Terrence A. Reese’s exhibition “Reflections” features images of a wide range of African American politicians, artists, educators, and musicians whose activism led the fight against racial and social injustice and economic inequality. Yet the 60 black and white silver gelatin prints of subjects seen as reflections are also layered, complex, and carefully framed compositions — and an exercise in the collaborative process between artist and subject.
Donna Gustafson, curator of American art and director of academic programs at the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick, where the exhibition is on view through July 30, became aware of Reese’s work when he expressed his interest in making “Reflections” — already exhibited in Philadelphia and Michigan — and the book of the same name available to colleges and university art museums.
“I was interested in the idea of portraiture,” says Gustafson. “I did a show about portraiture about four years ago, so I’m intrigued by these kinds of portraits, because his method of portraiture is unusual in that none of these images are really a person sitting in a room with the camera focused on them. Instead everyone is reflected in a mirror so they’re often a tiny little corner, and really it’s the room that becomes almost a portrait — and the person is a small element within it. It’s an interesting take on the idea of portraiture. Also the idea of things and how people are identified by their things is something that comes across in these images: work space and living spaces, and what that says about people is interesting.”
Gustafson says she liked the show’s focus and thought it appropriate for a university museum. “We were interested in the historic dimensions of it. It’s very intriguing that
(Reese) has been able to find a way into these people’s personal lives. And the text that he has on one hand tells you about the person in the photograph and on the other hand tells you about his encounter with the person. It’s another interesting way to demystify the portrait process because it really is a collaboration between the sitter and the photographer.
“I would like people to see this as an exhibition that investigates ideas of portraiture in the context of what has become celebrity culture. This is a thoughtful way of thinking of how images can represent people and complicates the idea of a photographic portrait being a representation of a person.
“I think that people will enjoy having to look for the subject in these pictures. The subject is ultimately the person, and it’s a matter of finding the person in the room. (Yet) I hope people move beyond that to think about it as an interesting and unique way of thinking about portraiture.”
Helping with the undertaking was Kaitlin Booher, a graduate fellow in the department of art history at Rutgers, who re-imagined the book for the gallery and selected and organized the exhibition inspired by Reese’s book.
To meet photographer Terrence A. Reese, also known as TAR, is to immediately become engaged. Friendly, energetic, and outgoing, he makes contact the moment he spots someone. Such was this writer’s experience when we met before the opening of his series “Reflections” at the Zimmerli.
“And I tell people you have an aura that people can feel,” he says. “You may have heard this before, but you have ‘It.’” He then recalls a conversation he had early on with woman giving him encouragement and sums “It” up as, “It’ is what you have. It’s your ability.”
His approach to interacting with people and especially in encouraging young people is his way of drawing them in. “It’s my obligation, my responsibility,” he says.
Raised by his “mum,” Dr. Jean Reese, whom he characterizes as “the first person who gave me direction. A single parent, mum never beat around the bush with my brother and me. She was always honest, loving, and trustworthy. She supported my foolishness, held me during my failures, and championed my successes. Jean Reese brought me into this world and helped mold me into the man I’ve become.”
The Chicago-born Reese says he studied both photography and architectural drawing at Simeon Vocational High School in Chicago with the intent of studying architecture in college. When he got to Southern Illinois University he decided to study photography exclusively. He credits his high school teacher and mentor Isaiah Curry for recognizing his potential and nurturing it. Curry continues to encourage him to this day.
After graduating from college he headed for New York where he found work with Anthony (Tony) Barboza, a well-known and respected photographer who started with the influential African-American photography collective Kamoinge Workshop, founded with others by the late Mercer County Community College instructor Lou Draper, and created the book “Black Borders,” with text by Trenton-raised poet and playwright Ntozake Shange.
“Tony Barboza was the first professional photographer I worked for,” says Reese. “During my first six months in New York, and for all the years that have followed, Tony has been a powerful force in my life. Many times in those early days he made me angry. But he gave me the knowledge I needed to both survive and succeed in the Big Apple.”
He then credits another creative artist for inspiration and guidance. “I was extremely fortunate when Adger Cowans, a highly respected elder and truly authentic artist, took me under his wing and set me absolutely free,” Reese says of the photographer who started as an apprentice to famed photographer Gordon Parks, exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum, and created the book “Personal Vision: Photographs.” “These people gave me the foundation I needed to flourish, grow, and believe in myself. They’ve been the keys to my successes,” says Reese.
Encouraged, Reese opened his own full service photography studio in Chelsea and now splits his time between New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Clients include performers Missy Elliot, LL Cool J, and Billy Joel; film studios such as Warner Bros; and Harper’s Bazaar, Details, and Vibe magazines, just to name few.
His series “Reflections” is a collection of black-and-white photographs of personal living spaces of more than 60 African-Americans whose lives and careers have addressed the fundamental political, economic, and social realities of the 20th century and beyond. Shot entirely with a 2 ¼ film camera (larger than the common 35mm format), Reese has compiled an array of prominent people from artists, activists, innovators and politicians.
Reese says the idea for “Reflections” came about in 1989 when he attended the opening of “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America,” an exhibition and book created by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker. Wanting to do his own version, which would celebrate the achievements of both iconic black men and women, Reese shared his idea during a visit with Cowans, who seemed unimpressed.
As Cowans continued to speak, Reese says he wandered about the crowded studio looking for a window to escape a strong scent that stung his eyes. “As I walked toward him, something in my head clicked. I stopped and carefully observed the entire scene around me. Under a large round light I could see Adger in the mirror, stirring the ginseng in a pot. All around him were the unique things that defined his life. I knew that if I could get all these mementos plus the mirror into focus, it would tell a fantastic story. And that’s how ‘Reflections’ was born.”
Starting with Barboza and Cowans as the first two entries in the book, Reese drew upon numerous contacts. With each sitting he asked each subject to give him five names of people they thought would be willing to be photographed. The list eventually grew to include Reverend Jesse Jackson, Gordon Parks, Lois Mailou Jones, B.B. King, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and an extended list Reese wants to capture for another volume.
Gustafson says she has a hope for the exhibition. “I would like people to take away the idea that American history is more complicated than what we often imagine it is, and that all of these small stories are part of the greater and larger history of what American is . . . I also hope it gives some people hope for the future.”
Reflections: Photographs of Iconic African Americans by Terrence A. Reese (TAR), Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. On view through July 30, Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., and the first Thursday of the month to 9 p.m. Free. 848-932-7237 or zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.