July, 2007
A Look Through His Camera’s Lens


LYLE ASHTON HARRIS is every man. He’s a cousin,  a best friend’s brother, the most dedicated member of the  church choir, even a best “girl” friend. And his art parallels his  development as a gay person, Black man, artist, American and  member of the family of man.

In Italy, Harris and his art represented America’s best last  month at the Venice Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious  art fair in the world, where Harris also was a judge in the first-  / ever Africa pavilion.

Along the way to such lofty heights, there were early mixed  media collaborations with his older brother, Thomas Allen  Harris. Then came photographs like the American flag-draped  snow queens and the white face heroine of the 1987 America’s  Triptych series. There were examinations of stereotypes and  profiling about pride in spite of pain. There was confrontation  and in-your-face flamboyance with the tulle tutu, blond-wigwearing  protagonist of the Whitney Museum’s equally sensational  1994 “Black Male” group show assembled by the legendary  curator Thelma Golden. These led to the even more  “out,” full-color portrayals of Black historical figures delving  into racism, misogyny, homophobia and heroism.

By the mid-1990s, huge sepia-tone Polaroid portraits  engaged viewers in an ever-evolving conversation. These  “chocolate” portraits that cost five figures have led to a steady  stream of portraits of the obscure, the talented and the renowned.  Crossing back and forth between fine art and commercial  commissions, Harris has photographed a variety of  subjects from President Bill Clinton to Missy Elliott.

“The thing about Lyle is versatility.. .inserting himself at  the right time in the right place to get once-in-a-lifetime  images,” says Franklin Sirmans, curator for contemporary and  modern art at the Menil Collection in Houston.

The new millennium began for Harris with a fellowship to  the American Academy in Rome, where he further broadened  his world vision. “Now,” he says, “I could see how similar  and how different I and all Americans were from the rest  of the world.” 

He could see how Black history and attitudes had intersected,  influenced and been influenced by other cultures. Best  of all, he could see how his own past provided tools for navigating  and inhabiting the bigger world outside America and  his family. 

Harris was born in 1965 as part of an illustrious African-  American lineage that the “mainstream” media rarely glimpse  or acknowledge. His maternal grandmother, Joella Johnson,  was a missionary and his grandfather, Albert Johnson, was the  treasurer of Harlem’s Bethel A.M.E. Church. Johnson, a photographer  of more than 10,000 slides of family members, was  also “race man” who studied with famous scholars and was  a systems analyst for the Port Authority of New York/New  Jersey. Harris’ mother, Rudean, is a chemistry professor who,  after dworcing their father, took young Lyle and his brother  to live for several years in Tanzania during the mid-1970s.  Harris’ late stepfather was a translator at the United Nations  and his older brother, Thomas, is an award-winning fine art  filmmaker and photographer on the West Coast.

Although Lyle traveled a path of low self-esteem and addiction  for many years, eventually his cosmopolitan upbringing,  family love, respect for education, overriding ambition and  talent triumphed. He went to Wesleyan to study economics  but dropped out because “it just did not feel right.” He left  to live with his brother, who was working on a postgraduate  degree in Amsterdam. Fortunately, a photography class provided  the “eureka” moment that made him realize where his  heart really belonged. He went back to school, where he excelled  in his studio arts undergraduate courses and later earned  a graduate degree at Cal Art in Los Angeles.

Today, Harris teaches at New York University, where he is  now the university’s first “global artist” working as a professor  in Ghana. In that country, Harris lives and socializes in the rarified  world of society’s elite and leaders. “In a place where my  subsidized rent is about $2,000 a month, most households pay  $300 a month,” Harris says. “So I spend time with the ‘regular’  folks at the marketplace where I often go to photograph.”  

Harris has brought the art world from America to conduct  workshops and programs for the fledgling art community  in Ghana.

But enough about Harris. What about his art? Well, it is  often about … him. Harris, in fact, is his favorite model, the  self-referential stand-in for his personal, societal or political  views. The photographs reflect what the culture is saying  about its values and how he mirrors or inhabits those values.  Recent works examine the extremes of violence, both inflicted  by society and self-inflicted via his embodying the character  of Billie Holiday, juxtaposed with that of a very battered  and bloodied pugilist. “The boxer expresses the militaristic  vision of masculinity perpetuated in the Black urban community  that almost annihilated me and is killing too many,”  he says. “What is feminine and what does masculine mean?”

Living in Ghana half the year and the time he spent in Italy  woke him to just how huge soccer is outside the United  States. Articles about the racism of its European fans, hurling  epithets and beer bottles at star players from the African  Diaspora and a commission to photograph Silvio Berlusconi,  the former president of Italy, caused his filter to begin reading  the cultures. So he interviewed some of those soccer stars  and pulled out his Nikon along with his Bronx persona to  negotiate and photograph the riotous crowd of thousands in  a stadium in Rome.

For his installation, he has taken over an entire wall with  a full-scale photograph of that same upscale-looking crowd  of soccer fans. He has been reading an Italian theorist, Elias  Canetti, and is fascinated by how crowds empower its members  to act out in ways they never could as individuals. Yet  for all his ease with the rich and famous and familiarity with  the medium, surprisingly, Harris, in many ways, is a common  man. Stripped of costumes and artifice in front of the  camera and no longer in control behind it, he is just as  uncomfortable and distracted as anyone can be in those  highly exposed circumstances.

Cheryl R. Riley is an artist and furniture designer whose award-winning work  has been commissioned by cities, museums, corporations and celebrity collectors  throughout the United States for more than 25 years.