Barkley L. Hendricks portrayed black people who exude attitude. “You stand out in the black community because you explain your own sense of identity outside of your surroundings,” said longtime friend Richard J. Watson, artist-in-residence at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. “If you see yourself as outstanding – and not because you haven’t eaten in three days and are a symbol of poverty – that gives you respect.”
In the style of Manet and Velázquez, Hendricks painted full-length portraits of men and women projecting powerfully onto a viewer with bravado and brio. He usually painted his figures with superimposed thin oil paints and placed them against a monochrome background, which he applied in quick-drying acrylic paints.
But Hendricks, who died in 2017, was both a photographer and a painter. This lesser-celebrated side of his career will get deserved attention in a book, “Barkley L. Hendricks: Photography,” due out early next month. It contains a relatively small selection of the disorganized photos he left behind in his New London, Connecticut home, which his widow Susan Hendricks and dealer Jack Shainman have researched and cataloged since his death.
Hendricks called his camera, which he usually tied around his neck before he left, as a “mechanical sketchbook”. But only a fraction of the thousands of photographs he took served as raw material for paintings. “The portraits he’s best known for usually started with a photograph he’d take the liberty of,” said Trevor Schoonmaker, director of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, NC, who held a 2008 retrospective Exhibition of paintings organized by Hendricks. “But the sheer volume of photographs he has taken over the years shows that he has thought of three things – models for paintings, subjects for inspiration, and thirdly, of himself as a photographer.”
Hendricks had been taking pictures since he was a teenager. Growing up in the far north of Philadelphia, he used the talisman of his camera to navigate the violent neighborhood. “Barkley passed a group of people who looked like they were taking your money and they said, ‘Take my picture, man,” said Watson, who, while also growing up in north Philadelphia, didn’t meet Hendricks until they were fellow students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Hendricks won a place at the academy through his talent as a draftsman and honed his skills there by carefully drawing plaster casts of ancient sculptures for hours. Watson recalled that while hanging out with friends, Hendricks saw a gesture or posture that caught his eye and he said, “Take this card and hold it there for a second” or “I like the way you hold a glass” . and take a picture. For those who knew him, his photography seemed like a pastime that affected his art.
After graduating from PAFA, Hendricks earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts at Yale in the early 1970s. Since most of the painters were abstractionists, he was excited about the work of a respected teacher, Walker Evans, who ran the photography program. It seems that this was where he realized that photography – which had only just emerged from the status of a second-rate art world – might offer him another way of expressing himself artistically.
“Barkley always firmly believed that while this was a process towards his painting, his photography was also something special,” said Anna Arabindan-Kesson, an art historian and curator who has written extensively on Hendricks’ work. “It was his practice to take photos and work from them. But I think they are finished works in their own way, because of his technical ability and his eye. In this way he learned to look at and understand the world. “
Some of Hendrick’s photographs could easily have become paintings, even many of those that never did. He usually stopped strangers on the street to say he admired their style and asked if he could photograph them. He often photographed and painted his favorite models. George Jules Taylor, a sharply clad gay student at Yale who became a good friend, was painted by Hendricks four times, usually in stylish clothes but once, equally flamboyant, in a 1974 nude portrait entitled “Family Jules.” A photograph in the book that Hendricks developed into a painted portrait in 1973 shows Taylor in three-quarter profile, wearing a yellow-striped shirt and a wide-brimmed black hat, just like in the painting. But in the photo, Taylor’s shadow on the wall adds another element that, in hindsight, feels like a ghostly premonition of the younger man’s untimely death.
When Hendricks traveled, he brought back numerous records of what he had seen. One of the most striking photographs in the book shows a man in Lagos dressed in a bright pink suit. His immaculate clothing contrasts sharply with the filthy huts and puddles of filthy water that surround him. His long, elegant fingers, his self-confident demeanor and his steadfast gaze show that he cannot be touched by anything.
One of Hendricks long-standing fascination topics were women’s shoes, which he not only depicted, but also collected. The subject was more suited to photography than painting. He took many, many pictures of female ankles and shoes – on sidewalks, carpets, and television screens. A particularly elaborate black and white photo shows the calf and twisted ankle of a woman positioned at a straight wooden desk. A studded chair subtly enhances the fetishistic mood of the picture. Schoonmaker believes that the composition of such images represents a connection between Hendricks’ painting and photography. “The interest in cropping, formal balance, reflection and light can be seen in the photos,” he said.
Schoonmaker also argues that the humor Hendricks has shown in his witty painterly titles directly but more discreetly in the actual paintings often shows up in the photographs. Whenever he saw something that tickled his sense of irony, he would raise the ubiquitous camera to his eye and take a picture. A seated dog with full attention will be seen level with the legs of its human counterparts. A destroyed jalopy carries a vanity unit of a Confederate flag. A billboard from a black woman, whose smile is more like a grimace, says: “Welcome! Kentucky Fried Chicken. “
“Photography comes a more critical lens,” said Schoonmaker. “He is more external and observes life around him. A photo of a man who is believed to be homeless and lies down on some steps shows a bathtub and a shopping cart. It’s social criticism, but it’s also humor and irony. He was a very careful observer of life. “
Hendrick’s camera also acted as a key, putting him in circles that might not have opened up to him without it. As a jazz enthusiast, he was able to photograph many of the masters, including Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon. The pianist Randy Weston became a good friend. In Nigeria he met Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer, whom he greatly admired. He later remembered Fela in a painting, holding a microphone in one hand, grabbing his crotch and holding out a lit cigarette with the other. Hendricks installed this portrait as an altarpiece over 27 pairs of high-heeled shoes.
It is likely that Hendricks is best remembered as a painter rather than a photographer. And while his painted subjects included Jamaican landscapes, geometrically balanced basketballs and hoops, and groceries from his pantry, the full-length portraits of commanding black figures have had the greatest impact on the next generation of artists. His ambition was inspiring. “He told me when he went to London he was painting in front of the Van Dycks in the National Gallery,” recalled Arabindan-Kesson. He said, ‘There’s a Van Dyck. Why can’t there be Hendricks up there? ‘”
While not groundbreaking in the same way, Hendricks photographs share his signature wit and pride. Whatever the medium is, its sensitivity comes through. “The camera is just an instrument, the vehicle that you use to express yourself at all times,” said Watson. “He’s the operator – whether it’s a piece of chalk, a brush, or a camera.”