New York – Black photographers are a special group of people. Unto them, the universe has bestowed an almost impossible task–to make Black people seen. For centuries, documentation of Black culture, Black achievements, and Black faces have been actively prohibited from the archives. Because as the old saying goes, “If you can see it, you can be it.” And so, there are those whose existence is entrenched in ensuring that we cannot see.
But what they have never seemed to grasp onto is that Blackness is a concept wrapped around the absence of light, both out in this vast universe and here within our little alien of a planet. We have never needed the light to see because we have always had vision. That is the legacy of photographers such as Gordon Parks and Carrie Mae Weems. They conspire within their minds, seeing the tendrils of outlines and shadows, blinking softly until their eyes adjust to the darkness, and they make art. It is a legacy poured down from one cup to another and has filled the very vessel that is in the hands of Micaiah Carter.
“But what they have never seemed to grasp onto is that Blackness is a concept wrapped around the absence of light, both out in this vast universe and here within our little alien of a planet.”
Carter is a young blood. At only 28 years old, his work is prolific, having appeared in publications like Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times; with top brands such as Nike, Lancome, and Thom Browne; and featuring celebrities such as Pharrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Tracee Ellis Ross and so, so much more. It is no wonder that Prestel Publishing approached Carter to create his debut monograph, What’s My Name? Which will be released later this Fall.
“When I was younger, my dad used to always film me on his camera, and he would say, What’s your name, young man? And I’d always say, Micaiah Carter. Thinking about that alongside my family albums and family history, I really wanted to combine the both of them together into one, as my first book,” shared Carter.
What’s My Name features more than 100 photographs, highlighting the incredible editorial pieces that Carter is admired for, but focused more on the artist’s personal photography, mixed with polaroids from his family’s archive–the latter of which has inspired his entire oeuvre. From a photo of his grandmother, who worked as a housecleaner sitting with a white child whose family she cleaned for, to the photos his older brother took during the Los Angeles Uprisings, shaped Carter’s desire to photograph with integrity and create an archive for the next generation. “My grandma used to sit on the porch all the time and go through the family album with my dad in the 50s. It was really something that was sacred, and I think it inspires me. It’s the same type of love and quality that I want to put into my work.”
“That is the legacy of photographers such as Gordon Parks and Carrie Mae Weems. They conspire within their minds, seeing the tendrils of outlines and shadows, blinking softly until their eyes adjust to the darkness, and they make art. It is a legacy poured down from one cup to another and has filled the very vessel that is in the hands of Micaiah Carter.”
It has always been a family affair for Carter, which is why his images feel as though he’s unlocked a familial intimacy with his subjects. No matter who he’s photographing, he’s rooting for you like your mama, your auntie, your great uncle, and your best friend. Seeing Carter’s commercial photography–like an image of two Black women whose heads are covered with Burberry scarves, in dialogue with a family photograph from 1976 which features two men in funky patterned shirts, demonstrates inspirational parallels while emitting this care and responsibility that comes with carrying on the vessel of the archive. “The 70s are a big influence on me. And the Black Power movement, which you can see in the tonalities and sometimes in the way that I style. And just the uniqueness of it–it’s almost like a celebration.”
Though What’s My Name is an intriguing exploration of the journey of the modern Black Americana, Carter is unveiling a more personal side. “Blackness in America, that’s the undertone–but it’s really about me and my journey through photography.” The book presents an intimate glimpse into the artist behind the camera and the experiences that have shaped what he’s chosen to point his lens towards. “The last ten years have been a really big process of understanding myself. Not only with my work but going through life as a Black man in America. A queer Black man in America.” Carter underscores that while Blackness cannot be pigeonholed, there are still so many experiences that we all tend to share. “There’s a unique experience that Black Americans have when it comes to the same Ernie Barnes paintings that we had in our house or the same purple quilt with the diamonds that everyone seemed to have in the 90s. All those things I took with me, not only within my work but just in learning about myself and sharing that through photography.”
Carter is every bit intentional of what goes out into the world, as what he puts behind the lens–with many of the photos included in the book being the first time he is sharing them publicly beyond his debut exhibition American Black Beauty that was on view last year at the SN37 Gallery. “It’s such a big release because a lot of the work, I haven’t even publicised socially. When it comes to family, I’m protective, and I feel like it’s sacred. And seeing it in a print form–versus online where somebody can just scroll past it–I think there’s something about that that really speaks to me.”
Carter was surprised to find that although he hadn’t been in the game long, his work was abundant. “I really didn’t think I had enough work for a book, to be honest. And then when I got the first copy, I was like, dang! This is a really thick book.” Looking back through it all has instilled a new confidence that will bookmark the next stage in his legacy. “It’s always daunting to trust myself. And I think that’s something I realised at the end of the book. Like, you know what? I actually know what I’m doing.”
Micaiah Carter: What’s My Name is available for preorder now. Available October 3rd. Words by Shaquille Heath