Beautiful Photos Of Women Take On Stereotypes Through High Art

Mickalene Thomas doesn't limit herself to just one medium when she confronts stereotypes of Black women and the cultural expectations imposed on them. But for Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs, her new book of portraits, Thomas used photography to play up the glamour and power of her subjects. The photos Thomas shot are beautiful, but they also have the slightly alien, uncanny feel of high-art photography.
The book is the first to gather together work that represents her different approaches to photography, including portraits, collages, and Polaroids, among others. Thomas spoke with Refinery29 through email to explain her process, her inspiration, and why the female gaze is so important to her. The book is being published by Aperture and will be released in November.
How'd you start on this project? Did it start with a photograph or a particular woman?
"The book sort of stemmed from the development of my practice as a whole; I first started delving into photography in the early 2000s as an arts student, and started photographing my mother, who was my very first muse and model. Then I went on to photograph my friends and acquaintances, who possess the same kind of charisma and directness as my mother.
"These photographs, while they are regarded as standalone works, often act as blueprints in my practice — the same images permeate my collages as well as my paintings. So I thought it made sense to share portraits of my muses, women who inspire me and my practice with their palpable confidence, strength, and vulnerability."
How did you shoot and style the women? Talk a bit about process.
"The photo shoots are always collaborative. The models have just as much power as I do as a photographer. I work to create a space that allows the models to own the moment, and bring aspects of her true self, her own particular beauty, and her own sexual appeal. By incorporating elements of fashion and artifice, I’m further exploring ideas of beauty and representation. Some of the materials that I use, such as wigs, textiles, and rhinestones, aim to reflect fashion’s methods of constructing image and identity. I use them exuberantly, not only as embellishments but as a way to validate my subject. And, hopefully, that discourages the viewers to reduce my muses to a single persona."
Most (or all) the women are staring straight into the camera, with looks that seem to range from lust to annoyance. What did their gazes mean to you?
"The gaze in my work is a female gaze from my perspective as a Black woman. All of the women in my work have a profound sense of inner confidence, and recognize themselves as the visible subject. Their directness is filled with agency and self-knowledge. They have all the power and control to demand the viewer to meet them in their own space, rather than being exploited or scrutinized. I consider the exchange of gazes as a metaphor for an honest conversation, rather than it being an exchange of sexual appeal or lust."
Recently, the news has been full of too many stories in which the bodies of Black women are only there when they're the subjects of violence or abuse. Did current events or our political climate figure into the work for you?
"Absolutely — I am constantly contemplating or challenging various stereotypes around Black women. It’s crucial for me to flip these types of perceptions by making images of women who are full of energy and confident to declare their space, claiming, 'I’m here; I exist; see me.'"
How does sex and sexuality play into the images for you?
"While I always want to bring forward my own sexuality and its relationship to the women that I’m working with, I’m more invested in the subtleties in the signifiers with which my muses are working. It’s okay if the viewer doesn’t understand the relationship I have with my muses. I’m queer, but it’s not always necessary to read my work as 'Oh, Mickalene’s a queer woman.'"
A lot of the titles draw from a particular, perhaps outdated vocabulary for women of color — "Negress," and so on. What's behind that choice?
"I choose to occupy these loaded words in my titles, because I want to challenge the reductive quality in such clichés. I want to ascribe new image associations with such words, and use them to celebrate the diversity and agency of Black women instead of degrading them. By doing so, I am continuing to explore various layers of presentation and perception."

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