MAKERS: Amber Ford
“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. All photographs are accurate, but none of them is the truth.” – Richard Avedon
Amber Ford is busy. With work in two exhibitions that open this week and a job at her alma mater the Cleveland Institute of Art, Ford is keeping herself occupied these days, and that’s an understatement. I met up with the photographer at her shared space in the historic Bloch Building on Superior Avenue, once home to a textile manufacturer. Her sunny work-space is austere, somewhat sparse – at one end of the long room is a professional photography studio-set-up with lighting and other photographic equipment.
I first saw Ford’s work at Waterloo Arts a few years ago, where she showed photographs from her BFA – large-scale portraits of young black men. These crisp photographs were not staged by Ford, she let her subjects dictate the location and choose their own wardrobes – giving them a significant amount of power in their own portrayal. At the time, the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining steam, but the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice was still very much an open wound (as well as many other murders of young black men by the police). Seeing these men in their own spaces, presented as they want to be presented, was incredibly powerful – especially when the mainstream media often presents a very different portrayal of young black men – this is a bias that Ford’s work tries to eschew.
The new photographs that Ford is including in a group show at PopEye Gallery in 78th Street Studios continue to challenge societal bias, and reveal much about not only race and identity, but gender. Opening Friday, “Beau•ty” includes work that challenges the representation of beauty amidst the stereotypes of gendered racism through portrayals of men and women of color in advertising, fashion, film, TV, and other forms of pop-culture. Inspired by the political movement of the 1960’s “Black is Beautiful”, PopEye invited three African American artists to participate whose work is about men and women of color, hair, makeup, and standards of gendered beauty. Ford created six new portraits for the show, one of which, “Gucci Princess (Big Worm)”, 2017 can be seen below.
I find it incredibly interesting that Ford is still using men as her subjects – especially when tackling the subject of beauty. Many artists have investigated the relationship between women and societal constructs of beauty and race – I’m thinking in particular of Nakeya B., whose confrontational photographs of black women focus on the role that beauty and hair care play in the creation of black female identity.
But here Ford is presenting a very matter-of-fact portrait of a young man in curlers – his disgruntled expression and very direct stare reads to me as: “I’m so tired of explaining this to you” – a subtext which is interesting because I’m immediately questioning whether or not this man actually wears curlers to style his hair, or is simply wearing them for the photo. The fact that I can’t tell is one of the many ways that Ford toys with truth in her portraiture.
Portraiture is funny like that. As a vehicle for artistic expression it can be tricky – because the viewer must distinguish between the reality of the artist’s world view and their own. Portraits really can only reveal part of the truth because they reflect the will of the photographer in addition to the likeness of the sitter – and the sitter has some agency as well. In today’s age of photoshop and technology fact and fiction are getting harder to separate, and the artifice of photography has never been more complex – even the age-old genre of portraiture plays into this dialog – something that Ford has used to her advantage.
This year Ford won the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, which has allowed her to move outside of her comfort zone and into printmaking. She explains, “I decided to work at Zygote Press and do more silk screening, but challenging myself by working with color separation. I like the idea and process of working in color with the silk screen because the process itself speaks about race.” Ford has actually been exploring the separating of color in these prints, and how much color is needed to build a specific color, etc. The literal hands-on method of making these images can therefore be linked to race.
These new screenprints can be seen at Worthington Yards, a 98 unit upscale apartment building that is full of local art, and also includes a gallery – the YARDS Project Space, curated by Liz Maugans, which opens Thursday. The inaugural exhibition features work by all the artists in the collection, Ford included.
“Icarus” (2017) presents an image that is literally breaking down into its constituent parts – layers of color fill and recede across the subject’s face, leaving it feeling unfinished. How much color does it take to create a likeness? What makes us comfortable? And why? These are the kind of questions I’m asking myself. When I spoke to Ford she explained that even within the black community there are questions about these unspoken levels – how much black is enough black? And she’s not just talking about pigment. If you take a close look at these stunning prints, you can see the halftone fragments struggling to maintain the image’s integrity. The technical process itself acts as a metaphor for a larger struggle.
These new screenprints are the natural progression of one of the artist’s previous bodies of work – back in 2016 Ford explored how the application and technical limits of black ink could be used to comment on race. “Insufficient Ink” was a large wall covered with silkscreened images of a young man on newsprint, but the amount of ink used seemed to trail off, resulting in many gaps and holes in the image, leaving an unfinished story, like a life cut short.
“Insufficient Ink” was particularly poignant in the wake of the murder of young Tamir Rice, and her new screenprints take up where that project left off.
The portrait “Icarus” presents an image of strength, confidence, and beauty – all of which are thwarted by the disintegration of the image into swathes of realistic color, mismatched color, and even the absence of color. This breakdown leaves the image out of focus, beautiful, but incomplete.
It’s hard not to think about the media when viewing this portrait – the color halftone process calls to mind images in newspapers – often printed cheaply with visible printing errors. But in today’s age, photographs are digital – and if a likeness is needed by the media it is invariably culled from someone’s Facebook or Instagram. In a way this is good, because we are curators of our own images – but there is still bias reflected in the choice.
The other night an off-duty Cleveland police office killed an unarmed young man at a bowling alley near Case Western. He went to the same high school as Ford – Thomas Yatsko was 21, seen here in the photo chosen to illustrate the article by Cleveland.com. In this image, Yatsko appears clean cut, wearing nice sneakers and is conspicuously surrounded by white people, possibly on the bleachers of a sporting event. Sadly, here we have yet another killing of a young, unarmed black man in Cleveland for an offense that would be a slap-on-the-wrist for a white man. But why did they chose this image? What does it say about the victim? What does it say about the Cleveland press? Every photographic image carries a weight with it, reflects biases and intentions – this one is no exception – and the same holds true when you look at the portraits made by Ford. Representation counts, so let’s try to pay attention.
Amber Ford’s work will be included in the inaugural exhibition at Worthington Yards, in the YARDS Projects Gallery – the opening reception is Thursday, January 18th, 6-9pm. Also, some of Ford’s new portraits can be seen in the group exhibition “Beau•ty”, opening Friday, January 19th, from 5-9pm during Third Friday at PopEye Gallery in 78th Street Studios. To see more of her work, visit www.ambernford.com.