Jesse’s Book Review – BEAUTIFUL, STILL. By Colby Deal
“On my block, it ain’t no different than the next block
You get drunk and pass out, and they back you to the house
And when you wake up on the couch, you going right back at it
On my block, when you’re that f***** up, they laugh at it
On my block, it’s just another day in the heart
Of the Southside of Houston Texas, making your mark
On my block, we’re cuing all the time, playing dominoes
Keep the Swishers sweet down until my mama goes back inside
Then we can fire…”
-Houston Rapper Scarface, “My Block”
Although not the same ward of Houston the sentiment resonates. Yet even then this was the immediate impression I felt when I first stumbled on Colby’s work in a recent issue of Black+White Photography and reached out. With my family in Baltimore and our extended in Memphis and St. Louis; every year I go back and accumulate images from our cookouts, reunions, spades games, quarter waters, church Sundays, and every small moment in between. It was this universality in black life that I saw my family and community through his…and everyone I have introduced his work too shared in this responding with more or less one word…love.
With this notion of love, I love the honest rawness of it. A solid percentage of the images are out of focus or slightly under/over exposed. Upon closer inspection many of the images are even marked by dust and scratches…and yet the images are beautiful, still…as it is the whole point. It is like that Tupac quote, I first heard in elementary school that made so much sense to me in describing the rose that grew from the concrete. Of course it has scratches and marks on it, but the impression is that it came out of nothing. This also speaks to the fragility of life and the histories of not only the lives lived but the lives un-lived that were cut short to any one of the myriad of statistically disadvantages.
I do also have to point out the notion of representation in photography. Myself upon getting into the medium was hard pressed to find anyone outside of Gordon Parks. I actually managed to source one of his out print books, “Bare Witness” and reviewed exactly a decade ago for the site and represented the only photo book by an African American I could find for quite sometime without doing deep dives for an out of print Roy DeCarava (here is a much more recent edition reviewed) or more contemporary in a Carrie Mae Weems, etc.
Throughout the book there are many traditional portraits that make no qualms of being set up. I love the range this then offers when mixed in with everything else that is shot off the cuff. It gives us an inventiveness that compliments the improvisation that colors black life from quilt making to jazz.
The above image affords us an honesty perhaps vulnerability as the man stoically stares at something out of frame that we can’t see but wonder as we follow his eye lines framed by the jagged fence sign that spotted my neighborhood like so many others. Below is a woman in white, a classic motif of purity. What is un-classic, but beautiful still, are the uncommon site of braids in this context. Her look of defiance emphasizes this, while her skin tone reveals the history well described by Nina Simone through one of four women, Saffronia.
Published by Mack Books in May 2022, the book can still be purchased for under $60. You can order it directly through the site here. It comes in both signed or unsigned editions, I lucked out and got a signed edition receiving it from my father for Christmas. Its construction is strong as it is modest in a faux lather embossed cover with 160 pages at 24 x 28cm. Give the man his flowers while he can still smell them and order a copy.
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