Lola Flash’s retrospective at Pen + Brush, 1986 to Present, honors creative activism at its finest. As a queer black woman, Flash, at age 59, has used the medium of photography and photographic processes to confront the dual injustice of invisibility and stereotypical portrayals of gender, sexuality, race, and age for over three decades. Her portraits, many of which were taken with a 4×5 camera, serve to capture those in her communities who are often overlooked. Beginning in 1986, Flash documented her involvement with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) demonstrations and also employed cross-color film processing to reverse the printed photograph’s colors—further illuminating how one person’s blue-sky can be another’s fire-red horizon.
Now on view, Flash’s “Cross-Color” series presents a new world to behold, where black is white and what’s usually identifiable is obscured, exhibited alongside five portrait series, in which Flash invites viewers to see her world, her communities of individuals, in all their unique specificity. The “[sur]passing” series explores the spectrum of race; “surmise” captures fluid presentations of gender; SALT challenges ageism; LEGENDS spotlights leaders of the LGBTQ+ movement; and Incarceration, a singular self-portrait, is the inaugural piece in a series about the mass imprisonment of people of color. Together, this historic retrospective of seventy-one photographs spans a life of advocacy that Flash explains can be united by a simple message: “Look at us,” she implores, “How can you not love us?”
“A lifetime of creative activism needs honoring,” author Juno Roche, writes in the catalog accompanying the photography exhibition, and “needs acknowledgement and celebration.” Pen + Brush, the expansive gallery and organization that has been dedicated to championing women in the arts for over a century, is doing just this by kicking off 2018, another year of resistance, with the Lola Flash Retrospective, now on view through March 17, 2018.
Amy Deneson (The Rail): How did the Lola Flash Retrospective come to be?
Lola Flash: I have to give my friend, Afua, the credit. I didn’t know about Pen and Brush until 2015, when they moved into this new space.
Rail: Same, here. I was stunned to learn they’ve been around for 120 years, since before women could vote.
Flash: I know. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my favorite ladies in history, she was one of their members. Toni, the portrait over there, was in the last show, King Woman, a beautiful show of twenty-five women artists. The curator, Mashonda Tifrere, chose it.
Rail: Here we are, at Pen + Brush, Toni is one of the dozens of portraits in your “SALT” series. Tell me about these regal dames surrounding us.
Flash: “SALT” is a series about women who need to be seen, who are beautiful and who need to be heard, but how society washes us away after we are, what? twenty-nine.
Rail: As if we no longer have anything to contribute after age thirty. You recorded interviews with them, during your shoots?
Flash: Yeah, and they didn’t talk about how they were wronged. I’m sure they had lots of experiences. By the time you get to seventy? C’mon. To be a woman of their generation, to make it to seventy, and to not be angry, to not be vengeful but to have these beautiful positive spirits. Wow.
That lady over there, Lynda. She took me into her home. In fact all of these women in the series were so hospitable. They didn’t know me from Adam, and here I come in with my mohawk and my tattoos. It’s so funny, when I got my last bunch of tattoos, I actually thought: Am I going to scare the older ladies off? What are they going to think about me coming through the door? But they’ve seen so much; they didn’t even flinch. That’s the thing your vision becomes so much more open when you get older.
Rail: We hope—as opposed to myopic, and narrow.
Flash: Right, hopefully, as it has for these women.
Rail: Many of them are still engaged in their life work?
Flash: Some of them are still helping people. Some are being grandmothers for the fourth or fifth time, which is also something to be honored. Agnus Gund, the woman over there, she is a perfect example. What if there were more people like her helping make art flourish? As of late, she has been directing her attention toward incarceration. She has spurred an organization called the Art for Justice Fund, which is working to solve the crisis of mass incarceration.
And this gorgeous woman here, Nette. A couple of years ago, she walked into this gallery; she’s the kind of person that radiates. I was all, “Oh wow! Who is that LADY?” A friend introduced us. I photographed her, not realizing that she was the Board of Directors here.
Rail: Amazing. So Pen + Brush decided to go from one portrait to seventy-one, representing five series and thirty years of work.
Flash: It is important for people like myself, who are not white men, to have organizations that champion their work. We don’t have the good ol’ boys system; this is very apparent—even in this 21st century—when one looks around…anywhere. So it is definitely an extraordinary experience to benefit from an organization such as this that is there for you.
The space is massive and beautiful. It allows for different floors and areas to become site-specific spaces for each portrait series. And it is also a new experience to have a team of people behind me one hundred percent.
Up until now, for each of my exhibitions, I have hung every picture, pounded every nail, sent out every invitation. I’ve done everything—like many artists do. To have others help you to do these things, I’m like, “Oh, this is what Hank Willis Thomas gets to do, or this is what Toyin Ojih Odutola gets to do.” Artists I admire.
Rail: What other artists inspire you?
Flash: I’m also inspired by very old Italian masters. I admire Gordon Parks, Anthony Barboza, Richard Avedon, of course, and more recently Kerry James Marshall and Carrie Mae Weems.
Rail: You teach visual arts, right?
Flash: To ninth and tenth graders in Brooklyn.
Rail: Did I hear there’s a fieldtrip happening?
Flash: Yeah, we’re bringing the students. I don’t always talk about my work with them. It’s so personal. But this feels right. There is so much for my students—for everyone—in the subjects I’m working with in the retrospective: racism, ageism, homophobia.
Earlier today Rachel Tigay, the person is helping me organize the fieldtrip, told me, “Hey, there are a couple more kids who asked to come along.” That’s always amazing. Our kids don’t really like fieldtrips. There’s a fear of the unknown. So, when you hear kids saying they want to go that means they’re talking about it.
I’m glad they’re coming. There’s still more of a need for representation for queer people of color, in particular.
Rail: Did you start the “[sur]passing” series for that reason?
Flash: No. I was in London, going to graduate school.
Rail: Why London?
Flash: I was teaching photography at a college in London, and a close friend had recently started a Master’s program at the London College of Printing that she loved. I always wanted to get my Master’s, though I didn’t realize it’d be twenty years after my bachelor’s degree.
I graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. My favorite teacher, who really gave me the passion for Art, was Dr. Leslie King Hammond, and Jack Wilgus, also at MICA, gave me the photographic skills and encouraged my cross-color process.
Rail: We’ll get back to cross-color, but…
Flash: “[sur]passing,” right. My employer offered to pay for the degree, so I thought, the timing was perfect to go back to college and “relearn” taking photos, in a more direct and traditional way. I wanted to stop doing the cross-color work and start doing something different. I was experimenting with all formats, until I shot large format, with a 4×5 camera, and realized this format and color was the way to proceed.
My first portrait, with a large format camera, was of Shirley Chisholm, during my undergraduate days. And, you know, I can’t find that transparency.
Rail: No! Really?
Flash: The portrait is in my head. Part of me is like that’s where its living and part of me believes I’m going to find it stuck behind some papers.
“[sur]passing” really came to be, because in London everyone used to say, “You know Lola the mixed-race girl.” I’m not mixed-race. Both my parents were black. My mom was light-skinned, my dad, dark-skinned. After all these people referring to me as Lola the Mixed-Race Girl, I realized I am mixed-race.
African-American people, we know, we are mixed race because of slavery and most likely due to the fact of the rape of our great, great, great grandmothers. We didn’t really talk about it, as the thought of this kind of lineage can be soul destroying to grapple with. Now, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has a major PBS show that focuses on our Irish, or Scottish or English blood, and due to DNA technology, we can trace our family ancestry.
I started thinking about the favoritism that happens to people who are light-skinned.
My grandmother used to talk about “passing” when she’d go the train station. She was able to pass and to buy tickets from the whites-only line. She sent my mom and her sister around the corner. Even though they were light-skinned, their hair was more kinky. So, they looked black. Grandma would get her tickets and then, of course, she would take her place in the black section, in the colored section, of the train.
My great grandfather was blue-black. Growing up, I never realized there was a difference between light- and dark-skinned people, but in reality, there is a notion that light is better than dark. As a light-skinned person, I have a tinge of guilt and the series “[sur]passing” is a cathartic way to expose such notions. It is my way of dealing with the issue of pigmentocracy.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is, you know, the king of pigmentocracy. When I photographed him, on one of my favorite days of all last year, I told him, “Ideally, I’m going to have ‘[sur]passing’ in the Guggenheim. Probably when I’m eighty-five-years-old or something, I’ll finally be finished with it.”
Rail: You have described “[sur]passing” as a life-long project.
Flash: I want to go every place where there’s black blood. Places like Bahia, Mexico, Johannesburg, The Ivory coast, and even Russia. When it’s complete, and in the Guggenheim, I want to start with the light-skinned portraits at the bottom of the museum. As the viewer walks upwards, the skin pigmentation will become darker. This site-specific display will visually challenge that concept of light-skinned people being superior to dark-skinned folks.
Rail: I can see it. That would be spectacular. As they are, the portraits are photographed with a large format camera, printed at four-foot by five-foot, and deliberately hung to be elevated above the average sightline. So, you look up to them.
Flash: I like how you say that. The gaze is so important. We weren’t allowed to look at “massa,” right? Going back to slavery days, from us being hunched, “Yessa massa,” type of affect to I’m standing upright, I’m looking at you. For me, it is important for the gaze to be assertive but not aggressive.
Rail: Renée Mussai wrote in the retrospective’s catalog about “eyes that commit,” an idea also attributed to Nayyirah Waheed, and that, I feel, is so right on for all your portraiture.
Flash: I was so happy she could write something. Renée and I went to college together in London. She was an undergraduate, while I was a graduate student. She helped me with a lot with manifesting “[sur]passing.” When I started the series, I knew my main concern was “passing” on various levels and I knew I wanted to create a beautiful spectrum of black skin color. She was the one who came up with the ‘[sur]’ part of it, which basically means that we are now above “passing”.
Rail: Speaking of eyes that commit. I can’t take my eyes off of utah who’s part of the “surmise” series.
Flash: Isn’t she the best? I met her at Stonewall five years ago. She was with a mutual friend, this girl I kind of fancied. Those freckles! My grandmother had freckles; so, freckles always pull me in. I wanted to photograph her. She was so cute. She’s forty, believe it or not.
Flash: This is going to make me sound old, but there are some youth who earnestly and honestly want to know what ACT UP was like, what life was like back in the day. I really admire that. A lot don’t care and don’t want to care. But utah sat down on my living room floor and was like, “Tell me all about it.” And I was like, “I love you!”
Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama, talks about how when she sees her models, she falls in love. I feel the same way, too. I get this magnetism toward them. When we’re in that moment of shooting, I’m not thinking about anything other than them, and somehow, I’m able to get them into my little grips, you know, “Look into my lens.”
Rail: The portraiture is so Richard Avedon-esque with those stark, blank white backgrounds that help to reveal the individual’s every detail—their every freckle, tattoo, or scar.
Flash: utah and I did the shoot. And as usual, some kind of symbiotic thing happens when I begin to compose. When you’re a portrait photographer, you have to make decisions really quickly. There’s something that snaps, and I become really focused. My models do, too. But with utah, it gave us a chance to talk with her about her top surgery. I thought she might be trans, but I never like to assume.
Rail: I’m sitting here feeling like I need to confirm her pronouns. She, really?
Flash: Yes. Her pronouns are she/her/hers, they/them/theirs. And “surmise,” the series she’s a part of, is all about inviting the audience to look but not to judge, to not make assumptions or have prejudices.
utah said she didn’t want to navigate life with breasts. I was like, “Really? You can just do that?” My generation, and the girls before me, would strap ‘em down, but I was like, “You go girl.” I wish I would’ve thought about that. I admire her for this decision and, as a teacher, I know that we can learn so much from the youth.
Intergenerational conversations are important. Maybe because we are living longer, we’re able to have these conversations. Our circles are becoming more diverse, and it’s not just race, but also gender, age, there’s more of a blend. The series “surmise” explores the representation of the whole spectrum, all of the complexity that comes with breaking free from the binary, as we know it.
One of my favorite couples is straight and married. Most people think that they are queer. Why? Because they have queer friends. The guy is quite muscular, and the wife has a very shaped small afro, so short hair. They are so in love with each other, but they aren’t the kind who are always hanging on one another. One could be in one corner and another could be across the room. People think they are gay, because they “look gay.”
My buddy Billy, who I call mom, is one of my best friends. He and I often hang out with one of his best buddies, Irene. You would love them. Irene just turned 85, and Billy is in his 70s. They both were married. When they were young, they knew something was different about themselves, but there was no internet or no network for trans people.
Flash: Now they’re both trans. Billy, my mom, is always like, “The puppies are looking good today, Sonny.” She got implants at the age of, I believe, 72.
With “surmise,” I want there to be a nice age representation, and I’m also looking at how gender plays out in different countries. In America, we think differences are more acceptable, but people are still being killed for the way they look, for not “fitting” in to the narrow vision of male or female. We have more issues in common, than not. We all have ageism, we all have racism, we all have these battles.
That’s why “LEGENDS” is so important. “LEGENDS” is a series of portraits of people who very publicly challenged racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia and changed societal norms. They were not trendy, but they were trendsetters. They didn’t fall into the fold. They created their own thing. This is why the lighting in the series is like a spotlight, and very dramatic. I call it the wall of fame.
Rail: You ventured into digital for “LEGENDS.”
Flash: It seemed right to use a digital format, giving the models a chance to move around the frame, and the use of theatrical lighting helped to spotlight them. With my other work, the lighting is definitely conscious, but these decisions were especially important for these stars. Do you have a favorite?
Rail: Wow. Yes, but please help me remember the dancer’s name.
Flash: Maine. I love The Maine Attraction.
Rail: Your portrait of her in a veiled fascinator, wearing a feather boa over that golden brocade, lamé bodysuit, is spectacular. She’s an inspiration to embrace femininity as something powerful.
Flash: As something strong. There are loads of people I still think should be part of “LEGENDS.” I mean, RuPaul should be in it. We used to hang out in Atlanta before I moved to New York. We would go to the mall—for the air conditioning, because it was too hot outside, really. We were in our 20s, neither of us had very much money, but we’d get these magazines.
RuPaul said, “Honey, I’m going to be on the front cover of these one day.” Sure enough, he was. We all moved up to New York around the same time. He was working coat check and doing shows at various underground clubs. He is one of the few people who I have seen go from rags to riches so to speak. I’m really proud of and happy to know him. But at the same time, I’m like, “Ru, don’t forget, Lola Flash needs to get your picture.”
It’s cliché but things happen when they’re supposed to happen. It took over six years to make the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. shoot happen and the same for my Ruth Pointer session.
Rail: There’s much to fight for and resist against in government and corporate complicity right now—Black Lives Matters, and the #MeToo and #TIMESUP movements, to mention a few—all fighting massive injustice. As a creative activist, who has been fighting the every-day fight for decades, what have you learned about self-care and rejuvenation that helps keep you strong?
Flash: In many ways, as a young person, I was not aware of life without injustice. I graduated from college in 1981, right into the AIDS crisis. This was a normal life, a normal way of being for many in my generation.
To be honest with you, the only way I can answer that question is: I think a lot about my forefathers and foremothers, who were slaves. My life has been a hell of a ride, but how many decades were they enslaved? There were folks who jumped off the slave boats, because they thought, I can’t do this. And all the others who succumbed to what they had to do. Then Harriet Tubman and others were like, “Nuh-uh, we got to get out of this.” How? How—when you’re treated worse than animals—how do you keep your strength and your religion, your love of family, I mean, sex drive? How did they do that? Even with my grandparents and parents having to deal with segregation. I don’t know how they did it, but I do know that nothing I’ve dealt with compares. So part of it is me saying to my ancestors, “Okay, y’all I’ve got this; you didn’t do all that for nothing.” I’m still paying homage to them.
And, of course, to all of my friends who died, I’m keeping their beautiful spirits close. For those of us who lost many to HIV, at the time, if felt like all of our geniuses were dying. Our friends were so, so talented, and gone before the age of 20 or 25. I want to keep them, and whatever that spirit was, their ingenuity, I want to keep that going for them. I’m thinking about Ray Navarro, Dave White, and Cookie Mueller. I could go on and on. I’m from a family of teachers. We were raised to be focused on making the world a better place and leaving the ego as a secondary option.
Rail: There is a self-portrait included, Incarceration. I found it heart stopping. Here we are surrounded by all of these series, seventy works of art, and then there’s one single piece.
Flash: And it’s black and white. That is the only photograph I am in in this exhibition. Incarceration deals with when I was arrested in 2008—for walking while black. Of course, I got arrested for ACT UP but that’s a whole different experience.
The criminal system is so off the wall. I watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, which explores in serious detail, the injustice within mass incarceration, in America. Even though all of my series speaks to the issues of racism, sexism, homophobia—and for real, now that my comrades are getting older, those of us who didn’t die from HIV, those of us who are living with the virus for 30+ years, ageism—all these themes I am married to, dedicated to, and while I work toward showing the beauty in all of these issues, I felt like I wanted to do something that was not beautiful.
There is nothing beautiful about all of these poor people who get stuck in jail and then when they somehow manage to get themselves out of the system, they have no jobs, they can’t vote. In some ways, it seems like it might be a better option to stay in jail—at least you’d have a roof over your head. And this is America?
“Incarceration” will be a series that speaks directly to mass incarceration. The inaugural image is a self-portrait because I was thinking about my experience being in a holding cell. How this last arrest led to my teaching license being suspended. I spent almost six months unemployed. I went through all my savings. I went to apply for food stamps. And I almost had a fight in the food stamp office.
And I saw for myself—after seeing it with the kids that I work with, after seeing it on TV, after seeing it in communities, that you make one mistake and your whole life is messed up. Here I am with a master’s degree and close to poverty. The lucky part, I suppose, is that I don’t have a record. So really? All that money? Gone. My inheritance from my dad? Gone.
Rail: I can see this series as a continuation of your work to make people who are invisible, visible. The prison population is literally kept out of sight and when—if—they re-enter society, they’re kept from participating.
Flash: Incarceration is my way of creating dialogue around this distressing issue and my way of saying, “We haven’t forgotten about you” to all those concerned. I am committed to shooting “Incarceration” with my 4×5 camera. This only adds to the tension, when I arrive at the jail. Most of the prison guards are suspicious, they are not really into it, but this is the way I want to do the series. My portrait was shot in Ulster County Jail, and I am really thankful to the powers that be, who let me in. In the future, I am planning on photographing others whom have been imprisoned, and possibly even those who are still in prison.
This is something on my mind. I feel a pressing need to address this awful, awful, awful, awful, awful situation.
Rail: I was inspired by your recent remark that there is a “lack of representation of certain communities, and if you’re a minority, it’s your responsibility to make those things visible.”
Flash: I do believe in that. I can’t tell other people how to make their art but if you’re female, or female-presenting, or if you’re queer, or a person of color, we have made a lot of inroads in a lot of different fields, businesses, but we are in no way where we should be—where we deserve to be.
My message is simple. I’m real simple. My work process is not simple, but my message is very simple. It is about loving who I am and all those people that I’m photographing. And again I hate cliché things but it’s true: if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. How long have we been hearing this? How long will we have to keep hearing this until people get their acts together?
Rail: When did you start taking photographs?
Flash: I had a Minox camera, when I was a kid, I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t have a camera. It seemed like a natural progression to carry on, after high school, with being an artist and using photography to share my vision.
This retrospective is a ground-breaking opportunity for me, personally, as an artist. As I scan the room, I can see at one glance work from the 1980s and the next second, work I completed two months ago. I’m able witness the precision and continuity of each series and the overall arch of my career to date. And here at Pen + Brush, Dawn and Parker, the co-curators of my retrospective, and Janice, the Executive Director, kept saying, “Oh, we love this. We can see the connections between this and that.”
I’m really pleased that they liked the cross-color work. It’s been under my bed for so many years. That work never really took off. I’m excited because many of the articles about the show are exploring the importance of the work and publishing various images.
Rail: The reason why you chose to do the cross-color process back in the day was so incredibly radical. You took that Kodak film and said, “I’m going to inverse your picture-perfect world” and give you a world that turns white to black and lights your blue sky on fire.
Flash: People were like, “What’s that? What’s that weird color?” People would say to me, “Are you still doing those weird colors?” I would say YES I am. For twenty years, I did.
People were not ready for it. Because photography was sort of newish in the ’70s and ’80s. The Art world expected classic black and white, color back then was this novelty and started to become popular. Everything’s in context. There was a lot of dialogue about where does photography fit in the Art world? And then if you’re doing something really different, you need to be able to hype it or have someone else get in peoples’ faces.
Rail: You inversed worlds and gave us a whole new one.
Flash: Totally! In my photograph, T is for Tennis I decided I’m gonna make Wimbledon have a whole black audience. And Martina’s gonna look black too. But there’s another thing about showing one’s work, exhibiting your art, and getting a whole different slant from the audience, on work that you envisioned in a certain manner. The way other people see your work can become part of your own vision, too.
Lola Flash—1986 to Present is showing through March 17, 2018. Jessica Lynne, the co-founder of ARTS.BLACK, will be leading a discussion with Lola Flash and photographers Ming Smith and Ayana Jackson. The artists will be talking about social justice and identity in contemporary portraiture on March 9, 2018 at Pen + Brush.
AMY DENESON is a writer in New York via the Heartland. Her reviews of activist art and other essays have contributed to the New York Times, The Guardian, Salon, Bust, Curve magazine, and more. All of her raves can be read at amydeneson.com.