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Intimate Photos Open a Window into Black Domestic Life

From living rooms to public bathrooms, Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. seeks to capture ease in black domesticity.

by Antwaun Sargent
Apr 14 2017, 2:01pm

Elliott Jerome Brown Jr., Pearl earring with no back, 2016. All images courtesy of the artist.

When emerging photographer Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. was a child, he would sit on the steps inside his grandparent's home on Long Island, New York, rubbing the lush red velvet carpet, dreaming. Years later, when he became a photographer, his early fascination with the interior design of his grandparent's home turned into an interest in black homes and the stories they symbolize. A picture titled, "Devin in red socks," recently seen on view during the 2017 SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2017, concerns itself with black domesticity, as accessed through living rooms, bedrooms, and public-private spaces likes motels or public bathrooms. The subject often appears on their couches and beds, unposed, in a way Brown considers "fundamentally lived."

Grandparents through the mirror, 2015

"Visualizing is something that I have always been interested in," explains Brown to Creators. Before the age of 10, he had a point and shoot camera that he would take everywhere to snap pictures of things he liked, placing them together in family photo albums. "I've always been interested in home spaces. My grandparents live in Suffolk County, New York, and that home has always stood out in my head," he says. "There's a wall that has a floor to ceiling mirror and I always used to play in that mirror, I was so fascinated by it. I would sit on the staircase and pet the carpet, unbothered, not asking myself any questions of it. I was so naturally attracted to it. I was amazed by it. I loved putting my feet on it. I like the sensation of the home."

Untitled Door (from the Knock Hard series), 2016

Like artist Beverly Buchanan, Brown is interested in the visual structure of decay, oppression, and survival in the urban environment, which he says is noticeable in black interior space. "People would say, 'well where do you want to shoot?'" He explains. "It always made sense to me to say, 'let's photograph at your place.' Over time I began to notice that I was attracted to minimizing the spaces in certain ways, breaking it down, into components that function in very different ways."

"Untitled Door," from the Knock Hard series, is a photograph of a lone black barbecue grill in a backyard of a worn building and in "Grandparents through the mirror," Brown captures his grandparents occupying the space that adjoins the living and dining rooms. "The way they organize, luxuriate it with sometimes gaudy elements," he says speaks to an unmasked utilitarian realness.

Dorian, 2016

The image, like "Pearl earring with no back," of younger black children playing on a gray carpet, and "Dorian," a portrait of a nude male sitting on a bed wearing a long headscarf, also reveal how Brown uses domestic to explore social identity, the body, and the idea ofsafe space. Beauty or the fashioning of self, a concept often associated with interior space, isn't an access point Brown privileges in his images. The photos allow the viewer a way to ultimately make meaning out of deflating the stereotypes seen in household symbols and the body. For Brown the feelings, memories, and ideas that are imbued in beds, walls, and couches in homes offer "small glimmers of hope that break past the limitations of space and the body." He is showing the possibilities of what the body can be in a private space, confined or free. Brown's images are not simply about the individual captured, he using the individual to reference the collective or community.

Josiah and I, 2014

The artist has also used domesticity to examine his own sexuality, the shame and celebration of being gay. "Josiah and I," a self-portrait recently on view at the 2017 AIPAD Photography Show, shows Brown laying shirtless underneath the door of a public restroom stall. A pair of legs lay across his arms, suggesting that the closed pink door is both hiding and revealing an act. The image alludes to the ways gay and queer men in the 70s, with seemingly no place to go, performed their identities and sexual acts in public spaces they found a way to make private, like bathrooms or the back seats of cars or movie theaters.

Vanessa and Diane, 2016

Devin in red socks, 2016.

"I want people to be okay with what they have or the structures that define their daily existence," says the artist. "Photography has a history of asking people to position themselves in ways that they think they have to be seen to please the viewer. I just want to see the space and people as they are, no facades."

For more information on Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.'s art, click here.

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