Photos From Two Artists Who Approach Portraits in Very Different Ways
Photographers Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. and Carrie Mae Weems share their work in our annual photo issue.
Photo by Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.
For our annual photo issue we reached out to 16 up-and-coming photographers and asked them which photographer inspired them to pursue the medium. Then we approached their "idols" to see if they would be willing to publish work in the issue as well. What was provided, we think, creates a unique conversation about the line of influence between young artists and those more established in their careers. This post features an interview with Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. and his chosen idol, Carrie Mae Weems, and an explanation of each of their bodies of work.
Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. came to photography through self-portraiture, using it at a means to understand and confront the intersections of his identity. "The camera gave me a means to idealize and celebrate different versions of myself," he explains. Brown received his BFA from NYU this past spring and is currently attending the residency program at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
His idol for the 2017 Photo Issue, Carrie Mae Weems, is a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant–winning photographer from Portland, Oregon, who currently lives and works in New York. Her work, which combines video, text, and photography, comments on and critiques the experiences of people of color, particularly women, in America, by addressing the socio-political limitations that African Americans have, and continue to face today. Weems's work has been exhibited in more than 50 galleries and museums nationally and internationally and continues to greatly influence a generation of young artists and activists.
Elliott Jerome Brown Jr: What have you been working on in the studio right now?
Carrie Mae Weems: I'm preparing this performance that's going to the Kennedy Center. It's called Grace Notes. I'm trying to tighten the script and work on the music. I'm in touch with a lot more people right now than the law allows [ laughs]. Like damn, you know? Balancing the musicians and the singers and the producers it's, like, a whole lot. But it's coming. So I'm happy with it. So there's a lot going on! Working on a couple of exhibitions that are going up in various places, trying to get all that ready to go. It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how hard you work the next day there's always more to do. But I think that's also the human condition. You never give up—there's always something you desire, always something you're working toward, always something you're attempting to solve, always work you're trying to imagine, and figuring out how you can get there and make it happen and work. What it means to look like.
Something I base my work around—I'm primarily a photographer—is thinking often through images. I think a lot about visibility and invisibility, and working with individuals whose bodies don't belong to me but are in proximity to me. Sharing some part of them with the world and in turn thinking a lot about privacy. One thing that I'm gravitated to in your work is how you offset your own individual narrative in favor of something a little more general but still maintains this specificity. In turn you end up sharing a lot of yourself and your experiences with the viewer. The main question I have is if you think about privacy and when do you think it's powerful not to be seen.
I don't really think about privacy so much. It just doesn't concern me so much. I think if I'm working on a project, I lay out everything that I think I need to lay out about it, and then you just sort of let the chips fall where they may. I think that it's really important to simply be as open as possible to what the work is asking you to do and to get out of the way of the work so that the work can be what it needs to be. Often, the work is much larger than you. It's much larger than the eye. If you say that what you're trying to do is expose the invisible, then you're already talking about something much larger than you. To that extent, then, there is no privacy. A long time ago, I learned that the most important thing is to lay out everything that you think you need to lay out. Then you can make these editorial decisions about what you want to share with everyone else. Because they don't need to know everything about what you're thinking, but they need to know the critical parts. And for that matter, you need to know those critical parts and what belongs to you as your own sort of process, imagination, capacity. The thing that I think is so amazing about work is that normally the best, creative, and important artists are the ones who go beyond their own fact and condition to talk about the condition. And in talking about the condition, you talk about you, right? Because you aren't any different from the condition, or the people that are in the condition, or the situation, or the story, or the narrative. You are the subject—you are always the subject. We are often the participant entity observer. The marriage of the two things is the most wonderful, exciting, and necessary thing. But the idea of getting beyond your own fact and opening up to the fact and how you understand it in the deepest possible way is the most challenging and scariest thing that you'll do as an artist.
In that way, you're leading me into the next question. Thinking more about the tools you employ in your own work—grace is a pretty big one. I'm curious as to why you think of grace as a useful approach to your work.
Well, this is so interesting. Grace and faith are evidence of things unseen. It's like the lifting of the thing out of its invisibility. To expose the potential, to expose the possibility, to expose the glance, to expose the gesture. To expose something that's complex, deep, and broad. Something extraordinary and remarkable about who we are as human subjects and what we struggle toward. So I'm interested in what we struggle toward and how we struggle toward our humanity in every case. We're all crawling toward the deepest essence of ourselves in this little speck of time that we're given on the planet. We're crawling toward ourselves and our understanding of who we are at this time on the planet. And so, the thing that I find so remarkable is how black people have historically conducted themselves in the embrace of not only their humanity but their extraordinary gift to extend their humanity—even to the perpetrators of violence and people who have acted consistently against them. In part, that's what you're saying in your own work. "Here I am. Here is the breath of my humanity on display. To show you, to some extent, who I am. And by extension, who you are." And I just think that's an amazing and remarkable thing. An extraordinary quality. But when you have the circumstances of our lives, which have stripped us to the bare bones of who we are, it's both a blessing and a curse that we stand before ourselves and the world, naked in a way that often many groups don't have to stand up to. And it's both our gift and our tribulation.
I'm interested in elaborating on that nakedness a bit more: whose stories are available and who do people have to know about in order to coordinate their own lives. If we're contextualizing how black people move through the world, there's something of our depths and our heights that people need to be aware of in order to coordinate their own actions in the world. What it reminds me of is something that I was watching the other day—a conversation led by Ruby Sales down South. She was saying how she's interested in a liberating white theology. There is tons of language around liberation as it relates to black people, and there's a kind of sexiness that attracts people, even people who are not black, to that language and investigation of how we can help black people. She's interested in how we can help the white people liberate themselves. She doesn't see that as popular of a conversation, which doesn't come with the sexiness that black trauma contains. So I'm curious if that nakedness you're speaking of speaks to that.
I think in a way yes. Because black people are naked; white people are very closed. And clothed. And that's really sort of the gist of it. It's all buried still in the trappings of the assumed humanity. But they haven't been tested in this country in the same way that we have been tested—for the most part. That's not 100 percent across the board, but that's the general condition. This I think allows for great capacity. When you're naked and you've been stripped to the essence of "you," it allows you an incredible sense of freedom to act and to be. Even under all of the gaze and glare of the racism that's pointed toward us, we're still able to grapple with the humanness of ourselves because that's our condition. And by extension, I think that those who are looking at it, confront it openly, have to deal with some aspect of themselves ultimately. That's why we lead the discussion on race. Because we are negotiating it each and every single day.
What do you think your work has yet to do? What is it not complete on?
I don't know. I come to my studio every day struggling. Constantly trying to figure out how to make the invisible visible. And there are different entry points. The essential question of negotiating the scope and the breadth and the depth of my humanity is always the cornerstone of all of the work that has not changed. And the only thing that I'm trying to do that now is how to do it better. Every day. Figuring out how to get outside of the work, and not block it. We set up a lot of blocks for ourselves, individually and daily. Sometimes the questions we ask ourselves are so complex and scary that we don't even want to look at them. So we block ourselves, stand in front of the work, and as a result we do something that has no resonance. The important thing is what I'm trying to do—just get out of the way. Let the work be what it really can be, the best that it can be, and the deepest it can be. To give myself and allow myself time to make the work properly. I'm in my 60s now, and time has sped up. It's moving at a faster click. This question of being productive, clear, open, and honest—trying to get as close to the bone of the subject, the essence, as I possibly can remains my greatest challenge. So there are days where I feel like I'm just beginning, and then there are days when I come into my studio and I look at a book I've made, or go through a group of photographs that maybe I made 40 years ago, and I think, Wow, you've been on this path a very long time, my sister.