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A Conversation with Donavon Smallwood
Visual poetry, searching for truth, and following the word.
During the summer of 2020, Donavon Smallwood was walking in Central Park, making tender, precise images of people, water, and foliage. These photographs, which eventually became Languor — the book was published by Trespasser in 2021 — are a series of close-in portraits and studies of the park, full of light rendered in a delicate monochrome.
Smallwood encountered some of the people portrayed in Languor in the park itself, and others he met elsewhere or found online, asking to meet in the park and make their portrait later. It makes sense that a work of such beauty is not documentary, but instead constructed, almost an ideal. Can something made be truer than something happened upon? In any case, Smallwood describes the work as acting as a kind of mirror — for himself, and for his subjects — and as such the work reflects a picture of “Black tranquility”, describes the experience of being Black in nature.
I love the aesthetic simplicity of this work, and the vastness and depth that echo beneath the still waters of its surface. Languor feels timeless, at the same time as the young people Smallwood photographs are, in their piercings and tattoos, utterly contemporary; and this timelessness feels especially remarkable given its origin, in a year characterised by so many reasons for urgency.
In thinking about this work, and Smallwood’s approach to it — he sees photography as communion with the divine — I’m thinking about the way that often the largest, most transcendent, most existentially ambitious themes are accessed through the simplest routes. To look earnestly for truth, to speak to God: how often this seems to happen in the closest kind of attention paid to a single leaf or stalk of grass, or a person lost in thought — or a person, as Smallwood puts it, “entirely with themselves”.
Alice Zoo: There are a lot of abstract themes I’m hoping to speak about with you as we go on, but I’d like to begin by asking you about casting. In other interviews about Languor, I’ve heard you describe how sometimes you’d approach people in the park, but other times you’d see someone elsewhere, or online, and arrange to make a portrait together at a later date. I’m really interested in how and why you chose your subjects — what attributes or qualities did you find yourself drawn to? And why do you think those particular qualities appealed?
Donavon Smallwood: So I photographed maybe double the amount of people who ended up actually being in the final project; I chose them based on some initial attraction to their general style or demeanour. Some people I photographed as they were when I initially met them in the park, and others I had found the location that would serve as the backdrop first, inserting the person for the portrait after. All but one of the portraits in the book feature a person wearing jewellery or with a piercing — maybe that’s also something I was subconsciously noticing — but the most important thing was that they fit the environment and the narrative I was constructing.
AZ: That makes sense. I’m interested in pushing deeper into the nature of that initial attraction — what were the qualities of the kinds of style and demeanour that attracted you? How would you articulate that appeal, or that note of recognition? What did it feel like to you? And then how was it possible that those features chimed with a narrative that was still ongoing, as yet unconstructed? I guess I’m asking how we recognise something that we haven’t seen before, or see it as resonating with something imagined; as well as what that recognition feels like when it occurs.
DS: This is a tough one. I work a lot on intuition. I knew I wanted to photograph people who could relate to myself in this space, people who would serve as a mirror as I did for them during our brief photo session (one of my favourite things about using the camera I do is noticing people adjusting themselves as they see their reflection in the lens). This materialised as photographing young Black people who were entirely with themselves. I wish I could parse out the entirety of my reasoning for doing specific things with this work, in a La Vita Nuova kind of way, but I don’t know if I have the capacity to do so! There may be too many reasons and even too many meanings to disclose in any other way than the images themselves. The title of the book came to me in the middle of photographing for it, and once I knew that I just followed the word.
AZ: Of course, trying to articulate an intuitive process is like trying to bottle smoke; but I really love the idea of people “entirely with themselves”, and I think that kind of self-possession radiates so clearly and sweetly from the pictures. There’s a kind of quiet peace, an absence of striving or looking elsewhere for satisfaction or coherence, a lack of need; perhaps these kinds of qualities are a precondition for languor.
I’m very drawn, too, to the notion of following the word. It’s familiar to me, that sensation of deep recognition that comes from the right articulation of something, whether in words or images. I know you studied literature, and I’ve been looking forward to asking you about its relationship to your work as an artist. Could you tell me more about your reading life, and the way that it interacts with your photography practice? Why do words feel like such fertile ground for you in offering prompts or impetus for creative work?
DS: The notion of following the word is a spiritual practice and vocation to me, quoting Hamann: “Everything the human being heard from the beginning, saw with its eyes, looked upon and touched with its hands was a living word; for God was the word.”
These days I spend a decent amount of time reading and listening to poetry. Usually I’ll get absorbed completely in one work, or a corpus, and try to find my way through it like some sort of maze. Every photograph I show or print and sequence is a way to show devotion to the word, and poetry as a whole. In world history photography is such a new medium and mode of expression; language never seems to fully be able to capture the essence of reality, but it’s extremely useful in allowing one to form reality and attempt to express truth. I feel as though photography is an extension of this and I’m infinitely excited by it! The goal for me is to keep making projects that serve as visual poems, and in the end they can come together as one big Faerie Queene-esque poem.
AZ: That’s so interesting. I’ve often heard photographs compared to poetry (as opposed to prose), in the way that they show only a glancing, incomplete fragment of a moment or person or situation; but that it’s often this incompleteness, or the holding back, that gives them their unique power and meaning. That we glimpse only the sparkling edges of a thing, and must form the rest ourselves. And I’m also becoming more and more interested in the idea of photography as an extension of the written word, rather than being something more like its opposite, which is how I used to imagine it; this is something that Charlie Engman also touched on in our conversation back in November.
I’m fascinated by the spiritual aspect of your work and would like to come to that properly in a moment, but first I’m curious about what you’ve been reading lately. Could you tell me about a work of poetry you've been absorbed in recently, and your journey through it? How has your recent reading been informing your life and work?
DS: There’s so much that can be said about that and I agree — the first example that comes to mind is Nan Goldin’s “Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City.” On the surface you see a photograph steeped in beautiful (what I assume to be) sunset light, but it’s much deeper as a whole. It’s an image that becomes a metaphor for intimacy, abuse, American women’s conditions, and much more. She took the particularity of a moment and made it universal: that’s poetry. The possibilities take on new forms when you start talking about linking images together, such as in a project or a book.
As for poetry, I’ve been absorbed in William Blake and his worldbuilding for a while now; I find his work to be profound, life-affirming and altering. I’ve also been listening to a lot of American singer-songwriters, along with listening to more aggressive and seemingly complex music, but it’s all poetry at the end of the day. I’m working on a project now and a lot of the base inspiration has come from the band Slint, and how they use uncommon time signatures along with monologues that build anticipation or anxiety for the arrangements that follow.
AZ: I’m intrigued to see how the new work is shaped by those reference points. There’s plenty to say about the different and similar ways that poetry and photography both respectively depend on time and, as an extension of that principle, the ways that music and musicality can then be present in each of them.
As for Blake, I started reading a lot of him at the end of last year while preparing for our conversation, knowing his work informed Languor, and it makes sense to me that he’s been so important for you given that he was a painter, engraver, and printmaker as well as a poet. He also seemed not to make such a tidy distinction between words and images. It was my first time feeling properly absorbed by the built worlds of Songs of Innocence and Experience, and the way Blake’s poems are integrated into and illuminated by his watercolours, the meaning of the words themselves changed or expanded by colour and figuration.
Something else that obviously comes to mind when thinking about Blake is his mysticism, his visions of angels, his tireless exploring of — to quote Joyce — “the divinity of the imagination”. I’d love to know more about what you were saying about your creative practice as spirituality and devotion. How did this aspect of your practice develop? Have spirituality or religion always been a part of your life? When did you begin to link the creative with the divine, and how has that relationship changed and grown as you've developed as an artist?
DS: Definitely! Photography, music, poetry are very much about the particular. Recreating or simply displaying a particular circumstance to give someone a particular effect. Oh wow, I love that you dug into Songs of Innocence and Experience! His work is just incredible. It reads to me as an early form of comic books, in a way. Night might be my favourite poem from that compilation and I’d say definitely one I kept at the front of my mind when working on Languor.
Touching on spirituality, I think that aspect of my practice — and just myself in general — developed over time. I was always obsessed with trying to find truth, and understand where and why beliefs form. This materialised in reading, listening, and sitting with a lot of philosophy. Not being satisfied with that, it led to the same acts but with poetry, which is where I’m at today in my disjointed search for truth. I grew up in a pretty secular household, but today I wouldn’t really consider myself to be spiritual or religious, just a Christian who is highly inspired or influenced by the Bible and its revelatory expansions found in Dante, Blake, Milton, and others. When I mention creative practice as devotion I think about this one Bible verse where Jesus writes in the sand and how profound that moment was in the text. Writing in the sand to me signifies creating the temporary; it is up to the people to record and savour, to carve words spoken or written in sand into stone. That’s what photography is, carving creation and imagination into stone.
AZ: That’s really beautiful. It makes me think, too, of Blake and his engraving, his printing, the very literal carving he would have done to create the prints in Songs that illustrated his words.
I just revisited Night, and it’s wonderful to look at Languor afresh with that poem in mind. This line especially caught me: “New worlds to inherit.” It made me think of what I’ve heard you describe discovering while you were making Languor: the history of Central Park being built over Seneca Village, and the Black communities that were displaced to create this public space.
Relatedly, I’ve also been wondering about the very particular context that surrounded Languor; that it was made during the same summer as the Black Lives Matter movement, and this extraordinary mobilisation of people all over the world. That summer there was a constant stream of very charged, very dynamic footage covering TV and social media: vast crowds of people protesting, as well as riots and arrests and buildings on fire — while you were quietly walking in the park, making beautiful, contemplative studies of nature and of young Black people at rest in it.
I had a conversation with Azu Nwagbogu at the beginning of 2020 in which he spoke about the way that there’s often a pressure on Black artists to be didactic or overtly political, and that resistance to the burden of those expectations can look like photography that documents the mundane, or the domestic, or the restful, instead. He suggested “repose — which is to be situated, to be calm, to be comfortable in your own space — as a sort of radical form of resistance to displacement.” We spoke, too, about Audre Lorde's notion of caring for oneself as a political act. I wondered if these kinds of ideas had been part of your thinking while you were making Languor, or whether making the work had acted as a kind of balm for some of the intensities of that summer?
DS: I definitely agree with Azu, and it’s more than just pressure when that’s the the primary work you ever see gain traction. Languor has historical contexts and was made during a hyper-political moment here in the US, but I never considered it to be political work. I think in order for some people to take it more seriously, or consider it worth sharing/praise, they spotlighted the aspects which could be noted as political. I’m not sure if anything I’m working on or will work on in the future can be viewed through a political lens, so we’ll see how that goes!
I don’t think the ideas were part of my thinking when making the work, but the general feeling was present innately. When everything was erupting I spent a lot of time making video collages that served as a way to exhale, but once I was no longer afraid to just be outside and took some time to work through some ideas I realised that’s what I needed, so from that point on I blocked all news. I changed my Twitter trending topics to Japan, I blacklisted any word dealing with anything going on, I muted people on social media, etc, and just focused on making the work.
AZ: Yes — at the moment it often feels like photography, and photography journalism, are being recruited into a kind of current affairs churn — that the crucial question when pitching is ‘why now?’, as if any work needs to respond to a legible issue of the day whose dimensions are already broadly understood. It’s sad, because it feels a little bit like we give up our ability to say something truly specific or new by having to frame everything via the political questions of the current moment.
I still find it poignant to know that Languor was produced as part of a conscious decision to turn away from the news and towards the physical world, towards nature and other people. I don’t think that the context necessarily becomes the subject matter of the work, nor is it what makes it meaningful or affecting, but it complicates it, and adds another note into the chord, so to speak.
Anyway, to finish — now that almost three years have passed, looking back on Languor, how do you feel that working on it moved you forward as an artist? What did you learn through making it that you’re carrying forward into new works? And are there ideas, feelings, or themes that you felt you resolved in that work, and can now move on from?
DS: The current affairs churn, as you put it, is really a house of cards; when your work starts to only and directly reflect the now, you’re at risk of becoming a proxy for the institutions at hand — a very weird and troubling position to be in.
Stepping away from being so present-minded was a huge help. Working on Languor was a trial in working less widely and instead doing something with a distinct set of themes and structures, a project that attempts to engage with the tradition of the medium. I mostly figured out what process works for me when it comes to starting and completing a project; I think once I set a deadline, or at least finish photographing for a project, I completely move forward mentally so everything from that is as good as resolved. I love the literary framework established by Northrop Frye and I try to connect it my own photo projects, that is, associating seasons with narrative parallels. Languor, to me, is very much connected with summer and winter, or romance and irony. My next project feels to be more spring, or comedy in the traditional sense of the word. With that comes specific imagery and theme sets… Maybe one day I’ll work on something that contains the full seasonal cycle.
Every month I’ll be asking each artist to recommend a favourite book or two: fiction, non-fiction, plays, poems. My hope is that, if you enjoyed the above conversation, this might be a way for it to continue.
Donavon Smallwood’s recommended reading:
Franny & Zooey — J.D. Salinger
Jerusalem — William Blake
The Apes of God — Wyndham Lewis
Collected Poems — Emily Dickinson
A huge thanks to Donavon Smallwood, and to you for reading! You can reply to this email if you have any thoughts you’d like to share directly, or you can write a comment below.
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