Brief Encounters: An interview with Liz Johnson-Artur

Above image: Liz Johnson-Artur, Untitled, from The Black Balloon Archive, 1991- ongoing

Karen McQuaid, senior curator at The Photographers’ Gallery, interviews Liz Johnson-Artur, one of the artists featured in our current exhibition Made You Look: Dandyism and Black MasculinityThis interview, along with other writings and images on dandyism and black masculinity, is available in the new issue of Loose Associations, our quarterly publication on photography and image culture.

17_Untitled (London) 2011

Liz Johnson-Artur, Untitled, from The Black Balloon Archive, 1991- ongoing

Karen McQuaid: By the time you landed in London and started taking pictures in 1991 you had lived between Bulgaria, Russia and Germany. How do you feel moving around in this way impacted your appetite for photographs?

Liz Johnson Artur: I am a product of Migration. My father was from newly independent Ghana and he met my mother, who had arrived from Russia, in Bulgaria. With a little luck and some false documents my mother and I landed in West Germany. We lived there for three months on a tourist visa, becoming illegal immigrants when that visa expired. We lived this way for more than a year. My mum, a Radiologist, found cleaning jobs and because of our status I couldn’t go to school, so I spent a lot of time on the street. What I most remember about this time is the pleasure I got from meeting strangers on the street, I think this has affected me as a photographer in a big way.

14_ Untitled (London) 2009

Liz Johnson-Artur, Untitled, from The Black Balloon Archive, 1991- ongoing

KMWhat was it about London in particular that confronted you and prompted you to pick up the camera? 

LJA: London for me was a stop over, when I arrived I still held a soviet passport and was permitted to stay for six months, but not permitted to work. I had traveled a lot before arriving in London, but mostly in Eastern Europe. The first time I encountered black communities was in 1985 when I went to New York – I had just bought my first camera. I carried my camera with me for the three months I was there, but didn’t know to approach people. I was also simply overwhelmed by being in the presence of black people. By the time I got to London I had to go to work, permitted or not, which brought me to Brixton. To and from work on the bus I realised that the people I wanted to photograph in New York where right here in London. The Black Diaspora is everywhere. I continue to find and photograph them everywhere I go.

11_ Untitled (Kingston) 2007

Liz Johnson-Artur, Untitled, from The Black Balloon Archive, 1991- ongoing

KM: All of your photographs included here are of men, sometimes strangers in a crowd, sometimes more formal portrait set-ups. Often you concentrate on characters that are performing their masculinity in some way, displaying bravado through careful clothing, posture or pose. I’m wondering how you feel these characteristics lead to, or get in the way of, making an interesting portrait?

LJA: I pay close attention to “self presentation” and personal style. How people present, refine and carry this style is what I love to record. I rarely set up photographs, over the years I have learned how to take a “formal” portrait in an everyday environment. The streets are full of wonderful backgrounds when you look for them. I love taking photographs and my encounters with people and the record this becomes. My wish is for my photographs to sustain the test of time.

10_Untitled (Detroit) 1998

Liz Johnson-Artur, Untitled, from The Black Balloon Archive, 1991- ongoing

KM: In 2016 you published a self-titled book, which drew from your extensive personal archive (The Black Balloon Archive), spanning three decades. Can you talk about trying to make sense of the archive as a whole, and the book editing process?

LJA: The Black Balloon Archive is my personal archive, with no particular order or theme. In terms of photographing the everyday encounters with black communities, it represents what is still sadly underrepresented. When I have to explain to someone why I want to take their photograph, I tell them that they will be in my archive and will sit in good company. I never felt that what I am trying to preserve doesn’t make sense. When my editor Bakri Bakrit and I edited the book we made a conscious decision to leave out information about place and time. My photographs are about people, and as a photographer I try to represent them as best as I can. This way I believe photography can show us something very unique and still familiar.  

13_Untitled (Zimbabwe) 1997

Liz Johnson-Artur, Untitled, from The Black Balloon Archive, 1991- ongoing

KM: Made You Look plays with notions of flamboyance, amongst other things. A lot of my favourite photographs of yours have quite animated choreography – I’m wondering what influence music, and your history of photographing musicians, has had on your work?

LJA: When I go out looking for people and situations, style is often what catches my eye first and I certainly like flamboyance. However, I think it comes in many different guises, sometimes it’s what people wear but equally it can be their body language. The most boring outfit can be transformed through the presentation and character of the wearer. My love for music, and particularly watching people dance, is a strong influence, though not consciously. Taking portraits on the street form brief encounters where I can catch how people decide to present themselves. Hopefully it is an enjoyable encounter for us both – it’s important to me that this joy comes through in my photographs.

19_Untitled (London) 2013

Liz Johnson-Artur, Untitled, from The Black Balloon Archive, 1991- ongoing

KM: You seem to find a very easy balance between your commercial jobs in music and editorial, and your personal archive. Could you talk a bit about the opportunities and development in your personal work that have stemmed from paid work, or if you even draw that distinction? 

LJA: Commercial work has often given me a chance to get into places and photograph people I would have never met otherwise. In terms of music, my work for The Fader in New York was a very important collaboration. Phil Bicker, the art director, had a great photographic sense. It somehow felt like I could do what I want, and at the same time he managed to direct me! Through The Fader I also met M.I.A, and we have collaborated on and off for ten years. I never know when she will knock, but shooting around her gave me a chance to photograph some wonderful people – I love her casting, but I would still say my favourite pictures come from brief encounters on the street.

Liz Johnson-Artur is a Russian-Ghanaian photographer. Her first monograph is available here.

Karen McQuaid is senior curator at The Photographers’ Gallery. @Karen_McQuaid

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