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A New Generation of Photographers Is Defying Traditional Genres

Some artists have always worked fluidly across genres. , for instance, toed the lines between , , and fine art. Some of his most well-known images came from his time working for Life magazine, when he covered subjects ranging from fashion to race and social issues; he shot portraits of esteemed figures like Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., as well as ordinary people. One of his most iconic images, American Gothic (1942), features a working-class Black woman holding a mop and broom in each hand.
Despite this, for decades, critics, viewers, and photographers themselves have relied on specific labels to distinguish the various contexts in which photography is made. For the most part, in the past, photographers were expected to pick a lane—like fashion and entertainment or documentary and street photography—and stick to it. They might have worked in that single mode for the majority of their career, if not all of it.
In 2020, we’re immersed in an image-based culture, where we can engage with photographs of various types constantly. Images that may have once been relegated to a gallery or museum show, a photo book, or a magazine can now largely be accessed online and via Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Within this context, as the spaces where photographs can be presented and shared are constantly evolving—and becoming increasingly digital—photographers of a new generation are learning that artistic versatility is one of their greatest strengths.
A new exhibition titled “Just Pictures,” on view at projects+gallery in St. Louis, Missouri, from September 10th to November 21st, explores the work of eight young artists creating work across photographic genres, from commercial and editorial work to conceptual art. “Just Pictures” is curated by New York–based writer and critic Antwaun Sargent, whose work is often centered around reimagining the existing parameters of visual culture. Artists featured in the show include , , Joshua Kissi, Mous Lamrabat, Renell Medrano, Ruth Ossai, Justin Solomon, and Joshua Woods.
Sargent is particularly interested in investigating the untapped intersections of photography and visual culture more broadly. His first book, The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion (2019), features 15 photographers (three of whom are featured in “Just Pictures”) from Africa and its diaspora working between the worlds of fashion and art. As Sargent pointed out in a recent interview, the history of photography is the history of technology itself. In curating the exhibition, he was curious to see how the work of new generations, who grew up looking at Tumblr and Instagram, was impacted by those rapidly shifting digital spaces.
“I found that they were less interested in the boundaries that had been established by previous generations around commercial and conceptual photography,” Sargent said. “They’re working between genres and mediums in seamless ways and they’re not caught up on where the image fits. It allows their work to take on meaning depending on how you encounter the images.”
One featured artist, Bobb-Willis, shared that she shies away from strictly labeling her work, and herself. Frequently dubbed a fashion photographer, Bobb-Willis is known for colorful images that depict brilliantly dressed subjects placed in beautifully awkward poses with their faces partially obscured. She has been commissioned for New York Magazine, designer skincare and cosmetics brand Shiseido, and she shot the lauded cover of the New York Times Magazine’s music issue in March.
“I don’t like when people say, ‘Oh, Arielle is a fashion photographer,’ because I just see myself as an artist,” Bobb-Willis told me. “Though, of course I love photography, I’m mostly inspired by painters, especially Jacob Lawrence and Sister Gertrude Morgan.”
Bobb-Willis’s practice is also informed by her own battle with depression. This translates in the way she portrays subjects in awkward, almost melancholic positions. She also incorporates vivid color throughout her work as a way to claim joy in moments of sadness. “I feel like when you’re dealing with mental illness…you’re kind of embracing the future of feeling good, but also recognizing the past for what it was, and trying to live in the present between those two places,” she said. “You can see that in my photos.”
Paris-based photographer Joshua Woods echoed similar sentiments about the fluidity of his photographic practice. The artist, who has shot for publications including British Vogue and Dazed, said that he’s always thought of himself outside of the confines of traditional labels. “I’ve sort of figured out how to pick and choose,” Woods said. “I’ve picked up on the landscape and figured out a balance within my work to not be pigeonholed into one section—whether that’s working on experimental films, working in portraiture, doing photo essays, or creating fashion editorials.”
In addition to his warm and intimate portraits of wide-ranging subjects, Woods works in filmmaking and is particularly interested in illuminating untold Black histories. He is currently working on several experimental films: one centered around jazz, and another which looks at anti-imperialist revolutionary leaders in Burkina Faso.
Sargent and Woods both mentioned that a potential downside of our image-based culture is that folks may become trapped in an echo chamber of artistic references. In other words, the constant circulation of photographs can sometimes lead to an oversaturation of one theme or style. Young photographers like Woods, and the other artists of “Just Pictures,” are able to break through the noise by channeling their own voice and embracing the complexities of the photographic medium.
Daria Harper