An Intimate Look Inside Five Emerging Black Photographers, Shot Entirely on iPhone

The International Center of Photography’s latest group exhibition puts the power, range, and potential of a rising vanguard of Black photographers—and the iPhone camera—on full display.

“New Jersey 01” (2021) by Arielle Bobb-Willis

If one thing can be said about the pandemic, it ushered in firsthand looks inside the interior lives of our favorite artists, photographers, and friends through Instagram. We often use the photo-sharing app, and the iPhone in general, to casually document everyday happenings—our latest meals, memories with friends, and art that resonates. Despite how iPhones have democratized image-making and have lately been utilized as impactful outward-facing tools to capture this tumultuous era’s more human side, it’s rare to see photographs originating from the device exclusively headline a museum exhibition. That changes with “INWARD: Reflections on Interiority,” a star-making group show opening today at the International Center for Photography’s newly renovated building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. 

The exhibition offers a rare intimate look inside the personal lives of five up-and-coming Black photographers, many of whom have worked on assignment for major publications such as the New York Times, Vogue, and Vanity Fair, yet have never been shown in museums. “The revealing new photographs explore intimate thoughts and personal relationships with great honesty, as the artists delve deep into the new reality and challenges of our contemporary lives at a time of global introspection,” says curator-at-large Isolde Brielmaier, whose idea for the show crystallized during lockdown, when we all became immersed in each other’s personal images of quarantine through social media. The results, she further explains, “provide a thought-provoking window into their interior lives.” 

(FROM LEFT) “Untitled” (2021) by Isaac West. “New Orleans 01” (2021) by Arielle Bobb-Willis.

The subject matter, as one may expect, is deeply personal. As an introvert, Djeneba Aduayom discovered newfound clarity and relished in quietude and her own company during the pandemic. This disarming confidence shines through her self-portraits, in which she poses for the camera and directly gazes at the viewer. The Liberian-born Isaac West drew inspiration from his girlfriend, Naima, for a series that focuses on the small ways in which human interactions, gestures, and expressions can encapsulate larger ideas about love and care. His strikingly bold colors as well as a strong articulation and centering of Blackness highlights everyday acts of kindness such as grooming, eating, and playing.

The self-taught Brad Ogbonna unveils a broad series of portraits of family, friends, and himself that underscore the power of personal relationships in the style of seminal West African portrait photographers Malick Sidibé and Meissa Gaye. The portraits arise from a photo album inherited shortly after his dad passed away, which he describes as a “portal to the not-so-distant past and left me with many more questions than answers. I was enthralled by the mystery of it all.” 

Much of Arielle Bobb-Willis’s photography stems from her experience battling depression from an early age. “I moved to Los Angeles this past July, which was crazy and last-minute,” she tells Surface. “I felt a little bit lost and wasn’t sure what I was doing next. When Isolde got in touch, I felt I needed to travel back home to New Jersey and New Orleans and feel that sense of self again.” She presents four painterly outdoor photographs, two shot in each location, employing improvised materials hand-picked from thrift stores and streetsides (one features a discarded Mardi Gras float) in abstract forms to stunning effect.

“My dad grew up in Brooklyn around Basquiat and Warhol, so growing up he always taught us to respect painters,” says Bobb-Willis, who counts Jacob Lawrence, Benny Andrews, and Max Ernst among her biggest inspirations. “When I’m shooting, I’m only really thinking in the moment and I find it to be very therapeutic. The biggest thing has been the duality of learning that you can be healed and still be healing.” 

(FROM LEFT) “Melanin Monroe” (2021) by Quil Lemons. “Genesis” (2021) by Quil Lemons.

Similar themes seep through the four self-portraits presented by Quil Lemons, who documented a deeply personal journey of self-exploration and self-validation as a Black queer man. “There’s no space for me, so I constantly carve one,” says Lemons, whose images illustrate the multitudes contained within his racial and gender identity in ways that allow for the intertwined co-existence of both while redefining Black masculinity. It’s a conversation that originated in his inaugural series, Glitterboy (2017), in which he dusted Black men with glitter to combat the stereotypes and stigmas placed upon their bodies.

“I find power in having agency and autonomy over my own body,” he continues. Though his portraits indeed feel self-assured and radiate unabashed confidence, he hopes to create images “that last beyond my existence and show what we were doing with the time,” or as he puts it bluntly, “make good shit that sticks with people.” He’s on a fast track to doing just that—the 24-year-old South Philadelphia native recently made history as the youngest photographer to ever shoot a Vanity Fair cover. 

The power and range of iPhone photography came into clear focus with the brand’s ongoing “Shot on iPhone” campaign, which first brought unexpectedly crisp close-ups, dramatic landscapes, and dynamic street style to billboards, bus stops, and train stations around the world in 2015. In many ways, “INWARD: Reflections on Interiority” feels like a timely if not overdue meditation on the campaign’s momentum—and how the device has galvanized seismic shifts in how we document everyday moments. It’s difficult to imagine going about one’s day without sending a quick selfie to friends, FaceTiming loved ones, or sharing an inspirational city scene to Instagram. In fact, Apple has long topped Flickr’s annual list of the most popular cameras, with the iPhone outclassing both Canon and Nikon combined in 2017. The annual iPhone Photography Awards, launched ten years prior, has been celebrating the greatest quick-hit glimpses of everyday beauty since the device’s inception. 

(FROM LEFT) “Invisible Walls” (2021) by Djeneba Aduayom. “Paul & Peter” (2021) by Brad Ogbonna.

Given the device’s popularity, it may feel strange that “INWARD” is one of the first exhibitions that centers iPhone photography. If these documents of disarmingly intimate everyday moments prove anything, however, it’s that the medium is constantly evolving—and has much more to offer. Because the exhibition opens today, aligned with the launch of the highly anticipated iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, that means each photographer relied on older devices to create their images.

With that said, the show helps drum up hype for the newly unveiled iPhone models’ further enhanced photographic capabilities. Both will sport the device’s most advanced camera yet, featuring a faster camera sensor that enables crisper photography in lowlight settings and new sensor-shift optical image stabilization features that keep shots steady even when your hand isn’t. The camera will also support a feature called “cinematic mode” that automatically creates depth effects and focus transitions, including built in “rack focus”—a storytelling technique in which focus shifts from one subject to another.

“INWARD: Reflections on Interiority” opens at the International Center for Photography (79 Essex Street, New York) from Sept. 24–Jan. 10, 2022. It runs alongside “Gillian Laub: Family Matters,” a two decade–long documentation of the New York photographer’s familial dramas, and “Diana Markosian: Santa Barbara,” which presents an autobiographical narrative of her mother’s path from Russia to America in search of a better life.

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