Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy

Words: Larry Lytle

The renowned African-American art historian and artist Deborah Willis wrote this thought-provoking opening comment in her catalogue essay about the artwork of Lorna Simpson: “The narrative mode is a distinct tradition within African-American art. Story telling is found in its folk traditions as well as in its various contemporary genres of art making. One could even argue that within the African-American community, no art is developed without a narrative, whether explicit or implied.”

Photo: Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy photo no. 1
Rashod Taylor
In these three sentences Willis attunes us to see and think about the implications of traditional and conceptual storytelling methods in Black American art. (Rashod Taylor, the subject of this feature, favors the identifier Black American.) Using either method of storytelling, we see Black American lives and experiences, the joyful and the sorrowful, laid bare. As Willis points out, these revelations happen across the art-making spectrum—in literature, the preforming arts and the visual arts.

One of the predominant stories told by the many voices in these various media concerns, as it must, the 400-plus years of the horrible and manifold effects of enslavement and racism. Black American art through its storytelling traditions takes on this historical fact, which is crucial for us to confront regarding America’s original sin, and which is still eating away at our collective soul.
Photo: Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy photo no. 2
Untitled #4, 2021
It’s important then when we look at these photographs by Rashod Taylor to keep in mind that the story he’s showing and telling us is well known to Black Americans, and is one that we need to pay attention to and understand. (The “we,” “our” and “us” used in the above two paragraphs refers to white Americans, of which I am one.)

It’s challenging to make sociopolitical artwork. Too much commentary turns off the viewer, and too much emphasis on aesthetics blunts the message. In his series Little Black Boy, Taylor has gotten the balance just right. In a seemingly straightforward way, Taylor is recreating memories of childhood and linking them to the bonds between a Black American child and his family. Through a minimalist aesthetic approach, Taylor gives the viewer space to emotionally identify with his son LJ, while contemplating those specific and universal childhood experiences.
Photo: Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy photo no. 3
LJ and Girl, 2018
About this, Taylor says, “I want the viewer to have this shared experience, regardless of race or creed. Everyone can identify at some level with a little boy and the feelings of love, tenderness and care.” He adds, “Through that connection is where I want to give the viewer this shared experience on how a little Black boy grows up. I feel like it helps put people’s guard down and really look at the work in a way that they can start to see LJ and our Black experience.”

On its face, Little Black Boy is recognizable as a coming-of-age story: a boy navigating his childhood and his evolving relationship with his parents. The idea began when Taylor, like any proud parent—especially when they are a photographer—began taking casual pictures of his new son LJ. But as happens with most artists even when engaging with undirected creativity, they will often find possibilities for its expansion.
Photo: Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy photo no. 4
LJ and His Fort, 2022
This is what happened to Taylor in 2018, when LJ was three. Taylor took a snapshot of him with a white playmate whose back is turned. LJ is in the foreground, looking off to the side and wearing a T-shirt printed with “Dream Big” in large letters, a police badge sticker obscures some of the type. It was a Cartier-Bresson moment and revealed to Taylor a path to something greater—a way to talk about his complex relationship with America.

Once Taylor realized this direction held potential for a portrait series, he wanted it to be a collaborative project with LJ, only making the photograph if LJ wants to do it. (LJ, now eight, is still on board with the project. Taylor hopes to keep the collaboration going through adolescence.) Taylor decided to keep using the guise of images made in the moment, and sometimes they are just that. However, the majority of the images are constructed recreations, or new ideas that he wants to explore. In either case, Taylor wants to portray LJ like any kid his age. His reactions and interactions with the camera and his dad are true, and come from LJ’s personality.
Photo: Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy photo no. 5
It’s Complicated, 2021
LJ, in his guilelessness, adds much to the imagery. He’s not shy about showing his unhappiness, as we see in the photograph titled “Easter Sunday.” More often, he faces us with an open sincerity and inquisitiveness. When he looks directly into the camera it feels like he’s looking at us, but it’s actually his dad that he’s looking at, connecting with. LJ’s tabula rasa gaze accommodates whatever concept Taylor has for the photograph. Without Taylor telling us, as we give the series greater thought we realize that these images are references to Taylor’s experience as a Black man in America, and that they also harbor his worry for what lies ahead for his son.

Taylor uses indicators that allude to his fears or his conflicted feelings. For example, the photograph “It’s Complicated” is another image that merely seems to be LJ doing something any kid does. Here, he’s holding a flag celebrating the 4th of July with his dad (Taylor) reflected in the sliding-glass door. But, as Taylor explains, the story is much more than that: “There is a complex relationship between Black Americans and the United States in regard to patriotism. There is this separation between racial and national identity, which I think of as an identity crisis. I am examining, ‘How can I be a Black American who supports and defends my country when there is no reciprocity?’ I pose this question with this image—LJ is contemplating his choices and where he falls in this relationship to patriotism and what holds more true, racial identity or national identity?”
Photo: Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy photo no. 6
Halloween, 2022
To reinforce an image’s story, Taylor may also use symbology to give clues to its meaning. In the case of “It’s Complicated” he says, “I wanted to add tension and show a representation of resistance and power with my Black power shirt in the reflection in the window. The clinched raised fist is associated with the Black power movement, which makes me think of the Black Panther Party and Black liberation. The subtext of power and the distribution of that power in American is important to consider.

“The banana peel is a reference to the dark, racist depictions of Black and brown people as apes and considered less than human,” Taylor adds. “I lay the foundation for the conversation regarding the horrendous past of racism, the power struggle in America and the hopeful forward-looking future with LJ as he contemplates these things in the frame.”
Photo: Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy photo no. 7
Reflection of Me, 2020
“LJ and His Fort” again uses the American flag to examine his feelings. LJ had made a fort and asked his dad to take a look at it. Taylor had been working on a separate portrait series using the American flag and grabbed it to add to LJ’s sheet and furniture fort. LJ lying on the ground, with his open expression and the flag draped next to him, gives the impression that it’s a symbol of protection and belonging. But Taylor leaves us with a question: “Is it, and will it be?” for this child.

Both “It’s Complicated” and “LJ and His Fort” deal with an old story lived by Black Americans for so long—the rights that America holds out to them, but so often fails to deliver. These images made a couple of years ago could be visualizations of what W. E. B. Dubois wrote 120 years ago: “He [the Black American] simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
Photo: Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy photo no. 8
LJ in My Parents’ Backyard, 2020
As one looks at the range of imagery in Little Black Boy here and on Taylor’s website, one notices how simply constructed they are. LJ is mostly alone, and when there are people sharing his space, they are his mom, dad or another member of his family. As previously alluded to, the spareness comes from Taylor’s aesthetic. However, he explains that LJ’s isolation also comes from Taylor’s own experience of being the only Black child in his school classes, where he experienced feelings of separateness and loneliness.

Taylor’s aesthetic and message is inter-connected with the technical side of making a photograph. He prefers using a 4 × 5 camera, which slows down his thought process and allows him to control the entire procedure of making the photograph. Additionally, using a 4 × 5 camera requires an intentionality, discipline and presence of mind different from using small-format cameras. Added to the camera choice, and when the idea calls for it, Taylor incorporates traditional photographic processes—silver gelatin prints for Little Black Boy, as well as wet-plate collodion tintypes for his other portrait series. In this way he’s paying homage to the history of photography as a thoughtful, procedure-driven art form. That said, his use of a large-format camera and a process that was invented when his enslaved people were still shackled to plantation life memorializes them.
Photo: Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy photo no. 9
Protector, 2021
Taylor’s multifaceted technical approach reinforces the complicated nature of his own story, one of being a Black American. Yet, for all that, shining through the complex cloud cover of process and history, is the simple story of Taylor’s love for his son.

As mentioned, one of Taylor’s underlying story threads is to show us the relationships within Black American families, and particularly the relationship of a Black American father with his son. (These photographs counter the pernicious myth of absent fathers in Black families.) More pointedly, this series is specifically a story of Taylor’s and LJ’s relationship; but is also, in general, a tribute to any close relationship between a father and son.
Photo: Rashod Taylor: Little Black Boy photo no. 10
Easter Sunday, 2021
We see this specific and general relationship of parent and child in “Untitled #4.” In this photograph I see Taylor’s hand covering LJ’s eye, protecting him from what he may see as he grows up. The other hand cradles LJ’s head, supporting him as he confronts the racial animus ahead. LJ looks unclothed, naked and at this point unable to defend himself against the world. Taylor is clothed, symbolically armored and filling the frame behind his son. We feel his presence, like any loving parent, as tenderly stalwart and protecting.

For me, another key image of the series is “Reflection of Me,” which brings up many issues through its simple presentation. LJ’s face dominates the frame, while Taylor’s is almost cut in half, making us think about generational continuity as well as the passing of one generation into the next. We’re also invited to notice the physical similarities between LJ’s facial features and Taylor’s, making for a strong connection between the two, physical as well as emotional.
This comparison also brings forth engaging questions that one may have concerning the concept behind Little Black Boy—is LJ Taylor’s flesh and blood avatar, or is LJ both recreating Taylor’s childhood, while living his own similar experiences? Is theirs a story that is doomed to keep repeating, or will LJ find an America more inclusive and egalitarian? Ultimately, one realizes that “Reflection of Me” points to this series occupying a conceptual space that’s in equal measure biographical and autobiographical.

Finally, this photograph also speaks to the story of legacy and hope that Taylor is personally passing on to LJ and everyone who will see this series once it has reached its end. Taylor has given this aspect of the project much thought: “Part of legacy is what we leave behind, not so much the physical items which are a part of it, but I think about the values and ideas that you leave behind to the next generation. The inheritance I leave for my son is one of love, compassion and faith. My hope is that I have equipped him to navigate the complexity of his blackness in this life.”
All images copyright Rashod Taylor. Visit and to learn more about this series.