The work of Ghanaian Russian photographer Liz Johnson Artur falls mainly under a single title: “Black Balloon Archive.” Much larger than a conventional series, the extensive project is a continuous record of photographs taken over a 30-year period.
Her photos of blacks of all ages, genders, nationalities, and experiences are so broad that they challenge narrow categorization. He rarely captures his photos and has no excuses for his unwillingness to explain the work, even to his subjects.
“I don’t always explain what I do,” he said from his London studio, an apartment on the 13th floor of a concrete tower block south of the River Thames “But to be honest, you don’t have to.
“When I approach people … what I say (for them is me) I will try to put them in good company.”
This is not to say that Arthur Johnson does not treat his subjects with sensitivity. His photos are nuanced and welcoming, without the aid of any description; they ask the viewer to look deeply into each subject, to study the images to get clues about the lives represented. Young children, women dressed in religious clothes, men in clothes, musicians, models; the photographer has captured black people from all walks of life.
This week, her work is recognized at the Rencontres d’Arles, an annual photography festival held in the south of France, where she will be awarded the Women in Motion photography prize. A relatively new award, the winners so far are Susan Meiselas and Sabine Weiss, in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Despite the recognition and prolific career, the 57-year-old photographer was relatively unknown until a few years ago. He did not make his first solo exhibition until May 2019, a collection of works extracted from the “Black Balloon Archive” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, the city where he initially seized his love of photography.
Born in Bulgaria to a Russian mother and a Ghanaian father, Liz Johnson Artur emigrated to West Germany as a child. During her first trip to America in the mid-1980s, she found herself lodged with a friend of her mother in the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, a scene very different from the one she was used to at home. It was on this journey that he began to build trust with a camera.
He remembers the first photographs he took while walking through Central Park. He noticed a man sleeping on one of the park’s famous pebbles. Remembering the moment, he said he remembered feeling guilty about taking the picture of her. “It feels a bit like you’re stealing something,” he said.
Liz Johnson Artur, winner of the Women in Motion 2021 Photography Award. Credit: Liz Johnson Artur
As he prepared the shot, the man suddenly woke up and saw her. At the time, she didn’t know what to do, “so I looked at him a little, he looked at me and then went back to sleep,” she said. He took the picture and remembers the guilt that subsided. He changed his approach to street photography: “I no longer wanted to steal,” he said.
Since those early years, Johnson Artur has shot for magazines such as iD and The Face, photographed MIA and Lady Gaga on tour, and has worked with record labels such as Rhianna’s Fian brand and Italian fashion house Valentino. During this time he also had a daughter.
She had her first exhibition in the UK in 2019 at the South London Gallery, focusing on black life in the British capital, where she has lived since 1991. Last year she was one of ten artists to receive a scholarship in cash from the Tate Galleries in London, an organized prize instead of the annual Turner Prize, which was canceled due to the pandemic.
When asked how he would define his work, Johnson Arthur said simply that “it’s a lot of different people.”
He stressed that there is no general mission. “It’s not an agenda,” he said. “It’s about people and encounters.”
Is the photographer cynical about the increasing interest in her work in recent years, especially because it coincided with the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter? Yes. (He said he has lost the number of emails he received from institutions during the period when the demonstrations began last year). But does it bother her? It doesn’t look like it. As Johnson Arthur sees it, he has been photographing black people through his single lens for three decades and nothing of his work has changed. If brands and curators (and the media) are now more attuned to it, then so be it; he is more interested in seeing what comes out of it. “As for me, I’m here to do what I can do,” he said.
That said, he enjoyed shooting a book for Valentino (a behind-the-scenes look at one of the brand’s latest shows) and believes that “they didn’t just hire black photographers to shoot something black”.
“Some people are genuine,” he said, “I didn’t look like an exploiter.”
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