The Art World's Hottest Critic On The Five Black Photographers Who Influenced Him
"A lot of times we contextualize Blackness in the moment and not look back or forward. I think that often gives the perception that we are without a history. I wanted to make sure that the privilege of our history was showing"
If you haven't heard of curator and critic Antwaun Sargent, you are missing out on one of the most brilliant contemporary voices on photography. The 32-year-old just joined the Gagosian gallery as director after a decade of writing about the art scene and one year after his first book, The New Black Vanguard, was released. It has become an instant classic, highly recommended by editors across the industry and taught in art schools; the book highlights the complex and personal ways that photographers grapple with expression and identity.
"For me, that link between the past and the present and the future was really important," Sargent told BuzzFeed News. "When you say something like ‘the new,' it automatically points to a history that has largely been unseen, unrecognized. The acknowledgment of these young photographers is an investment in the future. We talk about the future as though we don’t control it, and having active practices inspires people to be creative in their own way."
An exhibition of The New Black Vanguard will be on display throughout 2021, first in Doha, Qatar, and then at the famed photography festival in Arles, France, in July. Each stop of the exhibition will have a different lineup of photographers. (The full schedule is available online.)
"You should follow some of these photographers and engage in their work and see how they are thinking about the world and engaging with the world," Sargent said. In this interview with BuzzFeed News, he discussed his rise in the art world and the five photographs that have shaped him.
What is your origin story?
I did not study art. I studied theory and history at Georgetown and then moved to New York and took a job teaching with Teach for America in Brooklyn. So I did that for two years and taught literacy.
I took a fellowship at BuzzFeed, and after that I started freelancing. I wanted to write about art, and at the time BuzzFeed didn't offer that. While I was working this job as a teacher, I met one of my dear friends who at the time was the digital director of the Guggenheim. She would take me to openings and artist studios and such, and I fell in love with artists. I was like, I have to figure out something to do in this world if I’m going to be in it.
So I started to write about artists, and I particularly wanted to write about Black artists and artists from my community. At the time — this was 2011, 2012 — there was just not a lot of interest. You had some names that broke through, but it was few and far between, unlike now, when you have a real sort of perspective on art-making in Black communities and you see that in the press, in exhibitions, and certainly online.
After writing about Black artists around the world, I got the opportunity to curate an exhibition for the Aperture foundation. It was an open-call show called The Way We Live Now. It was 2018, and it was the first time that I had ever thought about curating. We did this really lovely show of young photographers getting their take on society in that moment. Shortly after that, Aperture invited me to propose a book. I had just seen a new generation of photographers working in this in-between space between art and fashion who were thinking about commercial images of Black communities, Black people, and expressing that through the camera with ideas of power and desire and presentation.
Can you talk about the importance of The New Black Vanguard?
I had put Tyler Mitchell in that [Aperture] show, and I think that was his first exhibition. Shortly after that show, he shot what would become the historic cover [of Beyoncé] for Vogue. That was a watershed moment for Black photography because of the ways that the image was anti what we understood a fashion editorial to be. He evoked a lot of symbolism. There is the motif of the clothesline, which points to Black domesticity. Beyoncé at that moment was talking about motherhood, and it also points to the symbolism of the clothesline that you often see in Gordon Parks’s work. There is the McQueen dress that she wore that was in Pan-African colors. There are symbols that are more often associated with art than with commercial photography, such as the use of the pedestal and things of that nature.
You have this young photographer who is clearly interested in fashion and the history of Black portraiture, and those things are being fused on the cover of Vogue magazine, which is arguably one of the biggest platforms in photography. So I found that interesting.
Seeing other photographers pop up in my feed, like Quil Lemons and Daniel Obasi and Stephen Tayo, I was like, this is a movement; they are all working to expand the available images of Blackness. We often will celebrate young white artists, but we don’t often celebrate young Black artists and take their concerns seriously and put those concerns in books. So I thought it was a real opportunity to do that.
I think part of the reason that the book has resonated so well with people, and not just people in the art world or the fashion world, is because these young photographers are really at the precipice of change and unabashedly showing Blackness and diversity and multiplicity. From one portfolio to the next in the book, you don’t get a similar type of image; these image makers have really distinct styles and concerns. People have really longed to see themselves reflected in all the nuances that they know to be true within their communities.
Because this is the first book like this, it's become a resource for photo editors, fashion companies, and photo agents looking to expand their rosters, which I love, and which I didn't expect. These are all places that have been a part of the problem in the past. I want to be very clear about that. And there is a shift that is happening now in our visual culture, in part due to the photographers in this book who have brought their demands and said, “We’re going to chart a new way.”
One of the big misconceptions that we often tell ourselves about institutions is that one day they wake up and they just change. And that's not true. People make demands on those institutions. These photographers used the technology available to them, largely social media, building audiences, making images, creating their own exhibitions and magazines and platforms to show that "this is our work, we’re going to take ourselves seriously until they can't ignore us." They advocated for themselves, and now, because of that advocacy, we have a very different idea of what beauty is, what power is, what desire is, what sexuality is. That's what this generation of photographers, white and Black, is doing. That is what photography can do. It can help shift our notions of who we are, and what we can be.
I feel really lucky to have been in a moment and in a position to do a book like this. I always felt like someone was going to, there was a need for it. A lot of times we contextualize Blackness in the moment and not look back or forward. We just sort of say, "This is what’s happening right here," and I think that often gives the perception that we are without a history. I wanted to make sure that the privilege of our history was showing, and those histories were being engaged with in this contemporary moment and work.
What will replace this book?
I want this book to age gracefully. Make no mistake about it, there have been Black photographers, some of whom I talk about in the book, who have worked in this fashion space. Their archives are not really available, and the discussions around their work have remained academic, so it can be difficult to access those images.
I wanted to make something that could be publicly out there for students, for professors. I thought a lot about the type of book that I wanted to make and the type of people that I wanted to engage with in the book. I hope that this book continues to be a touchstone — but already, Tyler Mitchell has released a book, and it's gorgeous, and that is the next step.
The legacy of this book is still young. We’re only a year in. There are still exhibitions traveling around the world for the next four years. For each exhibition, we’re adding new voices, new photographers. It's very much a living exhibition. My hope is that more and more Black photographers make their concerns known in the museum space, the magazine space, and online, as that ensures that there is a visual culture and space that is authored by Black thinkers and artists. That is important because for so long we have not had control of our images.
If you had to pick five images that have impacted your worldview, what would they be?
There is an image by Chris Steele-Perkins, a British photographer, who shot pictures of Africa and England and Japan, and one of his famous photographs is this image called "Disco in Wolverhampton, England. 1978." It's a photo of these women at this disco, and they are mid-dance and it's the ’70s. There's this real sense of optimism and peace. No one is looking at the camera, and it's a real sense of style. That image just really is inspiring to me.
There is a James Van Der Zee image of a couple in a raccoon fur coat. It just says so much about this couple and their sense of self and their sense of power, and they're really fly. The image is called "Couple, Harlem" and it's in MOMA’s collection. It's an image of love and self-presentation and expressed value in one of America’s storied Black neighborhoods, so that image matters to me.
I think about Carrie Mae Weems’ series from 1996 called “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” It’s a series of 32 images, some found, some with text. Through these 32 images, she charts the history of the white gaze on Blackness, and the ways in which that has been expressed through photography, and how that has shaped the white imagination. It shows not only the challenges that Black people are up against in terms of our own images but also the fight that is necessary to create counterimages. Her narration, which is really powerful in these short texts, ends on the last image “and I cried.” It tells you about the history and the power of photography in shaping our perceptions. That series has been very, very important to me.
I think about the way that Deana Lawson shoots, where she has these highly stylized images, almost pushing life into the surreal. I really like her exploration of Blackness — and not just Black America, but a global Blackness. Through her images, you see this sense of interconnectivity. She’s said that she’s creating a sort of universal family photo album through her work. If I would just pick one that is one of my favorite images, it would have to be that series of Rihanna photographs that I put in The New Black Vanguard where she is on the couch.
The reason that I love that image, you have her in this traditional art historical pose, she’s reclining, an odalisque, and she is beautiful, and she has these nails on. Then, in the corner on that wooden shelf, there is a photograph of Rihanna from school when she was an elementary student. And that image allows for history to happen, with the girl becoming the woman. There is also a nod to the history of Black portraiture and the importance of photography in the home. For a long time, Black people could not go into museums, let alone have their work displayed there. So we created our own museums through photography in our homes. Our grandparents and our mothers created photo albums and put images in these fake gold frames, and they lined them along the walls. And that was a way to show that we had worth, that we had a history, to show that we were beautiful. It was a way to counteract the white racism that people had experienced. And it was a subtle way to — in our interiors, in our living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms — have something that affirmed us, and that photograph speaks to that self-affirmation, and it’s a subtle sort of nod, but it is very powerful.
The last image is from a really beautiful series by Gordon Parks. It's an image of these men in the 1960s called "Watering Hole, Fort Scott, Kansas, 1963." It's this aerial shot of four Black soldiers, I suppose, taking a respite from the summer heat. It's interesting in that it talks about fraternity and sexuality and beauty, this really beautiful meditation. You don’t know if these are men are queer or straight or just taking a dip, and it almost doesn’t matter. There’s this sense of comfortableness among them that cuts through conceptions of masculinity and patriarchy. It represents a real sort of oppositional gaze. For that to be in 1963, it tells us that whatever we think about our notions of manhood, there are images in our history that contradict that and insinuate it's a little more complicated than the narratives that we tell. It really is just an incredible photograph.