Several years ago, I took a screengrab of a photo for my ‘Inspiration/To Try’ collection. I’ve returned to it many times, wondering how to get the light, the focus, the blur. I had no idea who took the photo, and at the time, I really didn’t care. It’s a portrait of an older man, close up. His mouth is chopped off by the bottom of the frame. His eyes are intense, bloodshot, looking, questioning, emerging from shadow. Most of the light in the frame bounces off of his forehead and nose, with a bit on his cheek. His hair falls away to a soft blur, and the background is just smooth blobs of light blue and peach.
I had a bunch of thoughts about how to create something like it in my dingy apartment, or with my darling, adorable wife in our lovely home, thinking of strobes and gels, trying out some strobist-type stuff, but I never did anything with it.
I saw a few shots, out in the world, that might work, but I never quite got it, never even got close really, and I forgot about the photo for awhile, moved the ‘Inspiration/To Try’ folder to an archive drive, and focused on… well, whatever it is I shoot.
Imagine my delight when I found it in Khalik Allah‘s Souls Against the Concrete.
Khalik Allah is perhaps more well known for his film making. His various films have won many awards, and they’re on my ‘To Watch’ list, for sure. As a photographer, and after spending some time with this book, I’m sure the films are worth watching. Allah’s sensitivity to his subjects and eye for light, color, and beauty are incredible, and if even a bit of that makes it into his films, they’ll be wonderful.
As for Souls Against the Concrete, it’s a great book of portraits. For the series, Allah spent several years roaming the corner of 125th and Lexington, late at night, with a Nikon F2 and 55mm f/1.2, and shooting mostly Portra 160 (if I interpreted comments in his Introduction correctly). Speaking of the Introduction, “Camera Ministry,” Allah describes his upbringing, his education in the Five-Percent Nation and coming to understand the power within himself. He repeatedly speaks, in somewhat religious terms, of finding the light, coming into the light, calling to the light, and I find this a beautiful way to talk about photography.
Two passages in particular gave me some things to think about.
My lens is like the moon reflecting light, but devoid of water and life. The moon pulls on the earth’s water, causing high and low tides. In this sense, it’s struggling for water, just as my lens and film were struggling for light. It all clicked for me. It represented my own struggle for knowledge early in life, when I acted like a lunatic—before I learned that the light was in me.Khalik Allah. Souls Against the Concrete. University of Texas Press. 2017. p. 14
This is emotion on emulsion. Developed in the dark. From negative to positive. It’s my “Camera Ministry.” I was appointed to be a minister on the corner; photography was just an excuse to stop people. I baptized them in light and said goodnight and went home, then traveled the planet with the work and came back. I’ll be shooting on the corner until I’m no longer, and after I’m gone, my psychic imprint will be visible through the stains of my aura on the sidewalk. Forever, my soul, like varnish against the concrete.
Khalik Allah. Souls Against the Concrete. University of Texas Press. 2017. p. 23
What a great way to look at photographic (and life) practice! My own photography is nowhere near as well thought out, sophisticated, or spiritual. My own projects are about more personal, insignificant aims: memory, nostalgia, feelings of emptiness, of impotence. If I could more regularly capture the emptiness and impotence, that might amount to something, but it would still be a negative. Getting all the negative of street life in Harlem, even (especially?) in the rapidly gentrifying 2010s, capturing the beauty and vitality, tenderness, rage, vulnerability, joy, suspicion, comedy of human life in brilliant color is something to deeply admire and somehow strive for.
Most of the work in the book appears to have been shot wide open: smooth washes of color in the background, nothing quite in sharp focus, but visceral, palpable nonetheless. And the color he managed to get out of Portra 160—in my experience a rather muted, pastel emulsion—is so saturated and lush, it’s really incredible, and the images, printed on glossy black paper, have an awesome presence.
Overall, Souls Against the Concrete gets a solid 4.5 stars.
Souls Against the Concrete remains available from University of Texas Press and other retailers, and it’s worth having in your library. There are pictures and videos on Khalik Allah’s website, and it’s worth checking out for more information, more of an idea of his practice, and to hear his voice, and that of his subjects.
To be honest, I have some misgivings about reviewing this book. I feel like a voyeur. 125th and Lex at 3am is so far removed from 10am in Irving, TX. But it’s not that far, really, from Main and Malcolm X in Dallas at 3am, something that I have some historical experience with, and maybe even something to do with the parking lot of the Irving Masjid after Tarawih prayers during Ramadan, somehow, though I perhaps have less experience with that than I do the more earthly pursuits of Deep Ellum, and may God forgive me. But I’m a white man, living in a rather fancy house. I’m deep in recovery, and it’s been a long time since I struggled like many of Allah’s subjects struggle. Sure, I have my own struggles, but they’re largely internal, hidden, covered by my privilege.
What am I doing when I admire Khalik Allah’s photography, when I gaze into his subjects eyes? I somehow feel a familiarity, a kinship, an understanding. Would they feel the same if they saw pictures of me in a book, reading in the early morning, or sitting at a computer or something? And when I’m out in the world and encounter similar people with similar struggles, this familiarity/kinship/understanding is almost completely overwritten by a fear and my flight instinct takes over completely. I don’t think myself a racist or classist, but these feelings seem to indicate otherwise. I’m not sure what I’m trying to get at here, and I keep writing, deleting, rewriting this, and I probably shouldn’t post it at all.
Anyway. If you have any thoughts, share them. Call me out if you feel the need. I probably need a good calling out every now and again.