Emanuel Wallace Pivots

The Next Generation, photo by Emanuel Wallace, courtesy of the artist.

Equally at home taking grip-and-grins for Scene and gripping images of Black life in Cleveland, the photographer has earned praise and gallery shows.

Photographer Emanuel Wallace began taking pictures as a young child, brought up spending lots of time alone and feeling bored. He used disposable cameras to capture small still life scenes he’d create in his home. Sometimes these involved his Hot Wheels cars. Once it involved setting the Hot Wheels on fire.

“It did not come out very well, but it was a fun thing to try,” he says now.

Undeterred, Wallace kept at it: he was “always the person with at least one camera with me.”

These days, Wallace’s work includes studied shots and documentary-style picture-taking, though the set-ups are less dramatic and the documentation a bit less inflammatory. He blurs lines between editorial and fine art photography, and he has earned the esteem of other artists in Cleveland—particularly other Black artists—regardless of which genre he works in.

The feeling has been mutual. It was, in fact, respect for the work ethic of artists that helped bolster Wallace’s own photography.

Right Over Left, photo by Emanuel Wallace.

As a somewhat introverted music fan in his then-home Columbus, he took pictures at shows with a point-and-shoot camera for his own website. But Wallace eventually swapped that out for a DSLR to capture better images and take his more work seriously, because he saw that the artists he was covering were taking their work seriously. He collected the work, which documents Columbus’ hip hop scene between 2009 and 2012, in a book: Talent in the City (“I could have given it a better title,” he says with a laugh). “I saw more people putting time and money into their craft,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “and I felt like I needed to be doing more to display it to the world, so that’s what I tried to do.”

As Wallace honed his own craft, his work began appearing in a community-based publication called the Examiner, and he says he eventually positioned himself as the Columbus Rap Examiner. After moving to Cleveland, he approached Scene Magazine to write about a hip hop show. While turning in his piece, Wallace told his editor that he also took pictures; in 2014 he became Scene’s staff photographer, covering concerts, restaurants, and lots of events. Over time he found the work repetitive, so he began nurturing a fine arts side, turning out work that explores social and artistic themes and engaging with projects that allow Wallace to train his lens on more than a decadent dessert or the grip-and-grin party shots. “My preference is to get everybody in their natural state existing, doing whatever it is they do,” he says.

Portrait of Theresa May, from Afrofuturism: Black Lives Will Exist in the Future, on view at East Ave Market and Gallery, Akron, 2023.

IT WASN’T UNTIL WALLACE WAS WELL INTO HIS PROFESSIONA CAREER that it dawned on him that his late father also took lots of pictures. “He kept the camera with him and he had so many prints and negatives and pictures he took at work and other people. And I didn’t really pick up on that until like—really—like five years ago. I thought I was the one taking these pictures and it was something I guess that subconsciously was passed down to me. But we never really had a discussion about it or he never talked about it or said he wanted me to do this. I guess I just picked up on it.”

Wallace’s interests in photography—his own and others—grew throughout his youth in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, while getting his education at Central State, and later in Columbus, where he moved after college. He’d check out photography books from the library (he admits he still has one), studying the works of the likes of Gordon Parks and Jamel Shabbaz, two photographers Wallace acknowledges as influences on his work. Sometimes he will frame a shot and think, “that’s a Gordon Parks shot.”

But the influence of Shabazz feels even more woven into Wallace’s work. Shabazz is a street photographer who roamed New York City with his camera in the 1980s, taking pictures of young Black and brown people. Instead of capturing candid scenes of urban life as it unfolded in front of his camera, he took portraits—often group portraits—in which the subjects face him directly. Shabazz also shared the images with the subjects. He told them, “I don’t want anything in return. Just going to record this moment in time ′cause I see your greatness.”

While the joy in many of the images of that time is apparent, the context in which they appear—in a book called A Time Before Crack—casts a dark shadow over the portraits and the prospects of those depicted.

Wallace also depicts Black people living their lives, experiencing joy or even boredom. In 2020, he attended an event that celebrated what would have been and should have been the eighteenth birthday of Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by police within seconds of encountering him holding an Airsoft pellet gun at a Cleveland park in 2014. Wallace pivoted from the main event, and he aimed his lens instead toward four kids sitting along a guard rail in front of a chain link fence. It looks like any other summer afternoon, but we know it isn’t. And the name of the image embeds an ambiguity that teeters between hopeful and chilling: The Next Generation.

WALLACE SAYS he finds the fine arts work tougher than his other work, and he says he’s tougher on himself with it, trying to make everything as technically-precise as he can. Beginning with a bit of an unusual inspiration—one of Pantone’s recent color-of-the-year selections—he photographed Black women wearing yellow clothing. He says he responds to the contrast and to the vibrancy of the colors popping on pictures. He might expand the project to include other colors.

He also wants to document buskers—street musicians working for tips—though Wallace isn’t sure if he would photograph them in their performance venues or in their homelives, both of which intrigue him.

Eventually he’d like to travel and document places he’s never been to and cultures he’s never seen, and turn the images into books. He’d also like to travel with a band and document its trajectory and touring—a band like Cleveland’s Mourning (A) Black Star.

And he still has his regular gig at Scene.

“I feel like there’s a line between busy and overwhelmed,” he says, “and I’m trying to stay on the busy side of it.”

Wallace isn’t sure there is a discernible stylistic consistency between his fine arts photography and his editorial work, and he doesn’t seem too troubled by the notion.

“I don’t know if I have a particular style. But maybe I do,” he says. He has seen people comment on photos posted to social media with, “did Manny take this photo? It looks like his.”

Where the throughline comes out might be in less the technique and more what’s depicted.

“I kind of just like to show people in their best light. I feel like I developed a trust in people where I won’t ever share anything that makes them look bad or says something negative about them per se.”

“I never meant to be one of those people who are so preachy about having positivity everywhere. I never put myself out to be the person to balance that out. But it just comes out that way. I feel like if I were making a more concerted effort to do that, it would be harder. I’d probably be more frustrated. If it happens organically, I guess it’s not so bad.”

So, he has no agenda?

“No agenda I’m sticking to necessarily,” he says. “I like to capture the good moments.

“I wonder what my agenda would be?” he says.

“I’ll have to figure that out.”

Leave a Reply