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Complex histories emerge from the subtle details of Bowman’s photographs
In 2012, Dannielle Bowman was fresh out of art school and unsure quite what to do next. Amid that post-school disorientation, she decided to accompany her Grandfather to their biennial family reunion in Denton, Texas. Bowman was keen to see her family. But, the vibrancy of these reunions also compelled her. It would be a perfect environment to take pictures. Equipped with an old 35mm camera that her father bought her years prior, she photographed. However, upon developing the images back home in New York, she discovered that fungus had obscured the lens. Bowman relegated the work to a hard drive, where it remained until last year.
Then, in the sticky heat of a New York summer with the pandemic confining residents to their scantily air-conditioned homes, Bowman rediscovered the pictures. Small, coloured snapshots, clouded by the veil of fungus that had shrouded the lens. Photographs that she had not understood at the time. But, in hindsight planted the seeds for what she would do next.
Three of these images sit amid her current show Dannielle Bowman: 2020 Aperture Portfolio Prize at the Camera Club of New York, open until 03 February 2021. The small windows of warmth pepper the grander black-and-white photographs, emblematic of Bowman’s style, which compose the exhibition and for which the photographer received the 2020 Aperture Portfolio Prize. Themes of time, memory, history, and identity run through the series, which speaks to Bowman’s history, and the histories of Black individuals across America and, indeed, the world.
The project’s title What Had Happened, “is a clearing-of-the-throat kind of expression that sets up a fantastical plot twist in a gripping narrative, leaving listeners begging for more,” writes the journalist, editor, and pubic speaker Marjon Carlos in a piece exploring Bowman’s What Had Happened, published in Aperture magazine’s Native America edition. “If you’re not totally familiar with the phrase, I suppose that’s the point. For Black Americans, it’s a benchmark expression of our parlance, AAVE, or African American Vernacular English, a sociolinguistic continuum that tracks our inhabitance of the United States from slavery to the Great Migration to the post-civil rights era and the present.”
In What Had Happened, Bowman frames mesmerising yet seemingly mundane details amid the surroundings of her native community: specifically the homes of African-American, middle-class families in the neighbourhoods of Baldwin Hills, Inglewood and Crenshaw, in Los Angeles County. The images house everyday details that may resonate intimately with Black viewers; they are simple yet evocative. “I find these intimate moments, like having a Black person’s hand through these blinds, does something so visceral for people who grew up in Black homes,” says Bowman, referencing an image of a hand slipping through an opening between two vertical blinds. “It seems inconsequential to see Black people in these mundane ways, but it is not inconsequential if you never see it and you grew up feeling like you are the only person who has experienced what you have.”
But, as its title would suggest, the series delves deeper than the everyday. The environments and details contained within the photographs, and the individuals and communities they are indicative of, connect back to The Great Migration: the relocation of more than six million African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West. History books would delineate the migration as occurring between 1916 and 1970, but “migration is more fluid than that,” says Bowman, and the effects of it still ripple through her family, and the families of millions of other Black Americans, today.
What Had Happened is by no means documentation of this history, but, instead, a meditation on “the small events and intimate moments in our lives, and how they intersect with massive social phenomena”. Indeed, within the undiscerning details of her photographs — the coloured snapshots of a reunion in the south, and the black-and-white images from neighbourhoods in LA — there are stories to be told, not just of Bowman’s family, but the families of numerous others too.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.