Carla Williams’s artistic debut is making waves in the photography world this fall. Not only has she just won the Paris Photo and Aperture Foundation’s First Photobook Prize — given to a photographer whose first published monograph is judged to be “the best of the year” — for her new book, Tender (TBW Books), but she is also the subject of a solo exhibition at Higher Pictures, Carla Williams: Circa 1985. This is the first time much of the artist’s work has ever been published or publicly displayed. Until recently, she was best known for her work as a photo historian; in 2002, she co-authored The Black Female Body: A Photographic History with Deborah Willis. Between the new book and her exhibition, it’s clear that Williams’s scholarly interest in the Black female form paralleled a decades-long private photographic practice that began during her studies at Princeton University in the 1980s.
Circa 1985 re-stages Williams’s 1986 BFA thesis show at Princeton, an exhibition that her then-professor, photographer Emmett Gowin, called “the best thesis show he’d seen” in his 36 years of teaching. The photographer’s intimate self-portraits show the iterative development of her gaze, unveiling her coming of age as both an artist and a queer Black woman. As Williams explains in Tender, at Princeton “I was seeing exalted nudes every day in art history class, but I didn’t want to be Charis Wilson [Edward Weston’s famous muse]; I wanted to be Edward Weston and Charis Wilson in one” — claiming her image for herself.
The works on view at Higher Pictures, many of which don’t appear in the monograph, show the rawer side of this exploration. These vintage prints are more experimental, often practicing some form of double exposure. In one series, Williams projects images onto herself, both toying with the notion of “projection” and engaging in a photographic self-“exposure,” as the superimposition of her nude form commingles with the contours of her clothing. The young artist worked through myriad ways of being before the camera, layering images to probe the boundaries of the frame. Even the light from her bedroom window turns into a kind of photographic exposure on her skin.
Tender, by contrast, is the polished retrospective, the “mature” presentation of a now-seasoned photo historian. While the bulk of its material dates from the 1980s, it goes past Williams’s Princeton years and well into the ’90s. It includes an illuminating personal essay that describes Williams’s experience of discovering her father’s pornography magazine collection in the family bathroom as an adolescent, and her burgeoning fascination with the women on those pages.
In her own images, Williams’s sensuality is open and, at times, tongue-in-cheek, always at play with her own representation. Tender closes with the historian Mireille Miller-Young’s thoughtful illustration of the context within which Williams “turns the camera on herself in the tradition of the high-art female nude object meeting with the low-culture girlie model of men’s magazines.” Taken all together, we get a complex, shifting portrait of an artist coming into being, articulating her own gaze with compelling intimacy.
Carla Williams: Circa 1985 continues at Higher Pictures (16 Main Street, Ground Floor, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through December 9. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
Tender by Carla Williams (2023) is published by TBW Books and is available online and from independent bookstores.