Photographer James Ray Francis is a patron angel of the Kamoinge Workshop — and also a pioneer who helped society accept what we do as art. His efforts helped pave the way for every single photographer that came after him. Kamoinge spotlighted the portfolios of black photographers in a time when photography was seen as a lesser artform. Process that carefully — and remember that there was a time where POCs were looked upon with far less reverence than they are today. Then couple that with how society doesn’t show photography the adoration it deserves yet relies so heavily on. In many ways, photography still is seen that way — but through the work of people like Francis, it’s become far more respected. Along with Louis Draper, James’s work delved into activism and fine art both. The fine art side of James Ray Francis is at the heart of a new exhibit at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery ending March 22nd, 2024.
James Ray Francis: A Study of Light and Shadow
What makes James Ray Francis’s work so incredible are several things which have made the work even easier to apprecaite as time went on. If we look at his work today, we find a couple of great things worth talking about:
- The contrast of shadow and light: this tells us exactly where to pay attention to in the frame where color isn’t present but everything is in tones of sepia.
- In-camera experimental methods: multiple exposures, haze, and very careful framing make our eyes go to very specific places.
- Motion blur: This is a method being heavily embraced today.
- Silhouettes: Some of the most liked images on social media are silhouettes
Photography like this seems pretty commonplace to us today. But it originated from people like James Ray Francis — who put a different spin on it from that of contemporary photography of the time. In turn, it shaped photographers who came after him and therefore photographers who shoot today.
Photography: The Art of the Self
The definition of photography involves capturing light. It can be embraced as an art form, but it’s also embraced for every day use in a similar way to dance. Society loves to dance for fun and often in celebration — but dance is also a very expressive and beautiful art form that people don’t necessarily understand unless they study it. This is the same for photography — and that comes with helping people to understand the art behind it. For most people, photography is an expression of self. People post tons of selfies online as an expression to get people to pay attention to them. That’s far different from the art of self-portraiture, which are as stark of a contrast as water and sand.
To get people to understand photography, we need to first start with a solidified base according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Only then, once they’ve been able to love themselves enough can they really start to love the work of others expressing themselves. It’s why we say things like “this photograph speaks to me.” That’s because art is a language that tries to communicate when shared with others but lacks the structures of every day vernacular. And when we say that we don’t want others to understand the work that we’re making, then we hurt the future of photography being understood and apprecaited as an art form.