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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”