Interview: Photographer Laurent Chevalier
Like so many creatives living and working in New York, Laurent Chevalier doesn’t fit neatly into one box. He isn’t only a street, a documentary or a conceptual photographer, but rather all of these. He is continuously pushing the boundaries of his work as a keen observer of his surroundings.
Chevalier works to capture the everyday Black experience, and his most recent photo book project, Enough, explores the story of Blackness in New York City. We spoke with Chevalier about his photography heroes, whom he leans on for support, and what happens when your first artist monograph sells out much faster than you expected.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Los Angeles but moved to Washington State when I was about 2 years old. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, north of Seattle in a small town called Deming, and then later moved to the Seattle area. I was once a bit of a country kid, and that, I think, has certainly influenced my observational outlook on the work.
Have you always been interested in photography?
I think I had an interest in it before I truly recognized the interest. I never really felt I had an interest in photography until I had the desire to take a History of Photography class while I was in college. At that time, I was studying journalism, so I had no real reason to take an art history class focused on photography. Looking back, I think it was just an unrecognized passion that led me to it at the time. What I didn’t know then, and found out years later, was that my grandfather in Chicago was formerly a photographer, so there might have been a little something in the blood after all.
Are there certain artists whose work has resonated with you lately?
Roy DeCarava remains a tremendous inspiration and influence. His use of light and shadow, of finding depth in darkness rather than rendering it empty, inspires me to keep developing my practice. I feel that his perspective shines through, not only in his subject matter but also in his technique.
I‘ve been revisiting Latoya Ruby Frazier’s book “The Notion of Family,” which is a beautiful, personal and powerful document that so expertly weaves individual and societal narratives. Lynette Yiadom-Boayke remains one of my favorite painters, and Gioncarlo Valentine is one of my favorite photographers whom I also have the pleasure of knowing in person.
Music resonations specifically lately have been Makaya McCraven, as I think he manages to be very forward-thinking while being rooted in what came before him musically in jazz. I’ve also been going back to a bunch of Funkadelic, too.
What do you love most about being an artist working and living in New York City?
What I love is that there are so many tremendously talented people here, people seeking to sharpen themselves and contribute excellence to their specific crafts. That energy is inspiring, even when the day-to-day grind of the city is exhausting.
Tell us about your process with Enough. How did the idea come about?
The oldest image in Enough is from 2014. The book came about as I was archiving and reviewing images I had shot over the years. As I reviewed my body of work, I found myself particularly drawn to and moved by the images showing the daily moments of Black folk in this city. I felt it important for this perspective of Black life to be preserved and highlighted, the beauty and sufficiency of the daily existence. Once I had that idea together, I began pulling images from my archive, and I continued to make work, in order to start compiling this collection. I ultimately pulled about 700 images I had shot, and once I had that collection, I began developing the themed focal points on the book.
Ultimately, the book contains images meant to explore four main themes: family/community, spirit, country and authority. Once I had broken down the subject matter I wanted to cover visually, I began laying the sequence together and worked with a tremendous poet and scholar, Dr. Jamila Lyiscott, who contributed poetry to the book. The idea of weaving imagery and poetry was once again inspired by Roy DeCarava and his wonderful book with Langston Hughes, entitled The Sweet Flypaper of Life. After I started getting rough edits and sequences together, I began working on figuring out how to get it out. I had the pleasure of working with Kris Graves of Kris Graves Projects, who saw the vision I wanted to accomplish and agreed to publish the book on his imprint. By the end of all the stages of compiling, editing, sequencing and editing again, the process of making this book took about four years.
In the absence of regular travel, where are you finding inspiration these days?
I’ve been getting more photo books lately and working on doing better reading more consistently in general. A couple recent photo book adds to the library are Jules Allen’s Double Up and Joel Meyerowitz’ Cape Light. I find that when I seek to experience artistic excellence — whether it is a book, film or music — my inspiration wheels start turning, and that motivates me to make sure I make my own contributions. Also, I have the pleasure of knowing some excellent artists, so seeing them working and talking to them makes me want to stay sharp.
There’s been a lot of darkness this year. Is there anything that is giving you hope?
My home life and my community are the things that manage to keep me buoyed enough to keep going. In looking at the world on a macro scale (racially, economically, environmentally, politically), there is not much to draw a lot of hope from. But on a micro level, I am surrounded by love and beauty. I have the blessing of having a wonderful wife, Maureen, who has made all this life that is happening doable, as well as friends and family that inspire and encourage me, even unintentionally. These people are my faith-builders when everything else feels insurmountable.
What are you working on now?
Well, right now, the book Enough has just sold out from the publisher, which is a tremendous compliment that I am so thankful for the support on. So I have been making prints from the book and body of work surrounding Enough, and I am working on developing some opportunities to display the work in larger scale presentations or shows so that the work can be experienced by those who might not have had an opportunity to purchase the book.
I’m in the early stages of working on another book, utilizing an additional visual style of image making, and partnering with more writers and thinkers to explore experiences and effects of specific members of our community. There are other series and works also in various stages of exploration and planning, as I pretty much always keep a camera with me. There is always something to see and learn from.
To keep up with Laurent’s work, bookmark this.