The other day at Arcana books in Culver City, I was able to thumb through a rare copy of The Sweet Flypaper of Life which featured photography by Roy DeCarava set to the prose of Langston Hughes. This photo caught my attention, not only for the moment of tenderness it captured, but also because it reminded me of Carrie Mae Weems’, timeless Kitchen Table Series from 1990. Every year that I’ve done the Artist a Day Challenge, I’ve always included Carrie Mae Weems because there are so many aspects of her work that intrigue me.
What I loved about this particular body of work is that she isn’t a supporting character, adornment or hidden figure. Weems places herself in the center of the narrative, depicting the strength and beauty of black women as mothers, nurturers, lovers and friends. The Kitchen Table Series takes you into the photos in such a compelling way, the emotion they convey is palpable. The evolution of her style with each series she pursues is remarkable in that each narrative is designed to challenge the viewer’s perception of what they think they know about the subject photographed and their relationship to their environment; this also reminds me of DeCarava’s work.
What do you see when you look at DeCarava’s Graduation? The photo features a young woman in a pristine white gown surrounded by debris and squalor–how does this make you feel? What story do you imagine when looking at the girl? Is she headed toward a bleak future or a bright one? How does the light play a role in your perception and the story you create for her? Is her gaze aimed toward the brand new Chevrolet an aspirational symbol for escape? What does the story you create tell you about yourself? I think it’s a remarkable photo that challenges viewers perceptions-not only of the image itself but of life.
Now compare DeCarava’s photo to the vast landscapes and architecture in Carrie Mae Weems’ “Roaming” series. These photos, again with Weems as the central image of the work, we see the artist embarking on a journey and as a viewer we are asked questions that challenge our perceptions, relating to the subject and their environment. Is she walking away from something or heading toward it? What is her relationship to the environment that she occupies? What do the spaces represent? Weems invites you into the image and her journey versus just peering at the image. When I look at the photos side by side, in a strange way Weems is continuing the narrative of the young girl graduating in DeCarava’s photo. Both women confront the environment that they are surrounded by. I love how both photographers capture emotion in the storytelling shown through their work.