“My father became ‘Black’ when I was in sixth grade,” American photographer Alex Christopher Williams remembers. Born to a white mother and a Black father, Williams, who presents as white, was raised by his mother in predominantly white suburban neighborhoods in Ohio. His father, Paul, who was 21 when Williams was born, chaperoned his sixth-grade class on a field trip to Washington D.C. “My father was much younger than many of the other kids’ parents so he was much cooler and more relatable to us,” Williams says. “I got to see my friends and everyone in my class communicate with my father and suddenly I became cooler because my father was Black — as though he were an accessory like a Gucci bag.”
After Williams’ mother remarried, the family moved to Mississippi when he was 13. “I was fortunate to have my maternal grandfather take me aside and say, ‘Just get ready. Prepare yourself.’ I had no idea what he was talking about,” he remembers. Raised in a “white normative culture,” Williams learned to code switch, moving effortlessly between various white friend groups. He rarely mentioned his father’s identity among his friends, for when he did, it was met with stereotypes of race.
“When I was in Mississippi, my friends never met my father but would identify certain characteristics about what they knew about Black culture in me and point that out,” Williams recalls. “We were in a band together and there was a moment when we would click. I’d be excited, jumping up and down yelling, and they would call it ‘Black Man Freak Outs.’ Or they wouldn’t even believe it, saying things like, ‘There’s no way Alex could be Black.’”
Four Walls of a Photograph
Williams took up photography as a youth, describing it as, “the jelly to the peanut butter of all the other interests I had.” As a BMX rider, Williams avidly read sport magazines, and quickly realized photography was a language unto itself. After getting into punk, he began photographing shows, and when his own band went on tour, he began documenting those.
Now 31, Williams has moved 41 times in his life. Photography became a stabilizing force in an ever-shifting landscape. “I lived with many undiagnosed medical conditions, one of which is contributing to my already terrible memory,” he says. “I realized there was an intrinsic relationship between the four walls of a photograph and a memory. Even though I have long since stepped away from the idea that photographs are documents, I was making photos [to preserve memories].”
While attending the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2011-12, Williams got into social documentary work, and realized his camera could be a means to forge connections with his parents. Because of the distance, he wasn’t able to pursue the projects in depth, but the travels opened up a new channel for his photography practice. In 2012, Williams began traveling up and down Great Migration routes, making photographs of people in different communities along the ways, and thinking about his heritage and ways of telling stories about Black life.
On a summer day in 2015, Williams came upon an older Black man in a suit drinking from a public water fountain in Atlanta, Georgia. “I was interested in why he would be wearing this suit in August, 100 percent humidity,” Williams says. “He told me he wanted to set an image for his children of how to be a man and demand respect from other people. I walked away thinking how amazing it would have been to have a father figure like that for me.”
Gazing upon the finished image, Williams recognized a way to photographically navigate the subjects of masculinity, race, history, and family with which he was grappling throughout his life. That moment became the turning point in his work, from which the new book, Black, Like Paul (Kris Graves Projects) was born.
Using a large format camera to make quiet, intense photographs of the people and the landscape, Williams sought to reclaim a sense of agency, innocence, and vulnerability in his depictions of Black men and boys, an idea that he found as radical then as he does now. “I had a difficult childhood that I have made decisions tied to those traumas,” he says. “I think the way I was forced to navigate the world as a young man has made me to seek solace and peace. I want to make artwork that reflects that ideology.”
The Family of Man
The choice of using a large format camera was an important point to the process itself. “When you go into neighborhoods and have a camera you have to present in a way with authority, it becomes a real significant navigation of power to say ‘I’m an artist,’” he says. “What you run the struggle of doing as coming across as a real estate photographer coming to change the face of the neighborhood, you might not be welcomed. You can also be a filmmaker and every kid runs up to you and wants to be photographed. You get to engage with people nonetheless.”
In Williams’ photographs we sense Edward Steichen’s notions of “The Family of Man,” of the way the photograph can connect us across time and space to reflect upon the aspects of humanity that we all share. “If the human face is ‘the masterpiece of God’ it is here then in a thousand fateful registrations,” poet Carl Sandburg wrote for the landmark exhibition and book, a sentiment that beautifully lends itself to Williams’ work. “Often the faces speak what words can never say. Some tell of eternity and others only the latest tattings. Child faces of blossom smiles or mouths of hunger are followed by homely faces of majesty carved and worn by love, prayer and hope, along with others light and carefree as thistledown in a late summer wind…. Some of them are worth a long look now and deep contemplation later.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Black, Like Paul, published by Kris Graves Projects, $28.00, available here.