Activist portrait named semifinalist for National Portrait Gallery exhibit

I’m not sure how I lucked into this, but one of my portraits has been named a semifinalist for a 10-month exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exhibit is called “The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today.” It will open at the NPG in October 2019 and remain on view until August 2020. Then it goes on tour(!) through January 2022.

There are 80 semifinalists out of 2,675 submissions. Historically, they choose about 50 finalists. Our work will be taken to D.C. in February and judged in the spring. More information about the jury and process here.

The portrait is of Civil Rights activist DeRay Mckesson. It was taken in February 2018 for this article in Columns Magazine. DeRay was visiting the University of Washington campus and we had five minutes with him. I’ve chosen to print the piece at 40 x 28 inches.

 
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The backstory: I was not able to secure a studio space on campus (as usual, for a variety of reasons), so I took this picture in a hallway with two Canon flashes and a yellow backdrop. Yellow and black are the colors of Black Lives Matter. The second setup was a bit more complex: The morning of the shoot, I built a little set that I felt represented DeRay’s work, and he agreed to be photographed sitting at it.

It helps that I had an awesome photographer assisting and setting up lights, that I had the help of my fianceé and that her coworker Elizabeth stood in for light tests, and that there is a great staff at the Ethnic Cultural Center.

Some more context: This is a nationwide portrait competition that happens every three years. The last person who won it, in 2016, was Amy Sherald, who famously went on to paint Michelle Obama. The first place winner will be “commissioned to portray a remarkable living American for the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.” Wow. Unbelievable.

Here is Sherald’s piece that won the contest in 2016. (You may have seen it, and if not, you’ll recognize the style since you’ve seen her Obama portrait.) It’s fascinating, intense, delicate, strange—a little bit of everything. I can only aspire to one day have as much vision and voice as someone like Sherald.

 
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For years, I’ve studied (and stolen from) paintings and photographs in the NPG’s collection. I finally had the chance to visit the museum for the first time this summer. For a photographer, especially one who focuses on portraits, it’s an indescribable place. But in particular I was really impressed by the diversity of the gallery’s subject matter. Beyond the famous paintings of Barack and Michelle, it seemed like the African American experience made strong appearances in nearly every room, and there was also a full exhibit dedicated to it.

Here are some cell phone pictures of my favorite examples of black identity at the NPG. I would be honored beyond words (and pictures!) if my piece joined their ranks for a while.