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ART 2022
Interview

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Reginald
Cunningham
The Boca Raton Museum of Art presents:
Black Pearls 
Photography Exhibition Till January 22, 2023

The Boca Raton Museum of Art presents Reginald Cunningham: Black Pearls, in the first-ever museum exhibition of Cunningham’s work, curated by Kelli Bodle, Associate Curator. The New Current spoke to the acclaimed photographer about his experience being part of the Pearl City community and what he hoped people would take from his exhibition.

Hi Reginald. It's a pleasure to speak with you; how have you been?

Greetings and thank you for taking the time! I’ve been well and am still reflecting upon the amazing opening at the museum.

Congratulations on your photography exhibition, "Black Pearls," having its world premiere at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. What does this mean to you to be able to have your first museum exhibition of your work?

I’m honestly still kind of speechless about it. I never really saw this as something within the realm of possibility for my photography career. I feel honoured. I feel blessed. It’s an affirmation that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

Had you known much about this important African-American community before the Boca Raton Museum of Art commissioned you for this new series honouring the Pearl City neighbourhood?

I had never heard of this specific community, but so many communities like this have existed and do still exist in this country, and I saw them reflected in Pearl City. Many of them have been destroyed or "redeveloped" into something unrecognizable. I’m thinking about places like Kinloch, Missouri, Southeast Washington, DC, Lake Georgia, Central Park in New York, Arlington Cemetery in the DC area, etc.

How was the process working with Associate Curator Kelli Bodle on this exhibition?

Kelli was absolutely amazing at making sure I was in contact with the right people, helping to narrow down the scope of the project, and keeping everything on track and on a proper timeline. She was my direct liaison with the museum and made this whole process seamless.

What has been the most valuable lesson you have taken from your time in the Pearl City community, and what do you think a new exhibition says about you and the work you want to create?

The most valuable lesson I learned in my time in Pearl City is about the resilience of community. One of the things my wife often says is that "Freedom is community work." I think this is exemplified in the community of Pearl City. Here you have a community that continues to uplift itself and hold each other close over 100 years after its founding, with many of the community members being descendants of the founders. Hopefully this exhibition is a reflection of what I’ve always tried to do, which is show all facets of the Black experience with dignity and pride.

You’ve said that "through the lens of my photography, I’m always trying to create affinity and uplift Black people and the Black experience in this country." How important is it for you to be able to use your platform, passion, and creativity to create work that genuinely uplifts and celebrates the beauty and history of Black America?

I truly believe that’s my purpose, and one of my beliefs is as long as you’re operating within your values and your purpose, you can never go wrong. Blackness is such a big part of who I am, and so I would be being dishonest with myself and those around me if I didn’t operate through that lens. My passions are just the tools that I use to operate through that lens.

Is it easier for you to make genuine connections with the people and communities you photograph as an African-American photographer?

If you’re asking if me being Black helps me to forge those connections in those communities, I would say, of course. Too often, Black communities have had people come in and just take without giving or leaving something of value, or misrepresent us, and often it is people who don’t look like us who do so. When I move into communities that I’ve never worked in and I’m trying to build connections, it’s important for me to sit and listen. Meet them where they are in order to get their experience. It’s important for them to know that I am there to amplify, not to take over the mic.

Is there any one photograph you took from the Black Pearls series that really resonated with you?

Honestly, they all resonate with me in different ways because they all have a story. They all represent people from that community that have value and purpose.

A photograph always says a lot about a person, capturing a vulnerability and a power of the self that freezes them in a moment. And even with this silence, photography offers audible noise that provides an intriguing insight into the subject. How salient was it for you to interview each of your subjects that became part of Black Pearls?

A big reason it was important is because talking to my subjects is a natural part of my process. In any portrait session, I don’t just pick up my camera and start taking pictures. I’m trying to create a photo that is a true representation of who they are, and I can’t do that if I don’t know anything about them. For this project, working with Dr. Candace Cunningham to record their oral histories was paramount. Oral storytelling is a part of the Black experience and always has been. If these stories aren’t recorded somewhere, they eventually go away. I’ve experienced this in my own family. Now, descendants of Pearl City will always have these oral records.

Where did your passion for photography come from, and what was it about your mother's photographic style and approach that interested you so much?

I think my passion for the craft came from a passion for people. I love stories. I love community. With my camera, I get to explore that. Honestly, being raised by a photographer, I experienced a lot of things that I thought were normal for everyone. I thought everyone had lots of family photo albums and magazines on the coffee table, and photo books on the shelves. I was always around photography, so I think it eventually piqued my interest. My mom is still a mentor to me. I often share my work with her before anyone else to get her opinion on how I can get better.

How did Be Pure Black come about, and did you imagine this project would become so nationally acclaimed?

Be Pure Black actually began with apparel. I designed some t-shirts and needed a place for people to be able to purchase them online. When I started doing photography professionally, I merged the two. I never imagined that this project would be so popular, but I’m glad it is because it’s knowledge everyone should have.

What have been some of the biggest changes you have noticed in how the African-American communities around the US are photographed and how their voices are being incorporated into this bigger political or social narrative?

Honestly, I don’t know that there have been many changes. Photography was invented with whiteness in mind, so historically, film stocks were not rated for darker skin tones. We still see that being the case today with digital photography. Non-Black photographers are still not taught that black and white skin must be lit differently. We still see major publications hiring white photographers to photograph Black people. I think the pushback against that is finally gaining some traction, but it’s still an issue.

"When you feel a physiological response, or an emotion to what you see, thats when you should press the shutter."

Are there any emerging African-American photographers you’ve come across that have really impressed you?

I’m continuously impressed and amazed by many Black photographers in the industry, some of whom I’m fortunate to call friends. Joshua Kissi, Greg Noire, Shaughn Cooper, Ahmad Barber and Donte Maurice, Mark Clennon, Devin Allen, Flo Ngala, Dana Scruggs, Jarrett Hendrix, etc. Hmm. I hesitate to call them emerging because folks have been putting in work a lot longer than we all think, but maybe they are less known; Jada Imani, Chynna Keys, Ashley Arnold, Bee Wood, Jaz B. Snappin, Kolin Mendez, Noemie Marguerite, Poochie Collins, Leeza Jonee.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given?

"Leap and the net will appear" is one that has resonated with me for a few years.

Do you have any tips or advice you would offer someone wanting to get into photography?

I would say when you’re looking through the viewfinder, it can sometimes act as a barrier. When you feel a physiological response, or an emotion to what you see, that’s when you should press the shutter. Take pictures of what you feel.

And finally, what message do you want people to take away from this exhibition?

I want people to know that Pearl City exists. I want people to know that it is a thriving community of Black people that are direct descendants of the people who founded it. I want people to join me in the fight to have this area designated as a historical area, so that redevelopment does not take this gem of a city away from us.

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