The inner life of a photographer explored in five ways

A new exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York asks five photographers to look within via the lens of a smartphone

Smartphones are a typical feature of exhibition experiences nowadays, primarily used as a way to make a personal record of our time there. However a new show at New York’s International Center of Photography (ICP) flips the direction of this relationship: the pieces in the exhibition have been made with a phone to capture the privacy of the creative process, before being given a future life on the museum walls.

The artistic merit of smartphones has been put to the test over the years, helped along by Apple’s Shot on iPhone campaigns, and various experiments in cinema, such as Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine, which was created using an iPhone. Apple smartphones are now placed at the heart of this exhibition in a comment on their place in art world settings.

Top: New Jersey 01, 2021 © Arielle Bobb-Willis. Above: Genesis, 2021 © Quil Lemons
Melanin Monroe, 2021 © Quil Lemons

This detail of the exhibition, which is titled Inward: Reflections on Interiority, is secondary to the deeply personal stories and experiences laid bare by the photographers in their images, however. The show features newly commissioned photography by Djeneba Aduayom, Brad Ogbonna, Arielle Bobb-Willis, Quil Lemons and Isaac West, and marks the first time these photographers have had their personal work displayed in a museum setting.

Lemons explores identity through a set of self-portraits from his series Daydreams (the imagemaker has also just released a short film, Daydreamin, shot on an iPhone). The informality of the medium seems like a natural evolution of his casual portrait series Hey Can I FT You? which was made over FaceTime during lockdown. At once vulnerable and powerful, the duality in Lemons’ Daydreams series reflects the questions he asks of himself: “If I am black, can I be queer? Can these identities exist together?” he wrote on Instagram.

“Using my body as a vessel for my message is new; therapeutic,” he continued. “I’ve allowed my ego to fall.”

Transplace, 2021 © Djeneba Aduayom
New Orleans 01, 2021 © Arielle Bobb-Willis

Dancer-turned-photographer Djeneba Aduayom has produced a range of self-portraits that reflect the comfort she found during the isolating conditions of the pandemic as an introvert. Arielle Bobb-Willis, whose dynamic compositions also suggest a dancer background, continues her ongoing practice of broaching depression, which she has experienced from a young age, by employing vibrant colours and bold shapes in an act of resistance.

Although the pandemic has been a time of intense solitude, some of the projects directly examine interpersonal relationships. Brad Ogbonna appears in his portrait series along with his friends and family, his staged black and white photographs channelling West African portraitists like Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta. The work is a conscious homage to his late father, whose family photo albums he inherited after he passed away, rediscovering photographs from his father’s youth in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, Isaac West’s project celebrates the small gestures that embody love and care, and how we may show this to one another through food or grooming. The result is a joyful ode to the quiet acts of kindness that have gone a long way in lonely, fraught times.

Stella Ngozi & Brad Ogbonna, 2021 © Brad Ogbonna
Untitled, from In Love, 2021 © Isaac West

The show has been curated by Isolde Brielmaier, the ICP’s curator at large and the deputy director of the New Museum, who said that “the revealing new photographs explore intimate thoughts and personal relationships with great honesty, as the artists delve deep into the new reality and challenges of our contemporary lives at a time of global introspection.”

Brielmaier is also hosting two online discussions with the photographers in October.

Paul & Peter, 2021 © Brad Ogbonna
Invisible Walls, 2021 © Djeneba Aduayom

Inward: Reflections on Interiority runs at the ICP, New York until January 10;