Artist Spotlight: Lyle Ashton Harris
BY Albert Smith
February 09 2015 6:00 AM ET
Joelle Johnson, Harris's grandmother
Ever since he was born in the Bronx, N.Y., Lyle Ashton Harris has split his time between New York and some far-off land. As a boy, it was Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Now he lives and works in New York City and Accra, Ghana.
His work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Harris's work is regularly featured in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Vibe, and New York. During 2000 and 2001, he was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, and now he serves as an assistant professor of art at New York University. The Advocate spoke with Harris before publishing Lyle Ashton Harris, Excessive Exposure: The Complete Chocolate Portraits, with an essay by Okwui Enwezor and foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The Advocate: Why are you a photographer?
Harris: I’ve been photographing for many years now and still continue to take pleasure in making portraits.
What catches your eye?
Images that hold a certain amount of complexity and at the same time possess an amount of beauty and clarity.
How do you choose your subjects?
The subjects chosen for my new portrait book, Excessive Exposure, range from my grandmother to art world and cultural luminaries including Cindy Sherman, Kehinde Wiley, Yoko Ono, and Tony Kushner.
How do you describe your work?
This new series was photographed with the 20 x 24 Polaroid camera over a period of 10 years. I used chiaroscuro lighting to produce portraits that are both vulnerable and mysterious.
What makes a good photograph to you?
I like images that make me question and be curious about the subject.
Who are your favorite artists? And why?
Caravaggio, Bacon, Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, and Jean-Michel Basquiat —for their ability to explore complex ideas and emotions in their work.