Photographer Aaron Turner’s “Black Alchemy” series is an enchanting hybrid of identity and darkroom chemistry, one that leaves the viewer wondering, “How did he do that?” Using archival portraits, mirrors, shadows, paper cuttings and projections, the West Memphis native creates elaborate studio installations and photographs them in black and white, each piece a statement in a grander thesis that grapples with social history, art history and life in the Arkansas/Mississippi Delta. Turner’s work, in 2021, won him the Houston Center for Photography Fellowship and made him a recipient of the inaugural Creators Lab Photo Fund from Google’s Creator Labs and the Aperture Foundation. We spoke with Turner via Zoom from his studio on the square in downtown Fayetteville.
I think the first thing that a nonphotographer might notice about your work is that your photos sometimes don’t look like photos at all. You use a lot of shadow and illusion and reflection. Without giving away any of your darkroom tricks, how do you do this? How do you construct these images?
As a photographer, I like to create still-life installations in the studio. Sometimes I project on top of them, and that creates negative and positive space. I love a monochromatic color palette — so everything black, white or gray. I use a 4×5 camera to do that, and when you look through a 4×5 camera, there’s glass on the back of it — it’s called a ground glass — but what happens when you look through is the image is flipped from how you’re seeing it. If I’m seeing it left to right, you’d see it right to left. And it’s upside down.
No problem! [Laughs.]
Yeah. [Laughs.] But the reason I use that camera is that I don’t really like to put the camera up to my eye. I like to be in the space and be present with what I’m photographing. With people, too. When I’m photographing people with that camera, I can step to the side of the camera and look them in the eye and have a conversation instead of having this object in front of my face and giving them directions. So it translates into all the work that I do.
But the work that I make — even though it deals with history and politics and race — what it’s really about is illusion, shadow, manipulation of light. My dad was an architect — he’s no longer living, but he got his degree in architecture from the University of Arkansas — so I’ve been coming to Fayetteville since 1998, 1997 or so. And just growing up around architects and artists and people who can draw, I had this affinity for light. How the light is bouncing off the wall behind you — I love those kinds of things. And even as I mature and get older and try different techniques, it all goes back to being a child and seeing light coming through the kitchen window and creating a triangle, or walking through downtown Memphis and seeing the way the light trickles through all the downtown skyscraper buildings and creates different patterns. I still pay attention and love that stuff to this day, and try to recreate that in the studio.
And you’re making the viewer process it in a different way. I mean, we know how art works: We go to the gallery or wherever, we look at the portrait, and even if the portrait is fabulous and interesting, I still understand immediately how I’m supposed to relate to it. How did you come to the idea that you needed to make art that displaces the viewer or makes them question what they’re seeing? That jars them out of their typical relationship with the object? It’s remarkable that you can even accomplish that feat in 2021, when everything under the sun, seemingly, is at our fingertips, and we’re so accustomed to being presented with art that’s sort of meta.
I think one of the goals of every artist should be to make in a way that when people see your work, it’s associated with you in a particular way. That it’s recognizable, and people think of you first. A lot of what I do is a combination of artists I appreciate, who are working with geometric abstract painting. Minimalism. Sculpture. Installation art. I filter them through myself in the studio.
I’d been doing paper cuttings in my studio for about five or six years when I came across an artist named Frederick Sommer, who does these paper cuttings with a utility knife on large strips of butcher paper, and then lights them from behind or from the front and creates these black-and-white images of them, and now when I do paper cuttings, I think of Frederick Sommer, and of paying homage to him.
That’s the challenge: to make the artwork relevant when pretty much everything has already been done. How do you speak to current events and also art history at the same time? I’m the kind of person — and this comes from my dad — who wants to understand the full context. If something happens now, I want to know: OK, what happened in 1940? What happened in 1850? Now, what happened in 1990? That’s how I do the research for my images, and why certain people are there, and certain combinations of things, so that anybody can enter them wherever they are and have questions and speculations, and then we can start having new conversations based on that.
Yeah. And it’s not like, “Here’s your homework.” The art just plants a little seed. I ended up going down a little rabbit hole on Curtis Humphrey, who you reference, this Black commercial photographer in Texas.
I try to get that balance, and to leave little nuggets of information. I trust the audience to have their own thoughts about it and to be able to understand it.
It seems to me, too, that you’re saying something about the art world itself. About whose work gets heralded, and who gets called “an artist.”
Yeah. Part of what “Black Alchemy” does is question art history: Who gets the nod? Who gets recognized? There was this group of African-American painters and sculptors working in the 1960s all the way through the 1970s and still to this day. When they were my age or younger, the Black Arts movement was happening. They were painting grids and shapes and triangles. They weren’t painting figures, and their peers who looked like them were like, “What are y’all doing? Y’all are not contributing to the cause, to the Black Arts movement,” when in reality that wasn’t true. At the time, it was hard for Black artists to get their foot in the door of an art world that was predominantly white. They’d try to present their work in these predominantly white spaces and get rejected. So, as a young artist, how do you not give in and start making figurative work? The answer is that they didn’t, and their resolve and resilience is what I’m drawn to.
I’m drawn to that resolve and resilience from my upbringing in the Arkansas Delta, too. All that was ever said to me was, “You gotta get out of here to make something of yourself. There’s nothing here for you.” But the people there in the community were people I really admired. … I said to myself one day when I was living in New York: “If I ever get a chance to work at the University of Arkansas and teach art and work as an artist in the Arkansas, I’m going to do it.” And that’s what I’m doing now. I left the University of Memphis wanting to be a photojournalist, and I interned at the Commercial Appeal for two summers and then was a freelancer, got a six-month internship after I graduated and ended up turning it down and studying art at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts.
… Journalism wasn’t for me in the sense that I couldn’t really express myself the way that I wanted to. I felt like I was doing a lot of what everyone else was doing. I wasn’t doing anything unique. And then you think about Instagram and the billions of pictures that are produced every day, all the images that were produced before I came along, all the images that are produced now, and I was like, I’m just adding to this void. Not really making a difference. So I said, let me go back into archival images and find people and faces that speak to the images that I’d go out and make. I made some images of the Wrightsville massacre that happened outside of Little Rock, and when I came across those images, it was the faces of the boys that really spoke to me. That’s a little bit of my research — I’m looking through archives for certain facial expressions. These are the kinds of images that I would like to make, but they already exist. They just need to be re-contextualized. So what I tried to do is stop adding to the void of images and use the ones that were available.
In your explanation of “Black Alchemy,” you say that you use black and white for a lot of reasons — one of them, you say, is as a metaphor for American history. What do you mean by that?
It’s a metaphor for this country. It seems like everything we come from has something to do with caste, class or race. That’s the Western American perspective. Now, all three of those have different meanings in various places in the Americas — Canada and South America and Central America. But the Western perspective is kind of particular. And that’s where I was born and raised. It’s a metaphor for that history — the civil rights movement, the Trail of Tears, slavery.
Another reason I use black and white is that I want people to focus on what’s in front of them. Sometimes color is distracting. I want to treat the color black chromatically, as a color like every other color, not just as a color that’s off to the side and only used to get these other colors. There are different shades of black — carbon black, Mars black. Black is a metaphor for the absence of light. Working in the darkroom at an enlarger station where the light is above, with darkness all around me. The alchemy side is like, OK, if I put this and this in the same frame and mix and match these materials, what spits out on the other end? What happens when I use developer and fixer? Is it going to come out the way I expect it? That’s the working terminology and thought around “Black Alchemy.”
There’s a lot of poetry in the idea that while you’re “only” using black and white, you’re calling attention to how much can be expressed across the spectrum of black hues. To use the most superficial interpretation of what we mean when we say “black and white” (and when we’re not talking about race) is that somebody who sees something in black and white is seeing things as binary, and failing to see nuance.
Yeah! I’m in the studio right now, and at this end of the studio, I have this black oil stick painting that’s absorbing all the light. I have black felt, velvet, white felt, white suede, seamless white paper, seamless black paper, and all of them have their different shade and tone. I make my work to be aesthetically speculative. And when I say speculative, I’m speculating about the future. What I want to see. The world that I want to see, and the aesthetics that I want to see. That goes for the artists who come after me, too. Those artists I mentioned from the 1960s and ’70s were projecting speculative aesthetics into the world, and I borrow from them all these years later. We have the ability to reflect, reframe, reflect, reframe.
Find Aaron Turner’s work at aaronturner.studio.