods and Du-rags, John’s exploration of the performative qualities of clothing is perhaps most evident. The former looks at hoodies as an extension of “the flesh”, examining the duality of the piece as something which expresses vulnerability and offers safety. The images are, of course, impossible to view without the political connotations of a hoodie, an item so often associated with racial profiling. In Du-rags, John explores the softer, more regal associations of the do-rag. Produced after he moved to Crown Heights and observed the prevalence of the item, the portraits render each do-rag almost as a veil, drawing attention to their silk material, akin to the swathes of fabric often portrayed in classical art.
Finally, in Tribe, the photographer turns his attention to how the Surrealists incorporated African art into their work. What started as a reimagining of those references soon switched to an interrogation of what makes something authentic. The series features masks and sculptures, collected by John from various people but, during the process of creating the work, he was told by an art collector friend that they did not come from “real” African tribes. In turn, Tribe became a work about identity, ethnography, authenticity and symbolism, using photography as a means to dramatise an entire community that these objects could have descended from.
Whatever his subject, however, John has an ability to truly capture the essence of a sitter. His imagery, despite often only showing the back of each person’s head, wholly communicate the intimacy that occurs when a photographer takes someone’s portrait. His subjects, although wide-ranging, feature similar ethereal and relaxed expressions; a testament to John’s process as a photographer and the way he interacts with those he documents.
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