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Kennedi Carter Captures Expressions of Black Love in Tender Photographs

In a dimmed room, warm light filters in through drawn curtains, gently illuminating a man and a woman captured mid-embrace. Her face in shadow, encircled by the glimmers of a beaded headdress, she stands above his seated form, holding his head to her body. Their eyes are serenely closed and the moment is entirely still—save for the tension of his arm as he leans into her.
Intimacy underpins the work of photographer , and its manifestations have been playing in her mind on repeat as she shelters in place in Durham, North Carolina, during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Something that I took for granted for so long was what it feels like to be close to people and just touch someone,” she said. “There’s this vulnerability that comes from being with someone that you allow to get this close to and truly touch you, whether it be physically mentally or just emotionally.”
When Rosegallery in Santa Monica, California, asked Carter to participate in its multi-chapter virtual exhibition “This Seems a Home”—which has previously featured selections from photographers including and —Carter chose images that rippled with touch and affection in the quietude of interior moments.
Drawn from her series “East Durham Love” (2019), the works on view at Rosegallery feature images of Black love that Carter shot as her own relationship underwent a significant transition. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it an ending; it was just the reforming of a relationship,” she said. “It was the first time I had truly experienced love. And I think part of the project was trying to unpack what [it] meant to me as well as what I’d like to think it meant for them.”
Shooting the series, she said, “was this act of manifesting the type of love I think I deserve. There was this sense of longing and truly experiencing what it means to miss someone.”
Carter’s work references the art she grew up with in her childhood home, like artist and former NFL player ’s painting The Sugar Shack (1971), a joyful work of elongated Black figures losing themselves to music in a club. “There were a lot of paintings that were centered around Black romance and intimacy,” she recalled. “Some of these artists I don’t even know but they were just common works that you would see in Black homes.”
Her photographs also pay homage to a lineage of Black photographers making work in the domestic space, from ’s seminal self-portrait project “The Kitchen Table Series” (1990) to ’s highly staged interior portraits amid the ephemera of living rooms and bedrooms.
Unlike Lawson’s imagery, in which the photographer’s role is explicit through her subject’s gaze, Carter’s presence is an illusion, shifting in and out. In one image, a man leaves the room as a woman poses nude against a makeshift studio setup, the tableau off to the side as if Carter is looking in on the moment rather than directing it. In another scene, a woman tends to a man’s hair; his gaze ignores Carter’s presence, but the woman’s eyes are locked with the camera.
Of all the works in “This Seems a Home,” Carter enters the work most directly in a single self-portrait, in which her father, out of frame, buzzes her hair as she makes eye contact with the viewer. Recently featured in the New York Times, this photograph was somewhat of a breakthrough in Carter’s series. “I figured out how to make the project expand outside of romance, but love between family and love of self as well,” she said.
Like many of her contemporaries, from ’s vivid vision of Black utopias, to ’s exploration of Black girlhood, to Dana Scrugg’s focus on the beauty of Black skin, Carter hopes to show a broader representation of contemporary Black life and identity.
“In the media we see a lot of imagery that’s centered around Black suffering, and so I like to make work that doesn’t necessarily highlight that,” said Carter. “I think that’s an aspect of Black experiences, but there’s so much more to it. I try to make work that makes people—especially Black people—feel good. I make work that I wish I’d seen when I was younger.”
In June, during a month of Pride that reverberated with the effects of the pandemic and the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, Carter posted an image on Instagram of two Black men reclining in bed together, each shirtless and wearing a single gold hoop earring.
“Something I’ve been reflecting on heavily is Black love in times of crisis. As well as the purpose of romance during a revolution,” she wrote in the post’s caption. “I’ve always admired the way Black people cling to each other. Black queer couples especially. The way we search for solace in our romantic lives and breathe air pockets of life inside of our lovers. When the world invalidates your being at every turn, sometimes it feels like romance can be the thing that reminds us we’re not alone.”
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.