Lyle Ashton Harris: ‘Chocolate Portraits’ at the Studio Museum

Updated: July 15, 2011 at 06:00 AM

The “chocolate portraits” of Bronx-born photographer Lyle Ashton Harris will be displayed at The Studio Museum in Harlem beginning Thursday. Harris dedicated more than 10 years to creating the approximately 200 sepia-colored portraits.

The artist used a large format (20” x 24”) Polaroid camera to capture friends, family, cultural icons and political figures ranging from Thelma Golden and Tony Kushner to Rev. Al Sharpton.

Many of the images are presented in a diptych format — the subject’s face and back are paired together. He strategically blurred the subjects’ identities by manipulating the light and tone of each image. Individually, the images feel ambiguous, but as a whole, Harris’ shadowed and nameless faces create a narrative about identity, ethnicity and gender in America.

“Excessive Exposure,” a book about the Chocolate Portraits, includes a forward by the Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a Q & A with artist Chuck Close.

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From Gates’ forward, “Troped in Chocolate: Lyle Ashton Harris’ Portraits of Blackness”:

Harris’s collection of over two hundred “types” serves to democratize and, simultaneously, destabilize the very concept of a black—indeed, of an American archive itself. The only thing “excessive” about what Harris has accomplished here is his profound and sublime aesthetic and intellectual contribution to a new way of seeing, of representing, the diversity at the heart of any meaningful definitions of representative democracy and transcendent, timeless art.

From “A conversation with Chuck Close and Lyle Ashton Harris, New York City, 1999”:

CC: Why did you decide on the sepia? What do they call it, chocolate?

LAH: Chocolate, yes. Our friend Brenda Zlamany recently remarked that I have created a chocolate Chuck Close.

CC: Am I semi-sweet or bittersweet?

LAH: [Laughs] I love the color. I think it’s a way of having my own little brown set of folks, if you want to call them that! I think people come in shades of brown, so I like it.

The new Polaroid cross-process technique I’m using for these portraits is quite sensitive to environmental factors such as temperature, so there’s always an element of surprise in the resulting nuance of color and solarization. I also love the unforgiving detail that comes with the absence of intense highlights. They’re not pretty pictures by any stretch of the imagination, but they possess a timeless quality reminiscent of nineteenth century toned albumen prints.

I can appreciate the shock some of my subjects have upon seeing their portraits for the first time. I began taking self-portraits in the 1980s to explore the dissonance and ambivalence I experienced in relation to my own image. About a year ago [1998], I started photographing myself using this Polaroid technique and initially had difficulty dealing with the result—it seemed somewhat heavy. When I looked at the photograph again after several weeks, I said to myself, “If I’m going to be subjected to this, I’m bringing in my friends as sitters!” That’s when I began the project and invited you down to the studio. It’s amazing how shooting portraits has affected my relationship with people in the street, because now I’m constantly looking at people’s faces. I’m like a kid in a candy store, watching people in public. I’ve become much more observant of physiognomy and how people engage with one another. I’m often asked when this portrait project is going to be finished, but I can really see it going on for quite a while.

CC: Jeez, stop making portraits—why would you ever want to do that?

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