Walking through Hilton Als’ recently mounted James Baldwin/Jim Brown and the Children exhibition, a crop of works by emerging artists are nestled between Als’ art and ephemera. One work, Shotgun, a photograph by John Edmonds, a recent graduate of Yale’s MFA photography program, sticks out. It records, like most of Edmonds’ art, a scene—a shot-by-shot roll of one man sharing the smoke in his mouth after hitting a blunt with another in a dimly-lit room—drawn from the myriad of contemporary ways black males live now.
On Edmonds' website, a short poem serves as his artistic state:
Real & Imagined,
I envision a body that is like my own
With a third consciousness
He moves quickly, smoothly- is agile
The intonation of his voice is sweet, soft, feminine
Anytime his mouth opens there is a profound message
You do not know who he is or where he is going
But you know he is in control of his own destiny
Edmonds tells The Creators Project, “I’ve become much more interested in pulling away from specificity because it reflects where we are now.” The blurring and omitting of events and identities is a method he uses to force viewers to look at what he calls the “real and the imagined,” as a way to better understand contemporary representations of the black male. In Shotgun, the presumed kiss between the males is absent from the roll. Viewers are forced to make up in their minds what exactly happened. Edmonds’ play on interior and exterior ideas also occurs in Edmonds’ Man in Polyester…(Fragmented), a 16-panel present-day remake of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man In A Polyester Suit, from the late photographer’s Black Book.
Edmonds, who considers the sex-driven image to be “Mapplethorpe’s forensic picture” of a black male dressed nicely with his penis exposed, visualizes The New York Times art critic Holland Cotter's recent remarks of “eroticizing of racial blackness” and “a close-up of a black penis emerging from an unzipped fly. No face, no name, no person, just an anatomical fragment that translates into race = sex.” Edmonds’ appropriation does not feature a fragment of a black male penis, but rather, he opts to show in great detail what it means for a black male to capture seductively another black male undressing.
Cotter’s thinking and Edmonds’ nudity-free photograph also echo earlier criticisms. In 1994, in the co-authored “True Confessions” essay that appeared in the Whitney Museum’s Black Male exhibition catalogue, filmmaker Isaac Julien and art professor Kobena Mercer argued that Mapplethorpe’s picture emerges out of historical “landscape of stereotypes which is dominated and organized around the needs, demands and desires of white males” that creates an “ambivalence as we want to look, but don’t always find the images we want to see.”
Edmonds’ omission in Fragmented also gestures towards answering the question David Marriott posed in his book, On Black Men: “Is there not a recuperative act of identification taking place with white racial fears, in whose irruptive and violent filial preservation of racial purity, sadistic fantasies of incorporation and acts of castration were repeatedly manifested in the unveiling of the black penis as a threat no longer hidden?” By reorganizing the hierarchies found in the original image, Edmonds’ pictures center the fantasies and desires of the black males.
His photographs also broaden conversations around black male masculinities in other ways, too. His young studio practice often focuses on politically stylized photographs of black young men like himself, in situations that play on the erasure of visibility and intersectional politics, evoking both Ferguson and Orlando. The series All Eyes On Me, contains 40 consecutive two-dimensional images of a black teenager wearing a black hat and ski mask in daylight, as his pupils gather in the corner of his eyes, training themselves on something—perhaps a threat?—outside of the frame. “I was thinking about constructions of the public self a lot when making this series,” says Edmonds of the work that currently appears in the Yale MFA photography 2016 thesis show. He adds, “The interesting thing about photography is that one picture can give you so much that your eyes can’t properly comprehend it all.”
The Hoods series continues the artist’s exploration of representations of the physical anxieties and triumphs that are rooted in the politics of looking at the black male. The five portraits, of a hooded figure standing against various walls, make the viewer into a metaphor for society's propensity to project an identity onto the hooded figure. Is the figure male? Is he black? These are two questions, among many left to the imagination, that allow the viewer to create the “specificity” that is informed by the individual’s cultural perceptions and biases.
“Generally with the work, I am trying to talk about my own experience as a black male in America,” says Edmonds. “I am thinking about that in relationship to what have seen on a major political scale and how that affects my own identity and how I move my body in the world.” He adds, “I want people to look at my pictures and I want people to really think about the way they speak.”
Reviver: Yale MFA Photo 2016 runs through July 22 at Johalla Projects, and James Baldwin / Jim Brown and the Children runs through August 7 at The Artist’s Institute. For more information on John Edmonds’ photography, click here.