Elemental Portraits Peel Back the Layers of Racial Identity

Lauren Machen draws inspiration from the classical elements (earth, fire, wind, and water) for her latest photography series.
July 28, 2017, 6:09pm
Image credits: Creative Direction and Set Design: Lauren Machen. Photography: John Michael Fulton. Stylist: Leah Henken. Hair: Sparkle Tafao. Make-up: Amy Strozzi. Models: Algo Brehane at Photogenics, Quinn Falls at Two Model Management, Jordan Norwood at Anti Agency. All images courtesy of the artist.

The name of Lauren Machen's premiere art photography series was almost Finally. As in, "I am finally addressing something that is at the very core of my being," states the artist, who has previously worked in art direction for musicians such as St. Vincent and Rihanna. "Finally because a lot of subtle racism that people of color have had to struggle [with] are bubbling to the surface. People who aren't of color just simply thought it didn't exist or we were past that."


Instead, Machen named the series Elemental, as in, "The very basis of my being. What my soul feels. My truth. Being mixed race, I was left to just sort of float in space because we didn't really talk about race and ethnicity in my household… This is about peeling the layers away. Taking a moment to identify as I am rather than how others think I am or what I should be."

Machen cites the 2016 election as a turning point for how she sees her racial identity, and even more specifically, Grey's Anatomy actor Jesse Williams's knockout acceptance speech for the BET Humanitarian Award. One of Williams's most prominent lines from that speech was, "Just because we're magical doesn't mean we're not real," and its resonance is felt in Machen's photos that capture surreal insertions of earthly elements into stark, honest portraits of people of color.

"I chose to incorporate the classical elements in the photographs: water, earth, fire, air, and also used falling sand as a symbol of passing time," Machen explains. "There's a mystery and magic to these elements, yet they are very real. I wanted to convey ideas of strength and power through their connection to the body by using the models' hands and feet."

Compared to Machen's other work, which is largely pop culture-based with a high-fashion edge, Elemental is her first dive into introspection, pointing her camera at others to learn about herself. Machen also uses the series to explore the elements that build her personal identity as a mixed-race person of color.

Machen explains that her goal for expressing her perspective on race isn't only for other people of color, but also to foster productive conversation and understanding with white viewers. "I'm in an interracial marriage and my husband and I talk about race just about every week. We often have to explain who we are and what our purpose is. But these aren't just our issues, these are everyone's issues. It's about how we treat each other, the labels, the boxes and the misjudgments," she continues. "I've always been aware of my brownness but I don't think white people have been historically aware of their whiteness… [I hope] that other people of color can identify with [these images] and white people can start to understand."

To learn more about Machen's work, visit her website here.


A Provocateur Painter Subverts Race in Rainbow Hues

These Complex Self-Portraits Will Challenge Your Assumptions About Race

90s Nostalgia and Racial Politics Collide in Multidimensional Mosaics