From Art Journal 80, no. 1 (Spring 2021)
Artist Texas Isaiah was interviewed on Zoom by Makeda Best, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Harvard Art Museums, on August 13 and 17, 2020. The interview has been edited for length.
Makeda Best: Your career took a new turn when you developed a friendship with the New York–based photographer Andre D. Wagner. Can you speak about that and how it impacted your practice?
Texas Isaiah: I met Andre through Instagram. I’d always been interested in and excited by Andre’s process—there was so much that I saw within him in terms of how he utilizes his practice. He is very focused on his work and is very private personally. Something about his sense of privacy resonated with me. Finding models for constructing that around myself was important to me at the time. It was 2013, not that long ago, but the internet was very different, and we were only beginning to see the emergence of what we have now. Andre offered me a [film] camera to try out (I had been working in digital). I did and it completely changed the way I was thinking about pictures. It was a process that introduced me to the kind of slowness and patience that I was searching for in my practice. I still have that camera. At the time I lived in Crown Heights. I used the second bathroom to develop negatives. It was a special moment. I was taking pictures of Sadie Barnett, Eric Mack, and Lauren Halsey, who were in residence at the Studio Museum [in Harlem]. It also helped me build my relationship with the Studio Museum. I was taking pictures from Brooklyn to Harlem. Those photographs reflect a portal of community between me and Andre. He saw that something in me had shifted and that I needed this new platform of expression. It was a tool that he outgrew himself.
Best: I’m intrigued by what you are saying about the practice that you wanted to have. You didn’t want to just take pictures, but to develop an intentional structure for that production.
Texas Isaiah: It taught me so much about vulnerability. I mentioned the patience, but I was also moving into trying to visualize what I saw as missing from the visual canon of photography. I didn’t grow up making art. I believe I am the first known artist in my family. I didn’t grow up with that space. A lot of what surrounded me when I was young was how to get from A to B and how to survive this thing. I’ve been thinking about my childhood a lot because I have started to build an altar here at my partner’s place. I haven’t built any altars since COVID. I’ve been feeling out of sorts along with everyone else, but I have a lot of baby photos on the altar. A lot of the elders in my life are healers, and they talk a lot about our inner children. Part of the reason why I gravitate toward younger folks is that I relate to them. There is something about being gender expansive and really having to engage with that inner child and do that work. They see what is in front of them, and then they ask questions. They haven’t been taught the binaries. And I think that is a beautiful thing, especially when we are dealing with our own inner children and parents who weren’t supportive, who couldn’t be supportive because they didn’t have access to that language. We’re all participating in a healing and young people mirror that. They are who they are until someone tells them that they are not.
Best: Your photographs demonstrate such an awareness of the subtleties of interaction. You have such an awareness of a moment and for suggesting the potential of the everyday. What did you look at when you were young? What was the visual culture of your youth?
Texas Isaiah: A lot of magazines, music videos. Interviews. CD covers. Record covers. My dad has an extensive vinyl collection. I would wonder why Nat King Cole chose this particular image for his holiday album. I had these questions. I just didn’t have anyone to ask. I was incubating questions in my head. We’re all archivists of something when we’re young.
Best: You were growing aware of the intentionality of images. You were noticing details. I also think that what you are pointing out is that there isn’t just one visual culture. There are many ways that we are educated visually. Each one has its own aesthetic—and that seems to come together in your work.
Texas Isaiah: Yes. I was very intrigued by fashion growing up. Watching the ways in which people were in their own bodies or not is an art in itself. I was exploring fashion and glamour in my series blackness. I was looking at old high school portrait photos from the seventies and eighties and at the poses and thinking about how people viewed beauty. I ended up constructing that project in my Brooklyn apartment—maybe 120 photographs. I was interested in what glamour not only means to me, but to everyone else. I had questions—what do you think beauty is? Do you find yourself to be beautiful? A lot of those questions that I was asking then led me to my practice today because I realized, making that work, that a lot of people didn’t feel like they deserved to be photographed. I also realized I didn’t feel desirable enough to be photographed. I think it made me realize that everyone deserves to be photographed and to want to know what that looks like. I was also facing myself, which had so much to do with the work. In the past when I’ve spoken to other photographers, I always detected a sense of detachment, like visual narrators cannot relate to their sitters. We’re all here as human beings and we all have desires and we all want to be loved. That is complicated in itself, so why can’t I relate to the sitter and ask those questions of myself and put myself in front of the camera? The project was a mirror for me.
Best: What you’re talking about is power, gaining power over all of those preconceptions and fears, and gaining power within oneself.
Texas Isaiah: Yes, and how to share that, as well. I also learned to be OK with the idea that it will not make everyone feel good. The purpose is to figure out what different human beings need from the moment, and that can be contradictory. I went into those sessions—not to heal, not to provide answers, but to figure it out. And with the commitment to the idea that we can do that together. There was a power dynamic I had to figure out at the time. I didn’t feel good. I couldn’t heal others. I had thirteen people pass away, and one of them was my grandfather. I was not in the space to be able emotionally to aid somebody. Through photography, I developed a support system that did not just benefit me. The process benefited those people who showed up for their photographs and shared things with me—which, would they have shared with me if I hadn’t been as open with them? People showed up for blackness. I remember one person told me they just had broken up with their partner, and they had to move out of their house. But they showed up for this session with me. The project opened so many doors to how I could be a more intentional giver and to also receive the things I need as well.
Best: Where do people of color have spaces to be vulnerable? Where do we put down that mask? I can see the space you describe as being a relief.
Texas Isaiah: I think there is a lot of strength in that. We do embody that, and we also perpetuate ideas on ourselves too. We do believe in vulnerability and emotional intelligence. But it isn’t like we live in a world that supports us. Who gets to be vulnerable and who doesn’t is such a major question. Black women are always vilified when they are being vulnerable. As a community we talk about being vulnerable, but what inner work are we doing to affirm that? It’s very difficult when you sit still and feel. It’s not only feeling the moment, but something from ten years ago—generational trauma can come up.
I talk about the emotional labor of photography because strangers become friends. There is a lot of care. If someone reaches out to me to be photographed but they are nervous, and they have issues around that, the conversation continues. We can talk about that. Being present for that “visual social work,” you might call it, to offer that therapeutic conversation for someone to figure out if now is the right time or if I am the right person to do it. I also let people know that I may not be the right photographer.
I can tell when someone is uncomfortable. I put the tool down. If I suggest a pose and it doesn’t feel good to you, let me know. I tell people to pose themselves. You have to connect with people. You have to see people, and that’s the emotional labor.
I often photograph the same people multiple times. And I tell them, the work doesn’t have to be public. The images are for you—they don’t have to be posted. They don’t have to be in a gallery. The process doesn’t need to be that, and I think that offers people relief. Or not, because they also have to sit with their own images. And I have had people tell me they don’t like the images. I love critique. So I say, all right, tell me what you don’t like about them. I’m open. I want to know what you don’t like outside of maybe what you see in the images that interferes with your projected ideas about beauty—is it the environment or angle? Most of the time, months will pass and people will come back and say, you know, I sat with these images and I actually like them.
Best: Photography emerges in the nineteenth century within a context of science, evidence, truth, a belief in the possibilities of what we can learn from capturing a single moment in time. Time in your work is open ended. You’re bending those notions of photographic time and the mystique around it.
Texas Isaiah: The binarism of that perspective doesn’t leave any room to expand. I think because I am coming from a queer, feminist, gender-expansive lens, nothing is really definitive. It could be scary, but it is also a lot of fun because you get to learn a lot about yourself and about how other people are experiencing their own bodies and spirits. Yes, and I don’t believe in time in that way. I don’t think I ever have. I can remember when I was younger having this feeling sometimes that I’ve been here before, and this is just another course.
Best: Even the idea of including an altar in a gallery, which you also do in your work—those altars have photographs, and there is the sense of the malleability of the photographs on the walls, like they may end up in another form someday, perhaps on the altar, and this also expands their association with time. And even the notion of the portrait “sitting”—the sitting becomes part of a continuum of sittings.
Texas Isaiah: My altar building started around 2017. I was in California for six months, and I was between the Bay and LA, and I ended up acquiring housing in this queer and transgender communal space called the Altar. It was my second queer and transgender house. I was the cofounder of one in Crown Heights and it lasted about five to six years. And we housed maybe a hundred people who needed housing or who were in transition. The room I moved into was used as a transitional space. The people who had lived in the house for a long time, they were trying to find someone who was a good fit, because years ago a young Black trans man by the name of Ki’tay Davidson had died and he was very young, about twenty-two. He passed in his sleep. I was a bit nervous, but it didn’t seem that awkward to me. The room was opposite the room in which they had built an altar for Ki’tay.
Intuitively, I started getting into altar making in that space. I was building altars to honor him and to honor his space, because I still considered it to be his space. I got to know the people who were connected to the house and others who knew him. I think that the public altars alongside my work today are customized to further connect the space and the sitter. The altars are also part of my self-portraits. I was trying to find a way to honor myself in the work and to use the work as a vehicle for a legacy, for my own legacy. Sometimes I would look at images by other photographers and I would think, I want to know more. I also didn’t want that narrative to be told by someone else; [I wanted] to be protective, as a Black trans person. The altars have been in two public spaces—We Buy Gold in New York City and Residency in Inglewood in LA. They are each very different. They are for me. They are for the sitters, for anyone who considers themselves a sitter, and for the space and for the curator. It was difficult putting something so personal in a public space because I think a lot of people gravitate toward the word “installation” and the interpretation that they are built just as an artistic endeavor. So many of those candles, though—I saved them. And I slowly began to incorporate them. And this was strategic. I can’t feel any apprehension in following my heart and including something so personal in a public space. Even if someone gets it wrong, I can correct them. I can allow people to think differently about altars in public and private spaces.
Best: Your work is often associated with “visibility”—the visibility of underrepresented segments of society. I’m curious about what this word means to you.
Texas Isaiah: There’s a lot that I’m certain about, then I wake up and I’m not certain about what it means to me right now in this moment or to a larger demographic. I think it is important for us to recognize that, and that it is OK to feel confused, and it is OK to not know, and it is extremely important to vocalize that. And I am doing that too. People ask me questions and I say, “I don’t know.” Visibility can be reductive, especially when it comes to certain demographics. The idea that people seeing you solves something is problematic. I don’t think that just because someone is being photographed or they are on a television show that that means access to all they need in life. These are systemic issues. We can be very disillusioned and forget that there is way more work to do.
My desires around visibility changed when I first came out to California. I was camping and I started to think about what visibility would look like for me and what was out of my control. And I went back to New York with a new idea of how to make work and how to have some control over how I was being seen physically. I think this fueled my self-portraiture practice. People can look at my self-portraits, and they don’t know it’s me, and it’s because I’m not creating images for someone to be able to name me or have someone immediately have access to me in that way.
I think that’s why I use a lot of natural light in the images, because I think it centers and grounds the sitter in the images. The sun, you don’t have control over it—and use that to cast light, to make visible, or to use the silhouette to create shade. Even with social media and the way I am visible there, even when I step away. In this era in which institutions have had no choice but to reckon with their own histories, I know a lot of Black photographers were getting tagged, getting visibility that was not consensual at all. I ended up getting a lot of hateful DMs or threats. I’ve had to carve out a way that makes me feel OK with engaging with Instagram or Twitter because I can’t control what people are going to say about me. And that spills over into how I interact with public spaces. I don’t go anywhere I don’t want to. On the other hand, what we see on the internet is not real life. I like to be vocal about that. It’s not real life for my sitters either. Some of them are houseless or in between housing, or they don’t have health care. This is why I have constructed a practice around paying them. Visibility can be exhausting because of the performance of it.
Best: Or the idea that being visible doesn’t necessarily solve systemic problems.
Texas Isaiah: I was doing a show with a good friend of mine, a phenomenal artist named Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Something she mentioned to me—and this applies to so many Black artists—so many people speak about you but they don’t speak to you. And that is how erasure occurs. I remember she told me that, and it resonated so deeply with me because I was experiencing so many articles and interviews that misspoke about what I was doing and who I was.
Best: Can you speak about the role of place in your work? Some of your photographs really speak to me about the mood and light of certain regions—the work you did in the Bay Area, for example, in my name is my name.
Texas Isaiah: Place is important to me as a first-generation person. As an adult, I’ve been trying to travel as much as possible. There are so many things that I don’t know about this country. So many places are romanticized—the Bay Area, Brooklyn. Being here [the West Coast], there are so many discussions around land, scarcity of water and resources, which you don’t have on the East Coast. And that humbled me. It made me think differently about the connection between people and place. A lot of the images that I make are where I am staying or living—it enables me to get to know the area. My first years in LA, I was in South Central and people would call me the cameraman. Same in Brooklyn. It was very important for me to be present in those environments and to not run away. I would talk to people. That information is valuable to me. The environment is very important, but I don’t want people to rely on their assumptions about a place and I like that as well. I want to encourage people to ask more questions about the environment and nature. People try to embed it in this binary system, which is revealing of how egotistical we are about what we think we know. I don’t know enough about the place, and I want to know, and I want you to know through this image of this person who lives and does work there.
Best: There is a poetry in how you title your pieces.
Texas Isaiah: My titles are rooted in and influenced by music lyrics and titles. Other times I use the sitter’s name as the most appropriate title. Sometimes it is something I have heard within a conversation or lecture. On a run this morning, titles came into my head. Sometimes they just pop up.
There is an image that I made of a friend lying in the grass and smiling [see above]. He is a Black trans man, and it is an image that is leading me into future works that I want to make in the next couple of months. That wasn’t titled for a long time. And then it was going to be used in a show, and then I realized I needed to name it. And don’t kill this vibe just popped into my head. All lowercase. There aren’t a lot of images of Black trans joy, especially when we look at the media. The discourse is circulated around trauma and death, which is, I can say, how Black people have been collectively spoken about. That title was a resistance to that—this is a joyous image, and I don’t want anyone to kill this vibe. That photograph reflects the kind of quotidian experiences that keep us here. We are always going to be surrounded by these moments, small and large. I’m interested in what keeps us here collectively, what keeps me here, what keeps the sitter here. I think it’s important to create images that are sensual or calm or that express moments of freedom and sensitivity.
Along with other Black photographers who are exploring gender in an innovative way, I don’t want to perpetuate this narrative of trauma because I don’t feel that me being Black or queer is an awful thing. I think it is a beautiful thing. What’s hard is having to step out into the world and deal with systems in place. But there is a long legacy of Black people who have been gender expansive, and I also want to hold on to that.
Best: There is so much about our history that we don’t know. And pictures that we don’t have or know about, portrait traditions that we don’t know about—that people keep privately. Are there photographs in your oeuvre that have pushed you toward something else?
Texas Isaiah: Yes, there are images that pushed me into the water, so to speak. Several of the images that I made with EJ Hill for Made in L.A. 2018. Those pushed me into a different realm of image making. Others that I created before I had surgery in 2018, where I was inviting people to Exposition Park by USC. Those images were very different. They were poetic in a different way. Other images that I made alongside of don’t kill this—I was inviting other trans people to green spaces in New York and photographing them. I think about these time periods when I was creating something, and I didn’t know what was being made, and I didn’t have any expectations. It was the act of making that was important. It was important to make it and to not have any idea of how it was going to exist. I think that is something that I prioritize and love about how I make images. Aside from editorial work, I am just making work to make work. And that is very liberating. I don’t have to think about other institutions or people’s criteria. Some of the works that I made last year and into this year are also taking me in a new direction.
I’m in community with a lot of different artists working in different mediums. My favorite designer is Hassan Rahim. He is a designer, but there is something very interesting to me about how he uses archival images in his work. I am in community with someone like him and Jordan Casteel. Toyin Ojih Odutola has taught me so much about portraiture, and skin, and the interior of an existence. I am attracted to painting and drawing and other forms of art where I see labor. That is how I see my practice in an emotional context. The amount of time it may take Jordan to paint is the amount of time it may take a photographer to think about an image and to process the image and to have that one-on-one contact.
Best: I love what you are saying here—that photography is labor. You also describe yourself as a visual narrator and not necessarily as a “photographer.” Is the medium significant to you?
Texas Isaiah: I feel like “visual narrator” offers a lot more expansion in terms of what I can do. It can include my altars. Some of my images are film stills. I’m interested in making a film in the future. It allows me to tie in all of these other influences and draw on other ways of expressing myself beyond the still image.
I’m drawn to the complexity of the medium and the work of it. It is accessible, but it can also be diluted. So much of my presence is about showing up. It is important for all of us to see people who can reflect us in some capacity, and I think about that often. Someone may aspire to be a photographer, but because of who they are and where they are from, they may not have the opportunity. I am an autodidact. My authentic road took a long time in terms of “success,” but I just do the things that I want to do in the way that I want to do them in collaboration with other people in a way that I am able to learn. That’s what brings me back. Someone may not have had the opportunity or may have grown up in a marginalized community, but there are avenues. You don’t have to go to school and be in the galleries—that’s what people told me. My presence is important in that way, and that is what brings me back to the medium.
The way that I am building my career is so that I don’t want to leave it. I don’t like feeling trapped. My current work is very versatile. I think about Noah Purifoy and David Hammons a lot. I have been intrigued by Hammons, who doesn’t go to his openings. He is not physically present, but he is very present spiritually in the work. And I love that. You don’t have to be there if you don’t have to be there. There is so much pressure to always be present for everything as an artist. Noah left for Joshua Tree and created a spiritual vortex that is beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time. I look at their careers and the way they make work, and I think about how that could be a model for me. How can I learn not to extend myself beyond my boundaries? What goes up must come down. I’ve learned that from Toyin. She taught me about slowly building up. My friends and colleagues have taught me that the things I thought I wanted would not have been good for me. I would burn out.
Best: What’s next for you? What is challenging you right now?
Texas Isaiah: I am very interested in creating more self-portraits. That’s a very challenging place for me. But it’s important for me to exist within that space as well. It allows me to work with people better—to help them manage their stress and anxieties. I’m meditating on a project right now called “flowers at your feet,” which serves as an affirmation for men of trans experience. It is a documentary of the presence of trans masculine people. It will include portraits of myself and others. I want to exist in New York, Oakland, Atlanta, Los Angeles. I’m spending a lot of time reading and doing research. I’m memorializing two Black trans men, Ki’tay Davidson at twenty-two and Blake Brockington at eighteen. I’m reflecting on the work of Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill. I wish that they were still here. I feel like as elders they would be able to affirm not only my existence but my work. They spoke about not only Black masculinity but the importance of upholding Black women.
Within the last week, I’ve been combing through unfinished ideas. I’ve been thinking about my work and how it can be a relief for everyone I encounter, about not positioning my work for a specific demographic. I do work about Black people, but there is more work for me to do. My practice is more humanistic than anything else. I don’t want to perpetuate a visual erasure. I think everyone is important and contributes differently. I’ve noticed people have started to trap my work. But I am literally thinking about everybody. I know I am not going to be able to photograph every single Black person and their experience, but working toward that is extremely important to me. Because it’s not my right to say who gets to be photographed and who doesn’t.
Makeda Best is the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Harvard Art Museums. Her exhibitions include Time Is Now: Photography and Social Change in James Baldwin’s America (2018) and Crossing Lines, Constructing Home: Displacement and Belonging in Contemporary Art (2019–20). Her book is Elevate the Masses: Alexander Gardner, Photography and Democracy in Nineteenth Century America (Penn State University Press, 2020), and her upcoming exhibition is entitled Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography Since 1970.
Texas Isaiah’s work has been exhibited in numerous spaces, including Fotografiska, Aperture Foundation Gallery, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Kitchen in New York City and the Charlie James Gallery, the Residency Art Gallery, and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Select interviews, articles, and commissions have appeared in Adweek, Artforum, British Vogue, Cultured, The FADER, LALA Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Them, Vice, VSCO, and the WSJ. Magazine. He was a 2018 grant recipient of Art Matters and a 2019 grant recipient of the Getty Images: Where We Stand Creative Bursary. Texas Isaiah is currently the 2020–21 Artist in Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem.