Primal Sight began in 2018 as a portfolio of images curated by Efrem Zelony-Mindell for the magazine Dear Dave. A year later, on the invitation of In the In-Between, Zelony-Mindell ran an open call for an online exhibition of contemporary black-and-white photography. More than 200 people applied – proof that, like other once traditional photographic approaches, grayscale is experiencing something of a resurgence among artists today. As a book of the project, featuring work by 146 artists probing issues of gender, race and philosophy is published by Gnomic Book, Zelony-Mindell discusses the allure and ever shifting status of black-and-white image making.
A: Why did you decide to curate a collection of contemporary black-and-white photography in the form of a publication?
EZM: Madness, affection, uncertainty, desires. There are a lot of words that come to mind. Things that feel like questions or make people unsure are worth pursuing. The unpredictability of things creates the structure and room to navigate through work that we as individuals need to do. For me at least, when I recognise those feelings it means that I have something that needs figuring out and education on. The things that are most unfamiliar to us are worth pursuing because it means that those things need a voice and platform. If something is invisible to an individual, it’s undoubtedly unseen by large groups of people. There’s an opportunity there to raise the voice of those people.
A: How did you go about selecting images to include? What were your considerations beyond the fact they were shot in black-and-white? David Campany notes in his text that many of them are composed with the subject in the centre of the frame, for example.
EZM: There’s been a lot of speculation around that part of David’s text in relation to the selection of the images. I do have an affinity for images that are centred. Although that sense of centre falls apart, whether it is literally or conceptually, once you start reading into the images. I believe photography is most related to sculpture. The way we think about perspective in relationship to perception and how that may tell us something about reality is something that photography and sculpture have in common. The pictures in Primal Sight are also about what’s not in the image and certain kinds of traumas and secrets navigated through a space of balance and kinship.
A story emerges when all the parts come together along with the way a viewer engages with the book. A lot of the thinking behind selection was: “how will these pictures propose that viewers bring themselves to the work?” I hope that when people look through Primal Sight they’re narrating a story of their own. That experience is both unique to individuals, but universal in that art isn’t about being led. Art, like life, is about creating the support and desire to piece things together and to be an active participant.
A: When colour photography was emerging in the 20th century, the old guard saw it as less serious than black-and-white – on meeting William Eggleston, Henri Cartier Bresson, said, “William, colour is bullshit.” Why do you think that was? And is it a thing of the past or is there still an uneasy relationship between colour and black-and-white photography today?
EZM: Why do I think one older successful white man tried to demean another younger successful white man? Because, historically, white men like Bresson and Eggleston are worshipped for simply being good for the sake of being good or supposedly the first at doing something. Institutions like photography historically don’t have a problem setting bars low for men like them. Bresson undoubtedly saw Eggleston as a threat to everything that the white patriarchal institution of photography had been built upon until that moment. I don’t believe for a second Bresson actually had all that much of a problem with colour photography, as much as he took issue with what colour film and photographers like Eggleston represented. A shifting in hegemonic control.
I do think there are people who still feel there is a battle between black-and-white and colour photography. This is absolutely a construct of the past and a living relic of the white male dominated control that is sewn into the history of photography. It can be put to bed – or put in a coffin. There are several artists in Primal Sight whose pictures are in colour, but due to cost restraints everything had to be grayscaled. But there’s absolutely no reason colour and black-and-white shouldn’t start meeting. I rather like seeing them together, on the rare occasions that I do see them together. I’m currently working on a project of colour and black-and-white photography together. They’re very graphic in the same space and it’s exciting to think about how conversations around the medium may transform the more we see them coexist.
A: In your intro you write: “That is what photography has always provided: to upset established order.” It’s interesting that in this case black-and-white, previously seen as more traditional, has become the way of subverting the status quo. Have we come full circle somehow? Why? Is this a response to the deluge of images we experience day-to-day in our lives?
EZM: Black-and-white photography in and of itself is not subversion. It’s a choice that turns perception on its head. I’m more interested in the way artists use and compose black-and-white photographs today, that’s where the subversion of the status quo lives. I don’t want to lay claim that any form of art making is about coming full circle. There are far too many variables to make that claim. What all this does say is that things are changing and have been for quite some time now.
Primal Sight might be a way of recognising these changes. Artists, who use the camera to express themselves and their lives, don’t need to see the past as a rule to be followed, but simply a base by which to grow new paths into the future. Reeducation is a healthy death for men like Henri Cartier Bresson and William Eggleston. They have their marks and histories and that’s great. The only way their work will truly last is by those of us who take what they did and build upon it in ways that they never could have imagined. In this way, we can respect the past and acknowledge the reality of its success and its faults so we never have to make those pictures ever again. There’s a great Mike Cloud quote: “If we understand Picasso as allegory and acknowledge the validity of the insight he presents, no one need ever be the new Picasso again. Picasso need never come back for us.” Replace the name Picasso with any male canonical figure.
A: There’s a minimalist dimension to looking at black-and-white photography – the restriction of the monochrome palette opens up a richer viewing experience as it makes you focus on the details, the textures, the tones you might not notice in colour. How does that chime with your own experience of looking at black-and-white images?
EZM: I have synesthesia, which is a neurological trait where the sensations of certain senses trigger the sensations of other senses. It happens when neurological pathways overlap in the brain. An example of this is seeing sound. I taste-touch-hear, which is a little wild to share and even more complicated to describe. Your question triggers sensations that happen when I look at the pictures in Primal Sight. The details and textures do create literal tones and sounds and even tastes that feel like what one could describe as colors and emotions. One thing that’s deeply rewarding is how black-and-white photography extends the meaning of the world and allows for much more freedom in how we interpret the world. Black-and-white photography is a door to the surreal. It’s a way of communicating and interpreting that allows for much more creative thinking and expansive fluidity in how we assign meaning to the world.
A: And yet there’s also a real visceral intensity to much of the work here. Many of the images use strong chiaroscuro to make elements, objects or people “shine in the darkness” as you put it. What were you getting at with the idea of “Primal sight”? Something dream-like? Universal? Animalistic?
EZM: I’m not trying to do anything to the work. These artists stirred something in me that I’m deeply grateful for. What they stir in me is something that makes me feel heard and not silenced. What they stir makes me want to be a harder working artist and advocate for others who just are trying to live their lives, share their stories, and participate in the world. They are as dream-like, universal and animalistic as viewers allow them to be. To quote myself: “regardless of differences there is something universal in how humans try to make sense of the world. We become comfortable or unsure and these images become something else.” What I’m getting at is that when you strip away the comforts of familiarity there are some real truths that we as people share. Only by embracing the unknown, celebrating differences and the subjugated with joy and affirmation, can we move together towards a collectively more viable and equitable future.
A: Is there anything you’d like to add or highlight that I didn’t ask you about?
EZM: It’s only through conversations that this book will become more exposed and less specific to what its expectations are or may have been. In that regard the only other thing I have to add is, thanks. Thanks to you and anyone who cares enough to make sense of the book and the world they let birth from it.
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Words: Rachel Segal Hamilton
1. Draxler, Jesse, Untitled, 2018
2. Keisha Scarville, Untitled #11, 2016
3. Hausthor, Dylan, Michelle Behind Her House, 2019
4. Kristen Joy Emack, Shower, 2018
5. Elzey, Mark, AWENG, 2018
6. Lee, Zun, At Home with Jonathan and William, 2017
7. Ohemaa Dixon, Pas de Deux, 2019
8. Anna Belozerova, Fill the Void With Meaning, 2019
9. Avgud, Alex, Olivier (as on a crucifix), 2019
10. Amoser, Florian, 1610-04-05 from the Series Quantified Landscape, 2016