The Photobook Review

Energy Charts and Cosmic Light

Working between portraiture and documentary, Khalik Allah’s new book tracks Harlem by night.

By Jovonna Jones

Photographer and filmmaker Khalik Allah’s monograph begins with a manifesto entitled “Camera Ministry.” He writes: “I shoot people who find them-selves in the worst possible situation, but I recognize their invulnerability and reflect it back to them. These are psychic x-rays. I consider my photographs energy charts.” This empathic insight notably was brought to bear in his film Field Niggas (2015), an acclaimed documentary about New Yorkers facing homeless-ness, substance abuse, and harassment on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. Souls Against the Concrete (University of Texas Press, 2017) compiles 105 analog portraits made on those street corners over three years, foregrounding Allah’s long-held commitment to cinematic storytelling and nocturnal light. Rather than frame his nighttime Harlem subjects through terms of social abjection, vulnerability, and redemption—an over-determined lexicon typically used to regard people who occupy the streets—Allah practices a visual language of impenetrable self-possession. He acknowledges metaphors of darkness as both freeing and debilitating, but tables them. Instead, light is his driving concept and technical method, in service of what he terms soul consciousness.

Khalik Allah, Untitled, 125th Street, 2014
© the artist and courtesy Gitterman Gallery, New York

As a child of the 1990s growing up between Queens and Harlem, Allah found his practice shaped by two sites of knowledge: the camcorder and the corner. He started out by capturing the everyday lives of his family, the streets, and anything around him—“the rays of [their] lives.” But it was the philosophy of the Five Percent Nation, or the Nation of Gods and Earths, that would define Allah’s photographic mission and form. Harlem serves as the Mecca for the Five Percent Nation, a cultural-religious movement founded by a former student of Malcolm X in 1963, and popularized by the legendary hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan (whom Allah photographed early in his career). Members ground their teachings in tenets such as “Black people are the original people of the planet Earth,” and “each one should teach one according to their knowledge.” They are committed to the social and ideological liberation of African Americans, and Allah’s work bears traces of their influence.

Khalik Allah, Untitled, 125th Street, 2014
© the artist and courtesy Gitterman Gallery, New York

Since the early 2000s, Allah has created five documentary films concerned with collective consciousness and self-possession within a racist and classist social order: The Absorption of Light (2005), Popa Wu: A 5% Story (2010), Urban Rashomon (2013), Antonyms of Beauty (2013), and Field Niggas. In Souls Against the Concrete, Allah centers on the individual, seeking out the moments when a person’s inner life creates both tension and harmony with their surround-ings. The series opens with an elevated and unfocused city shot of 125th and Lexington, taken from the vantage point of an overpass overlooking the intersection. The scene stretches from the cross of the Iglesia Pentecostal to the Pathmark retail sign beaming up across the street. Traffic congeals on both sides of the road, shooting two dotted, receding vectors of white and red light that dissipate where the night sky meets the city’s horizon.

Khalik Allah, Untitled, 125th Street, 2013
© the artist and courtesy Gitterman Gallery, New York

Nearly eclipsed by the activity of traffic and dwarfed by signage, two micro-stages take shape on the concrete. On the sidewalk, three figures stroll through the frosty light from a convenience store. At the major intersection, three more figures lean against a parked car, while another starts down the crosswalk past a chorus of headlights. Abundant yet sparing, artificial light organizes and renders the figures complete in their concealment. For his portraits, Allah wields competing light sources, luminosities, and gradations with flexibility and precision, keen to the ways people conduct visible energy, yet protect their sacred interiority. Fluorescent light becomes corporeal in some portraits and abstracted in others. Glows emerge through a person’s face, their gaze, and the angle of their pose, whether contemplative, elusive, playful, or performative. The lucent coordinates featured in the opening street view reoccur through-out the work: they frame a dapper man between sips of his beverage and drags from his cigarette; they’re cradled in a woman’s palm as she gives her hair a quick pat. Distant and contained forms of light become two-dimensional shapes or planar gradients behind a muse, appearing chromatic and translucent, even cosmic.

Khalik Allah, Untitled, 125th Street, 2013
© the artist and courtesy Gitterman Gallery, New York

Allah maintains a theatrical, narrative space within this landscape-format book, with each portrait appearing widescreen against a facing page of black ink, forcing the eyes on a single subject. But unlike a documentary with credits and captions, Souls Against the Concrete includes no titles, no photo index. (The project ends with a heartfelt acknowledgments section, simply thanking everyone who cocreated the work.) At the intersections of portraiture and documentary, Allah breaks through the limited visual conditions of the night to figure light differently through the human form, and to portray the streets freely through light. As he writes, “I shoot at night to remind people that we’re in outer time, outer space. Time is over, and the world has ended. Only the Light continues.” Here, light animates the prolific outer-worldliness of people—people deemed out of time and at risk. People who “shoulder the world’s blame” and live to refuse it.

Jovonna Jones is an art critic and doctoral student at Harvard University. She researches black aesthetics and the history of photography.

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A bad girl
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The recipe
A bad girl
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The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.

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