An American original, Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017) established himself in the 20th century as one of the foremost painters of Black life. Coming of age during the Black Power movement in the mid-1960s, Hendricks recognized the resounding absence of Blackness from the canon of Western art and sought to remedy it by creating a pantheon of life-size portraits of friends, relatives, and strangers he met on the street. They capture the hypnotic energy and effervescent attitude of a people, whose style has become one of the major forces shaping American culture throughout the 20th century.
Never one to fear going against the grain, Hendricks crafted his own lane. Using the techniques of Old Masters, he worked in figurative art at a time when abstraction, minimalism, and conceptual art dominated the contemporary art world. A year before his death he told the Brooklyn Rail, “I didn’t care what was being done by other artists or what was happening around me. I was dealing with what I wanted to do. Period.”
While setting the art world ablaze with his paintings, Hendricks also worked as a photographer, strapping the “mechanical sketchbook” to his neck before leaving home and using the camera to record sources of inspiration. The new book Barkley L. Hendricks: Photography (published by Skira), offers an extraordinary look into the artist’s little known photography practice, providing a vital look at the ways in which picture making informed his work.
While pursuing his MFA in Painting from Yale University in the early 1970s, Barkley L. Hendricks studied with Walker Evans and discovered the ways in which street photography could allow him to move through the world, engaging with people, places, scenes, and the medium itself. “Photography enhanced his ‘eye,’ it helped him better understand how to look: as in looking at a scene to understand how it came together, and learning to understand how a scene, a way of looking, could be arranged,” writes in the book Anna Arabindan-Kesson, a professor at Princeton University whose research and teaching focus on Black Diaspora Art.
Anna Arabindan-Kesson, who posed for Hendricks, also observed him walk the streets of New Haven, Connecticut drawn to all kinds of people whose manner of movement, gesture, expression, or dress revealed the subtle nuances of character that portraitists love best. She writes, “We might then situate Barkley’s urban exploration, his detailed arrangements and his attention to the photograph as document, in conversation with the street photography of Robert Frank, the narrative eye of Gordon Parks, the visual dynamism of James Barnor, the monumentalizing quietness of Berenice Abbott, or the textured sophistication of Eugène Atget, who also understood the ways photographs could be source material, documents for artists.”
What makes Hendricks’ photography so compelling is the ways in which he was never predictable, refusing to fall into habit or engage with cliché. Instead he used photography to capture fleeting moments of intimacy when the mask can be dropped, and we can finally allow ourselves to be seen.
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.
Barkley L. Hendricks: Photography, published by Skira. Available for $25.