The Eternal Magic of Being Normal and Black

Black: (adj) of or denoting the suits spades and clubs in a deck of cards.

Adam has a magic deck of cards in his hand, and they are completely unlike a single deck of cards I have ever seen in my life. As he gingerly takes one out of the deck, he asked me what do I see when the card is presented to me.

Black: (adj) of any human group having dark-colored skin, especially of African or Australian Aboriginal ancestry.

The face that looks back at me is familiarly like my mother’s, her gaze is comforting yet piercing and feels eternal in a historic sense, this photo looks as though it has been taken at any time throughout history. Was she a figure that was prominent in the abolitionist movement? Was she a member of the Black Panther party? She’s actually Adam’s neighbor, Pat. Though a bit of sleight of hand, The second card is of a sir named Du’Ron, his artistic expression and sensuality pour through the 3.5×2.5 frame it contains. Each card in the deck, a total of 64 images, are portraits of African American faces in various expressions, showing the depth and variety of culture, history, and skin tone. Each image has a starkness that is so rooted in a time of old, and yet…there is untimely magic about how timeless it really is. When were these portraits taken? In 1861, 1925, or now? You can’t really know….and isn’t that the true beauty of it all? 

“I ask people what they see when they look at these people in these cards and everyone says “Oh that looks like my mom, or my aunt. And you get to sit with it and It resonates on a more familial level, and now you’re comfortable seeing this image like this. “

This magician’s goal is ambitious to say the least; to document twenty thousand images of Black American life in this original form of photography. No particular reason for this high number, Adam made it on a whim during the opening show, but I can’t help to think about the fact that Black people have always existed in three categories. Mythical (the magical negro trope), super sexual, or trauma based. We are recently walking down the slow, painful path to be seen as normal human beings, which is oddly rarefied within itself. It seems that Adam’s mission, is to control the framework to focus on how elevated black normalcy can be.

“I would like to demystify what being an artist is like especially in this method of image-making. Not too many people have seen this type of images before, and if they have, it has been historically relevant old figures in the black community. Adam speaks calmly on the couch at Photodom Studios, having all the demeanor of an intentional teacher . “There’s one of this guy called Willy, a man who is sitting on a chair with welts on his back, there’s a portrait of Harriet Tubman, and Fredrick Douglass. Those are the most famous black tintypes ever. But besides that, you don’t really see too many images of black people used in this method that are directly tied to trauma, or abolition, or slavery. My portraiture of just people’s faces? I’m trying to strip all of that shit out of whatever that is so that you can think past the past, I’m trying to think of the future.”

Black: (adj.)(of a period of time or situation) characterized by tragic or disastrous events; causing despair or pessimism.

Black: (adj) of the very darkest color owing to the absence of or complete absorption of light; the opposite of white.

Step into the studio and you’ll see how it all comes to be. The entire studio space must transform into a darkroom, as black curtains are drawn the remove the appearance of sunlight. Then a white backdrop is required, as well as a white floor. This is required so that absorption of light can take place at the maximum allotment possible.

Quite a bit of light is required for a portrait to come to fruition. 4800 watts of light to be exact, which the model is momentarily blinded for a split second, so that their image is burned that light into the sheet of aluminum metal.

Traditionally film has an ISO in the 100s, whenever you see that number on the box of the roll of film you get, and that number determines how sensitive the film is to light. 

Tintype exists within a totally different space, as the collodion plates have an ISO of 1, so it needs a ton of light, it’s so insensitive to light that it needs 4800 watts of light to burn the image. Aluminum metal is cut into 4×5 sheets, which are placed into the camera back, then are quickly exposed to the light to burn eternally burn the subject into it. Magic.

The medium for this magical exposition is birthed through Adam’s 4×5 camera, which is lovingly named Vanessa, named after his mom. It is 1960s Calumnet camera, bought for 200 dollars in Long lsland, and it was purchased in the midst of the quarantine. 

How can you be part of Black Magic? His metric is simple, the only requirement is that you have to be a black person. 

In a day in the life of L.A. Adam hangs around the camera stores to chop it up with the employees there, and they jokingly make him a coworker by default. Sometimes folks come into the place and ask him what he does, he says wryly:

“I shoot black people.”

That sentence is loaded and could even seem shocking considering the reality we face here in 1492-2021 America. But this sentence comes from a cameraman who is just being candid. He gauges a person’s response to his statement as a peek into one’s character, and ultimately discerns whether he would work with said person or not. If he’s met with an incredulous reaction, in Adam’s mind they get a “thank you for coming, please exit stage left,” but, if he’s met with congratulations or intrigue, the magic can begin.

Don’t make the mistake of inviting Adam to a museum though, he hates it.

“I fucking hate art. I don’t go to museums. I think it’s stupid. Art Basel is weird as fuck. It was great because I met great people. I didn’t look at much art at all. It’s the wrong time to look at art if you’re looking at it at Art Basel. It’s the “where you at Olympics. It made art such a commodity. I get it because eventually art and commerce walk hand and hand but I love the process of the art and the people I get to make it with, the final product I don’t give a fuck about. People will ask if I went to show, the answer is no. I don’t care about an artist’s exhibit, I’d rather talk to the artist in their studio.” I’m fortunate that I live bicoastal so that I can be around these people.

The Artists That Inspire Adam; in to respective order.

Kahlil Joseph, Arthur Jafa, Deana Lawson, Terance Nance, Naima Ramos Chapman, Salim

Green, Thebe, and Noname – are all artists who inspire Adam, and they all happen to live in LA

where Adam resides.

“But some of my favorite artists are just my niggas. I feel like every artist gets to decide what they want to make, and how they want to make it.  Those are the artists whose purpose I usually align with. Their work is all so powerful and emotive and I can’t really describe IT.”

“I also don’t like talking about other people’s work or Even my own, I’d rather just show you. I’m a teacher so Im naturally inclined to show you the THING.”

This short film directed by Terance Nance will make your day…

The themes of the work emanate celebrations of afro-futurism, queerness, blackness and the art of magic. 

Magic- (noun) the art of producing illusions as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.; legerdemain; conjuring:

Magic- (Noun) a quality that makes something seem removed from everyday life, especially in a way that gives delight. 

What is magical to Adam though? He recalls these moments with thoughtful fluidity. 

“Watching black guys run away from a magician when the trick is done.  Watching babies learn a new word. When my food comes out quicker than I anticipated at a restaurant. When someone behind me pays for my groceries. When I have Money for rent that month. When I hug someone new and I know what fragrance they are wearing. When I try a new food and I actually like it. When I kiss my partner and I can tell how they are feeling. When I put on the perfect outfit. It’s the little things, but it’s rooted in my love for actual magicians and card tricks, which is why I made the cards. I just like watching magic tricks.”

The spellbinding nature of photography began the day Adam graduated high school at nineteen years old, and immediately took off his graduation garb to run to the AT&T store to buy his first iPhone. He remembered his first photo, a picture of a painting that was framed in the downstairs bathroom of his home. When he edited the photo on an app called VSCO which you could post directly to your social media, so I could post to Instagram, and it would include a hashtag with the photo. The minute I clicked that hashtag, the world changed. In my mind, NYC was my dad’s church, my aunt and uncle’s house, my grandmother’s house, my house in Canarsie, the occasional trips to Manhattan and that was it. I really had no clue what I was living in to be honest. And this is a time when everyone was getting into photography. Now I could see the world.

In photography, maximizing your visual senses is a magical talent.

“Your job as a photographer or a visual artist, as a observer is so heightened, you need to notice things around you to dissect it, and then synthesize that into a piece you want to make eventually. Whether it’s a painting, sculpture, or photo, you have to be so observant. Especially as a photographer, cuz if you’re doing street photographer you’re observing and documenting in real-time, simultaneously. So being able to predict something before it happens is a talent within itself. So of my favorite street photographers have that uncanny ability. For example, Andre Wagner, this guy is so fucking good. He has the ability to see things and document them in real time and predict or make a general educated guess of what is going to happen, checking the light, be at the right focal distance settings of the camera, all these things you have to do in a split second, being an avid observer of things; people watching essentially, being able to predict in that short span of time.”

I play America’s Got Talent on Youtube for the kids I teach, I will have them watch the magic tricks. The second that someone asks “How did they do that?” I stop the video. I rewind it, and have them watch it again but have them look at the magician’s hands, listen to the intonation of their voice, and they are able to articulate what they have observed and they are able to essentially predict how the magician did it. So we get compare their predictions vs how the trick is actually done.”

Actually being a major fan of magic myself, I realized how magic trains one to look at the entirety of the show but its important to understand the balance of the art of observation. Actually pursing the ending of the trick comes a bit of a killjoy over time, and the novelty ultimately fades. So it’s in one’s best interest to really just enjoy the ride that the magician takes you on.

Upon watching magicians and falling in love with the art, it’s easy to discover the pattern of illusion deception by way of visual control and deceptive skill. Keep in mind that the hand is always quicker than the eye, and we are more prone to be passive, focused spectators than fully emersed in a macro sense. That would give the “trick” away. In this way, the models of this project get to be the naive spectator who is called up to the stage to participate in the momental dance with light and shadow.

We know that in the code of mystery, most magicians keep the secrets of the tricks within the confines of their heart, yet Adam is quite transparent in his execution process. He set the scene at his gallery opening within the Byrd Museum by intentionally handing signed cards from his deck to black people that he didn’t know. Then, once he was interviewed, he turned a 3500 square foot gallery into a darkroom on the spot.

“While everyone is in the dark, I got my chemicals and explain what they do and I randomly picked a card, the four of clubs, and a lady named Mariah had that card. She comes up and I ask her about her life before I took her photo. Afterwards, I said something deep, along the lines that these photos will never fade.” In holding Mariah’s portrait in his hand, Adam’s soul spoke for him So I’m holding By the time I’m dead, I will have 20,000 of these.”

The one man show

Any artists knows, a vision that exists within the lens of the brain is one thing to see and an entirely different monster to execute. Black Magic is no exception to rule, as the opening gallery at the Byrd Museum in L.A was completely designed, executed and funded by Adam. He paid for an entire month of the curated space at the museum, as well as the equipment, the book design, the DJs, and installing artists, which wasn’t cheap! Therefore, in order to reach 20,000 completed portraits, funding is absolutely vital to the finance the venture.

How do you find 20,000 people to participate? Adam speaks on the competitive, and somewhat expensive venture to apply for artist residencies but was fortunate enough to get in touch with SPACES, a great resource in Cleveland that specializes in giving artists residency, studio space, a budget for materials, and travel to and from the city, and they have a department that specializes in finding participants for the artists to create with. Oh, and the application is free! Check it out.

Black Magic: Created and manufactured in L.A. So far on 3 copies exist, one of which belongs to Rihanna.

The art of observation gives you the ability to synthesize any moment so that you can see how it’s really done, verses is actually taking place verses what someone else thinks. In the same way, that your favorite song goes to the bridge and it changes chords so that you can see the song in a completely different light, and then goes back to the pre-chorus or the hook, so you can return to the familiar nature of the melody.”

The Book of Black Magic

The book is a heavy tome of ebony and goldenrod pages and it’s interesting to note that each tintype photograph has a blank page next to it, which felt odd to me at first, but I realized that each image needs space to breathe. It would be overwhelming to put a photograph on each page, and also didn’t make much sense to have text there either. The photo is everything you need.

This project is all about telling you what to see. This book is that big for a reason. I’m telling you that you HAVE to stare at these faces. Controlling the environment. Where it’s a black face, in a black and white, specifically grey scale photo but against a black background. You have to see this. There is no other way, just this. In the same way that your favorite song goes to the bridge and changes chords to let you see the song in a totally different light, it’s the same thing with these images. You’ve seen a black face before, but not like this.”

“The more shelves that have this book the better, and not on some New York bestseller bullshit, I want for black people to own this book. I want it to be aCCessible, but you know that you’re not buying some regular ass book.”

The Magic Continues

It’s amazing how a camera can transcend time in its mysterious way. The lens, the eye itself, captures and controls the entirety of a moment. It’s dynamic in as it collects history within the present time so that the future generations can review it to remesinse or rediscover. Adam is opening the door to a legacy where you are given the opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the sublime quality of history being etched in metal forever. The first book contains fifty four portraits, the next one will have ten thousand, and the third and final one will have twenty thousand images of ebony existence within it. The work continues to know and discover that people have existed here on this planet through the line of time and these markers of portraiture are a resounding element of abject stability. Here we were, here we are, here we will be. Super excited to continue to see Black Magic unfold across America and the world at large. Take a look at his Instagram to learn more.

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