A character in a Virginia Woolf novel, “Mr Ramsey in to the lighthouse”, is of the opinion that “the arts are merely a decoration imposed on the top of human life; they do not express it.”
This may well be true of much art photography today but never of Khalik Allah’s haunting and penetrating images of nocturnal life on a street corner in New York’s Harlem.
He first started photographing people on the corner of 125th St and Lexington Avenue in 2011 but what you see in “Souls against the concrete” was shot between 2014 and 2016.
It’s a grim record of marginalized lives and a reality that we prefer to see filtered through noir novels and urban thriller films.
The images are alive; visual dynamite and not made to be immobilized. Think of the entomologist who takes life from his specimens in order to pin them down, so as to gaze at them serenely and steadily.
Khalik Allah does the complete opposite, bringing his subjects to life and disturbing the possibility of any calm gaze.
The viewer has no comfortable position from which to look at the faces of individuals who live amidst poverty, drug addiction and the ostracism of everyone who isn’t one of them.
Aesthetics gives way to ethical questions and political issues of belonging, of social containment and the role of the police.
Such affairs are outside the frame of the photograph but only by ignoring them, bracketing them off, can we look with cosmopolitan composure at raw images of black lives and think they don’t matter.
Khalik Allah photographs people ‘who find themselves in the worst possible situation, but I recognise their invulnerability and reflect it back at them.
These are psychic x-rays’. His pictures are all taken at night, in darkness. There is no studio-style lighting, just what is available from storefronts and streetlights at the time, a state that he says in his introduction – without explaining why – represents for him a sense of freedom.
At the same time, he recognises that ‘the dark that surrounds my subjects can also represent how the beast swallows them young’.
The integrity of his images comes from their unalloyed provenance. It took time for Allah to gain trust on the street corner that became his camera’s home patch but when this was attained he could point and press the shutter button at will.
Even when some of the people have time to pose, it’s a momentary thing and takes nothing from the shock of knowing that the unrehearsed faces are for real.
Bertolt Brecht, in exile during World War II, glued a sentence onto an oak beam of his work room: “Truth is concrete”. Allah’s photographs take the non-metaphorical concrete at the corner between 125th St and Lexington Avenue and use it to viscerally stage street truths that confront and disturb the viewer.
“Souls against the concrete”, by Khalik Allah, is published by University of Texas Press.