When the global pandemic hit New York last March, it immediately multiplied the pressures that had been squeezing small and mid sized photography galleries. Even before galleries were forced to temporarily close, art fairs were cancelled, and sales started to precipitously drop, many were considering how to adapt themselves to the changing world. The pandemic simply accelerated that tide, with many long time galleries quickly shifting to private dealer status, thereby eliminating the costs of a retail space and the churn of new shows every two months.
But while retrenching and hunkering down during a storm is a natural instinct, in chaos there is also opportunity. For Kim Bourus at Higher Pictures, the arrival of the pandemic naturally prompted some soul searching, but her reaction was to step into the wind rather than hide from it. She quickly got out of her lease on the Upper East side, moved her gallery to a ground floor location in more spacious DUMBO, and brought on two new partners (Janice Guy, artist and formerly of Murray Guy, and Marina Chao, curator at the ICP) to strengthen the team. The result is Higher Pictures Generation, a small, nimble, powerhouse in the making.
For many, the old Higher Pictures, deservedly or not, was branded as the gallery that embraced the process-centric changes that transformed photography in the early 2000s. Sam Falls, Artie Vierkant, Travess Smalley, Jessica Eaton, Letha Wilson, Kate Steciw, and many others of that generation had their first (or early) shows at Higher Pictures, and the gallery was recognized as a thought leader in that space. Bourus had essentially cornered the emerging market of how photography was changing, leaving nearly all the established players scrambling to figure it out. Many still haven’t.
But a closer look at the Higher Pictures history reveals that the gallery was never really a one-trick pony, and to characterize at is as such is a bit misleading. Bourus was always interested in voices that had been overlooked, both older ones that had been underappreciated and new ones that hadn’t yet found their place. Over the years, she has re-ignited interest in George Dureau, Barbara Crane, Jill Freedman, Sheila Pinkel, and Susan Lipper (almost all women, by the way), and gave early shows to LaToya Ruby Frazier, K8 Hardy, Nona Faustine, Daniel Temkin, and D’Angelo Lovell Williams, among others.
A decade ago, the thorniest question that contemporary photography had to wrestle with was how the medium was going to respond to the upheavals created by the power of digital technology and software manipulation. It was an internal-to-the-medium issue, and many of the most innovative responses came from inward-looking interrogation of photography itself, leading to process-based artistic solutions in many cases. At that time, Bourus went looking for the thinkers, and unearthed a whole cohort of interlinked artists who were pushing on different parts of the larger problem and iterating at the speed of the Internet.
Jump ahead to today, and the central problem facing contemporary photography is entirely different, but Bourus’s fundamental approach is much the same. Now we are primarily thinking about equity and untold stories, and how to change the balance of the art world to make room for more voices, particularly those of people of color who have been overlooked or deliberately marginalized for so long. Many art galleries have jumped into the fray, trying to “solve the problem” by frantically looking for established Black artists they can promote (and sell). But Bourus, Chao, and Guy have settled into the long game, and have once again gone in search of the interconnected thinkers. While everyone else has been sheltering, they’ve been making dozens and dozens of studio visits (some virtual of course). And this overstuffed sampler-style group show is just the beginning of what promises to be a deeper rollout of many new relationships.
When storytelling moves to the photographic center, we end up with a range of straightforward questions to work through, at this particular moment all seen through the lens of rebalancing and reclaiming. Who is doing the storytelling? What are they showing us (and when and where did it come from)? Why does this story matter (now or in the past)? And how is this story being told photographically?
While it is always dangerous to draw too many conclusions about artists based on just a few images in a group show, Russell Frederick and Trent Bozeman seem to be following a traditional documentary path most closely. Frederick has been documenting life in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) for more than twenty years, and his elegantly nuanced pictures here center on hope and goodness (families, Sunday school, a tattoo of angel wings), rather than grimmer urban stereotypes. Bozeman’s photographic journey follows a more personal path, down to the sea islands of South Carolina and his roots in the Gullah culture there. His photographs try to unravel generations of family pathways, through quiet creeks and trees covered in dripping Spanish moss to barber shops and his great-grandmother’s house.
Clothing provides a loaded entry point for several photographers and their stories. Keisha Scarville compellingly excavates the death of her mother via her patterned clothes, which the artist reconfigures into dense black-and-white agglomerations of fabric and texture, literally wrapping herself in her absence and loss. Larry Cook uses clothing and gesture to interrogate the intersection of gang violence and racism, interleaving the red of the Crips, the white of the KKK, and the blue of the Bloods into an All-American parade. And A.K. Jenkins considers the signifiers of sports clothing, placing both herself and empty basketball shorts in the sandy hills of Blue Basin in Oregon, simultaneously reclaiming the geography and tussling with charged issues of body, gender, and masculinity.
Other photographers included in the show are looking back at complex histories – cultural, political, and personal – and trying to make sense of them. Nakeya Brown creates still life set ups of dated record covers, curlers, brushes, styling gel, and other hair accessories, digging into the complicated evolution of Black female beauty. Faith Couch redacts archival images of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, revealing deeper threads of struggle and frustration than are typically remembered. And Derrick Woods-Morrow excavates his own past, reaching out to a childhood friend and lover who is now a police officer, trying to process how durable the polarities of race and life choices might be.
The final two photographers included in the show offer the most open-ended and elusive of the visual narratives on view. The situations in Clifford Prince King’s photographs are never quite explained – tangled legs, hidden embraces, obscured faces – leaving the desire that energizes them anonymous. And the personal stories of Darryl DeAngelo Terrell’s life are communicated with colored tints atop self-portraits, using Barry Jenkins-like nuances of color to imply moods and states of mind.
Seen together, We Wear the Mask provides a range of promising openings and introductions – but where these artists go from here is actually the exciting part. The pandemic inserts a hard “before/after” line break in every one of their CVs, and the work that comes next will require yet another round of thoughtful interaction with the experiences that have shaped them to date. With this group, the team at Higher Pictures Generation has definitively set out a marker for other galleries to follow. And with the help of the three accomplished women that now lead the gallery, these photographers (both young and old) will be challenged to push themselves much further and will be ably supported as they take those risks. What they deliver in their next shows, and the ones after that, will be the true (retrospective) measure of how important this appetizer plate of photographers really is.