Russian Ghanaian photographer Liz Johnson Artur’s work mostly falls under a single title: “Black Balloon Archive.” Far bigger than a conventional series, the extensive project is instead an ongoing record of photos taken over a 30-year period.
Her photos of Black people of all ages, genders, nationalities and experiences are so broad they defy narrow categorization. She rarely captions her photos and is unapologetic in her unwillingness to explain the work, even to her subjects.
“I don’t always explain what I do,” she said from her London studio, an apartment on the 13th floor of a concrete tower block south of the River Thames “But to be quite honest, I don’t have to.
“When I approach people … what I say (to them is that I’ll) try to put them in good company.”
This is not to suggest that Johnson Artur doesn’t treat her subjects with sensitivity. Her photos are nuanced and inviting, unaided by any sort of description; they ask the viewer to look deeply at each subject, to study the images for clues about the lives depicted. Young children, women dressed in religious wear, men in drag, musicians, models — the photographer has captured Black people from all walks of life.
This week, her work is being recognized at Rencontres d’Arles, an annual photo festival held in the south of France, where she will be given the Kering Women in Motion photography prize. A relatively new award, the winners to date are Susan Meiselas and Sabine Weiss, in 2019 and 2020 respectively .
Despite the accolade and a prolific career, the 57-year-old photographer was relatively unknown until just a few years ago. She didn’t stage her first solo exhibition until May 2019, a collection of works drawn from the “Black Balloon Archive” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the city where her love of photography initially took hold.
Born in Bulgaria to a Russian mother and a Ghanian father, Liz Johnson Artur migrated to West Germany as a child. During her first trip to America in the mid-1980s, she found herself staying with a friend of her mother’s in the middle of a predominantly Black neighborhood in Brooklyn — a very different scene to what she was used to at home. It was on this trip that she began building her confidence with a camera.
She remembers an early picture taken while walking through Central Park. She noticed a man sleeping on one of the park’s famous boulders. Recalling the moment, she said she remembered feeling guilty about taking his photo. “It feels a bit like you’re stealing something,” she said.
Liz Johnson Artur, winner of the 2021 Women in Motion photography prize. Credit: Liz Johnson Artur
While she was preparing her shot, the man suddenly woke up and spotted her. At that moment, she didn’t know what to do, “so I kind of looked at him, he looked at me, and then he just went back to sleep,” she said. She took the picture, and remembers the feeling of guilt subsiding. It changed her approach to street photography — “it didn’t feel like stealing anymore,” she said.
Since those early years, Johnson Artur has shot for magazines like i-D and The Face, photographed the likes of MIA and Lady Gaga on tour and worked with labels including Rhianna’s Fenty brand and Italian fashion house Valentino. During that time she also had a daughter.
She staged her first UK exhibition in 2019 at the South London Gallery, focusing on Black life in the British capital, where she’s lived since 1991. Last year, she was one of 10 artists to receive a cash bursary from London’s Tate galleries, an award organized in lieu of the annual Turner Prize, which was canceled due to the pandemic.
When asked how she would define her work, Johnson Artur said quite simply that “it is a lot of different people.”
She stressed that there’s no overarching mission. “This is not about an agenda,” she said. “It’s about people and encounters.”
Is the photographer cynical about the spike of interest in her work over the last few years — particularly as it coincided with the rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter? Yes. (She said she has lost count of the number of emails she received from institutions around the time the demonstrations began last year). But does it bother her? It doesn’t appear to. As Johnson Artur sees it, she’s been taking pictures of Black people through her unique lens for three decades, and nothing about her work has changed. If brands and curators (and the media) are more attuned to it now, then so be it — she’s more interested to see what comes of it. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m just here to do my thing,” she said.
That said, she enjoyed shooting a book for Valentino (a behind-the-scenes look at one of the brand’s recent shows) and believes “they didn’t just hire Black photographers to shoot a Black thing.”
“Some people are genuine,” she said, “it didn’t feel exploitative for me.”