Issue 003 Fall 2021 Profiles

Image As Offering

A Profile of Texas Isaiah

by Jessica Lynne

Texas Isaiah is a visual narrator who grounds himself in the study and practice of making images that are anchored in restoration, play, and remembrance. Here, I use the word study to refer to a type of learning that is ongoing and evolving, full of rigorous curiosity and generosity that rejects hierarchy and assumptions of authority. For the image maker who is not white or straight or cis, and is contending with the histories of photography that are reflective of a weaponization of the medium, this study of intimacy cannot be haphazard.


To be in dialogue with Texas Isaiah, then, is something profound. That is, to be in conversation with him is an opportunity to think alongside an artist for whom the concerns of lineage, pleasure, and safety are key. As his interlocutor, you are deliberately ushered into study with him. I experienced this potent dynamic for myself after receiving an invitation to be a critical dialogue partner to the artist as part of his 2020-2021 artist residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Throughout this collaboration, we asked questions, together, about the expansive nature of self-portraiture. We exchanged notes about the scholars and thinkers who guide our work and sought the best ways to describe an ethos of care in front of and behind the camera. All of this is another way of saying that mostly, we were always in dialogue about the very condition of the photographic image itself.

“First, during this moment, photography is one of the most challenging practices to engage with because it’s readily accessible and the most greatly consumed,” the artist tells me during a mid-summer phone call as we discuss the storytelling possibilities of photography. “It’s also harmed a lot of communities and continues to, and I’m greatly interested in that rehabilitation.” This intervening gesture is full of gravitas. To be imaged is a deeply political process and can communicate, as an act of repair, multiple truths about the realities of those who are captured. In Texas Isaiah’s images, sitters are not simply placeholders for a vague nod to representational politics. They also inform, and contribute to, the emotional and formal registers of the photograph as co-conspirators.

 


A portrait of a Black person standing against a large blush pink curtain. They are dressed in a white blazer and matching skirt, their left arm at their hip in a strong pose.
Taj, 2020. Portrait by Texas Isaiah.

In the series Blackness the artist has imaged more than sixty participants who represent a spectrum of gender experiences, sexualities, and Black diasporic identities. These black-and-white portraits that document sitters primarily from the waist up call your focus as a viewer to the tenderness of the eyes. In these images, the eyes are the poetry — undaunted and ethereal. In the series Every Image is an Offering, created in partnership with the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and VSCO, Black trans and gender expansive individuals are imaged in their homes, office settings, or in nature, an especially important setting for the photographer. The series engages a range of provocations including this poignant inquiry: “What would Marsha love to see in image making today?” Like Blackness, these portraits embody poise and stillness. Despite a world that would dare name this embodiment as a threat, the photographs resonate at the highest frequencies.

For Black folks — particularly Black trans, non-binary, and gender expansive people — the urgency to rearticulate public visual narratives of personhood is palpable. To do so in a manner that acknowledges, and indeed, revels in the personal and subjective without flattening is the task of care. What I mean is this: intimacy lives in the creation, organization, and preservation of these (imaged) genealogies. Such a realization strikes me intensely as Texas Isaiah describes the circumstances of grief that first compelled him to photography. “Between 2012 -2015, I experienced significant losses, and I barely had any images of these individuals,” he says. “I believe the grief worsened because I didn’t have anything else other than my memories. It reminded me that people have experienced visual erasure because of a lack of visual evidence of their existence.”


Intimacy lives in the creation, organization, and preservation of these (imaged) genealogies.


A Black person looks seriously at the camera, standing in front of a brick building and a tree which are both out of focus.
Untitled (Dre), 2021. Portrait by Texas Isaiah.

A Black person lays on a blanket on the ground. Their eyes closed and one arm resting on the other.
Untitled (Blu), 2021. Portrait by Texas Isaiah.

Texas Isaiah intentionally extends and expands upon an archive of Black life as means of recovery and, most importantly, as a way of declaring presence. “During a time when I was being presented with my true embodiment of how I wanted to be presented in the world — and that this was also happening during an emergence of Black trans people in the media — it struck me that I would be able to contribute to this conversation at that time,” he tells me. His is a task not solely demarcated by recovery. It is also emphatically proclamation.

In her essay for Frieze Magazine, “Finding Quietness in a Loud World,” poet and critic Harmony Holiday defines Black quietness, in part, as the “antidote to dread in the realm of the senses: no more tyranny, just space to rehearse and re-hear, to pay a deep attention to the calm we have earned and pursued and become.” Holiday outlines Black quiet (aligned with the writings of Kevin Quashie) as a methodology and spiritual practice, almost, within the terrain of the sonic — Black music traditions. This thesis, I believe, is also elastic enough so that we might read the terms of Holiday’s quiet alongside the images created by Texas Isaiah and his sitters. The calm earned and pursued and which we become is a geography of Black pleasure, “rest and repose,” as Harmony calls it. Texas Isaiah maps this landscape joyously. Even as his practice moves across the commercial and editorial or the nebulous parameters of “fine art” photography (a term the artist considers too limiting in scope) — at the time of this writing, the artist has a solo exhibition on view at Jack Tilton Gallery in New York City — his work serves as a balm, an antidote, a space to look and then, look again more closely.


An older Black person sits in front of a white paneled home. They wear a ball cap, sunglasses, and a striped white polo. Their arms rest on their knees as they appear to look directly at the camera.
Untitled (Pops), 2021. Portrait by Texas Isaiah.
A Black person sits in a chair outside, in front of a tree, their face covered by an orange/green beanie pulled down to their neck.
Untitled (Marshall), 2021. Portrait by Texas Isaiah.

“I never negotiate the intimacy I hold as a person,” Texas Isaiah tells me when I ask him about the function of such market categorizations. “It always shows up no matter what, even if it isn’t meant to show up in a conversation about image making. Because of that, something always interesting shows up in the images.” I smile to myself when I hear this because “something interesting” is too humble a statement to describe the vibrancy of a practice informed so fervently by a multiplicity of knowledge sources — from deep ancestor veneration, to his parents, and fellow artists such as musician Ahya Simone, actor Marquise Vilson, photographer Carrie Mae Weems, and the elder trans activist and organizer Miss Major. The brilliance of such a constellation is further animated by a type of serendipity the artist finds in the world. “When I walk out of my apartment, whoever I encounter, I’m also taking something from them and I’m always thankful for that.”

For an artist animated by encounters in this way, the isolation/distancing caused by a global pandemic poses an unnerving challenge. Under what circumstances can we actually gather now? And what has it meant to even re-enter a process of “art” making after such an extended period of crisis and isolation? What awaits us in this new place?

To grapple with this tension necessitates a vocabulary of love that can, of course, be applied to the realms of artmaking. More importantly, it can inform how we show up for ourselves and the people in our lives. Texas Isaiah is keenly aware of this. After a year and a half of navigating the ebb and flow of creative inspiration, a recent summer trip back to his beloved home of Brooklyn renewed his charge. “It made me think about the things that I really want to be part of. It made me re-evaluate my work commitments: what is it that I really want to do?” he asks aloud during our phone call. It is a question requiring the sincerest forms of introspection, and in a time of an expected return to a myth of normalcy, this honesty stirs me emotionally as I listen. Then again, I have come to expect nothing less from Texas Isaiah. He knows how to tell the truth. He also knows — and this too is something that I learn from him — what it means to leave room for future pleasures, creative inquires, and surprises.

“What I look forward to is fun. To care and be intentional in a world that doesn’t always value that. If this is it, I want to have fun and not allow others to make me worried about if the work is good enough to sell, or be in a show, or be in print, or be more popular, or be on a pedestal. I want to focus on what it’s like to be present with images.”