The story, as told by Alyssa Voc Almino, is part of Image Issue 11, “Renewal”, where we explore the architecture of daily life – and how it all seems to break down. Read the full issue here.
It started out as an attraction with the tool, for me. It was just sort of everywhere all the time. I think my dad first taught me how to use the camera, I was about 5 years old. I used to play with his lamp and take photos around the house. But when I was about 13 I got serious about it and he showed me how to do everything and left.
I can’t think of a particular photo that was a turning point for me, but there was an experience. I was a major in writing at art high school, and in Pennsylvania, there was what was called the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for Art. I thought I’d apply in writing, but then I decided, you know, “I write all year in school, why don’t I try something else?” And applied to photography. While doing that five-week program, I realized that I wanted to dedicate my life to photography. I think it really got me hooked on it – beyond the thrill of being able to create an image and then look at it – working in a dark room, which can be a kind of magical experience for people. It was for me.
Photography, for me, is a way of looking at the world and being comfortable in the world and making yourself a part of the world. Home is probably the most relevant theme in my work. I moved a lot throughout my 20s – every place was temporary. I haven’t had a home for a long time, so this is something I’ve always been looking for, and maybe that’s why I’m so interested in other people’s lifestyles. I’m interested in people. When I’m photographing architecture, what interests me is the human story.
In the summer of 2016, architect Barbara Bester emailed me and told me that Paul Revere was not really a work of art about Williams’ career. When people talk about Paul Revere Williams, they talk about the fact that he was the first black member of the American Institute of Architects, the first black AIA friend and the first black recipient of the AIA Gold Medal, which is all really important but it is. A kind of deductive way to describe him and his work. Following his idea – being the first black architect to do all these different things – he was a talented architect and a brilliant businessman who really managed to succeed in his work at a time when he was far from guaranteed. He was just a unique person and an interesting person to me as a person.
For an exhibition at Woodbury University, I often photographed his residential buildings, but also his public buildings. That show happened at the end of 2017. But then I kept working. Art Paper Magazine sent me to Las Vegas, where I photographed some of his work. In the meantime, I wrote an essay about the project, which led to the publication of a book. The work I did in Nevada was seen by Carmen Bills, who is now a curator at the Nevada Museum of Art, and seeing her work, the Nevada Museum gave me a fellowship to take more photos of her work there. I completed that earlier this year, and I’m now preparing for an exhibition of that work. It opens in July, and in December, it will visit the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas.
Williams’ work revolved around Los Angeles which I would not have found otherwise, and through the work, I became really interested in the history of Los Angeles – how it happened, and how it really felt. Stay here
When I was growing up, my grandmother lived in LA. Growing up in the 90’s, it seems that LA was very famous in culture – whether it was for exciting, interesting cultural things or for things like the Rodney King’s post-Rebellion revolt. OJ Simpson test. LA has always been a part of my consciousness. Once I got here, I continued to love the city for myself – the way it set the architecture, the landscape – and the sense of community I felt as an artist. After living in New York for only nine years, I found that the art community was really closed. But that is not the case here.
My husband has a small family here; His mother grew up here, and his grandfather lived in this large house in Ensino. When my husband and I moved to LA, we used to visit his grandfather regularly to watch Lakers games and have lunch. I was really interested in the subject of home. Thought, at first, was taking photos of me at home, and then it was taking photos as a person who could live in that house. For me, it was the kind of palace that felt completely torn apart, say, the house I grew up in in West Philly. In those pictures, I’m pretending to be a person with a position or power that I don’t have, or didn’t have at the time. Work at UCLA became my MFA thesis project, “The Spotless Mirror” (2011-13). After my children were born, I started photographing them there. I was thinking of those who were born into a family that had a home, and whose place had a really different relationship. That project, “Milk and Honey” (2018-present), is a fantasy version of my family.
Adrian is 6 years old, and David is 4 years old. They are both incredibly energetic, incredibly curious. They are both very smart and funny. But they are also really different from each other. Adrian is interested in stories, whether it’s on television, whether it’s movies, whether it’s books – all he has to do is listen and make up stories. David, I like him very much, I can make a tent for him in the backyard and he will stay here. He would never get bored. He never has to come home. He will be happy only after searching for rocks and insects all day long.
“Family Album” show hosted by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art I have four projects, including “Tender Boughs”, which I did at home, which started in the most isolated part of the epidemic, and which I am still working on. The work is usually a picture of my children, but it also includes individual gestures. This includes things like toys or small corners of our house. The solo show “Tender Boughs” also opens on June 4 at the historic Council_st in the Philippines.
For a long time, I felt that if I was taking photos at home with my family, there would be really fictional versions of these high stage and carefully illuminated and family photos, which I would not take seriously. I was worried that if I tried to do this, it would not be interesting to other people. I wanted to focus on my children as they really are. I wanted to see the relationship with each other. I am an only child, and the brotherhood was eternally fascinating to me. It became the way they played together, the way they loved each other and the way they watched each other grow and change every day.
I think having a baby made me feel a sense of urgency about my own work. It was really important for me to be next. In order to be able to dedicate all the mental and physical energy my children need, I must always be able to do this. “Tender Boughs” was something I did when I was having a really hard time. You know, we were all stuck at home, and I had all these things I wanted to do that I couldn’t do, or I had to do at home in a modified way. And because I always had to take care of the kids, work became a really important distraction for me.
In one of my favorite early photos from the body of work, I am standing on the second floor of the house where we were sitting at the time and taking pictures of my children playing in the backyard by the window. There’s a way they can change when my camera comes out, either to be silly or to get more serious. And this picture was really special to me, because they didn’t know I was there. Another of my favorite images is my eldest son hugging my youngest son. You can’t see their faces completely, but you can see that my eldest son has a forehead. I don’t remember what was happening to him but he was feeling so deeply, and for whatever reason, it was so important to give his brother this hug.
Then there’s the sort of side project that involves my relationship with them. For example, in the “Family Album” program, there is a piece called “Mothering”, which is all the pictures in the body of the work that I somehow appear, but I really wanted to focus. The children
When I was taking photos in college, at the very beginning, I felt like I wanted to take photos myself. I was looking at the work of black artists who use themselves in their work, like Carrie MyWeams and Renee Cox, and they were really inspired by the way they used themselves in their work. And I think I want to be able to do that too. But I was very ashamed. I was worried that people would think that if I took a photo of myself it was somehow about vanity, when it was about wanting to feel like seeing, which is not the same. So, in my early photos, I was often very small or cut in some way. I can see technically but not really. And it was something that I really had to work on. Being a character or having a different version of myself allowed me to take photos in a new way. It took me some distance from seeing it as my picture.
So I would say that the images I show for “Tender Buffs” are my own – they’re the ones I interact with my kids in a real way, although it’s, of course, camera-mediated. But this I am experiencing real moments in my real clothes, in my real home, with my family. Maybe she’s been doing this in my 30s. I am very comfortable as a person now.
My family and I have just moved into this house in the hope that it will be our home for a long, long time. There was never a place where I could put everything together, where I had a studio space. I have a studio space here right now, which is amazing. Everything felt so temporary, and now I’m really settled, and that’s exciting. LA makes me feel at home.
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