Photographer Lyle Ashton Harris is known for turning the camera on himself, donning masks or high heels and fishnets to portray everyone from Billie Holiday to a boxer to a transvestite prostitute. Call it performance photography. But there’s also a more taciturn side to the artist, where he turns the camera on other subjects, letting their expressive faces do the talking with arresting images.
These works can now be seen in a new book entitled, Lyle Ashton Harris: Excessive Exposure, featuring photographs taken between 1998 and 2008. Harris’ “Chocolate Portraits,” as he’s dubbed them, take a formal approach to the portrait, homing in on the color and texture of each subject’s distinguishable faces. The diverse range of sitters vary from the recognizable to the anonymous, Harris’ process capturing the likeness of each individual with the same formulaic — that is to say, scientific — technique.
The portraits are large-scale, 20-by-24-inch Polaroids of subjects photographed both facing toward and away from the camera, against a black backdrop, posed in Harris’ downtown Manhattan studio. Each image is carefully measured so that the front and back portraits correspond to each other in scale. The careful, technical precision applied to the portraits in the series overshadows the high-profile persona of some of his sitters — notables in their fields, including artists, scholars, playwrights and politicians. Using this methodology, all the known and the unknown are rendered equal.
With this new body of work, Harris is more concerned with how the camera performs than with the human body — making the camera the primary performing agent. He pushes the visual limits of the camera in order to highlight the formal properties of the image. For example, he experiments with color by distorting the gray scale, or color value, in black-and-white photography. Henry Louis Gates Jr. refers to this technique as “Harris’ own ‘colored’ version of Minor White’s Zone System.”
Harris is exploring the darkest layers in the Zone System by manipulating the levels of perceptibility in light, shadow, texture and exposure. In this way, Harris’ portraits reflect the mechanical and chemical processes that go into the physical act of making a photograph. In another way, they enter into the history of portraiture in art and media, since the introduction of photographic technology at the turn of the 20th century has been an instrument for the documentation of human types.
This documentation has been used in numerous ways to influence science and the social categories of race, class and gender. Harris’ work is a compelling intervention in this visual history. The Chocolate Portraits activate the reader’s sense of vision by directly referencing color. Moreover, the word “chocolate” stimulates an experience of smell, taste and touch. Harris’ project is successful because it engages all the senses within the limited space of the photographic portrait.
Check out some images from the book here.
Kalia Brooks is the exhibitions director at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn, N.Y.; an adjunct professor in the photography and imagining department in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University; and a Ph.D. candidate in aesthetics and art theory at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.