Preview: Modern Slave

A photography exhibition explores black male identity

Courtesy of JD Dragan

JD Dragan has been photographing men of color for more than 30 years. This Friday, June 24, his new exhibition “Modern Slave” opens at Philly’s AxD Gallery with an artist’s reception (5-8 p.m.).

His silver gelatin photographs have been praised for their brave commentary about race and eroticism – they’ve also been feared for their sometimes brute reflection on history.

What sometimes sparks even more controversy is the fact that Dragan – who lives and works in Philadelphia – is white. He talks to us about why the 10-piece installation is anything but objectification and what role race really plays in some of the more controversial images in the show – Confederate Flags and all.

How long have you been photographing men?

I took my first male nude photograph in black and white way back in 1973. I have photographed many other sorts of subjects since then, but the male nude always had a magnetic draw. Beginning in the late 1990s, I abandoned photographing Caucasian male nudes and focused exclusively on men of color, primarily African-American men.

The male nude has an important place in art history. As a photographer, what do you bring to the genre today?

When I returned to art school in the 90s, I looked at how my predecessors and contemporaries handled the male nude as an art subject. I saw that white models were photographed in a variety of styles and attitudes – from subtly shadowed to sculptural to erotic to straight up pornographic. But black men were almost always shot from the front or rear, from the navel to mid-thigh. I found this objectified point of view insulting! To reduce them down to genitals and buttocks demeaned their individuality, their ancestry and their intellect. Even when I photograph these body sections, I try to do so in a way that does not divorce the image from the man who is the subject.

What inspired “Modern Slave?”

The current exhibition is the first time a show will be dedicated to my more political works. The show is not solely to spark controversy, but rather to voice my personal opinions on the state of black men’s cultural identity in the United States.

What does the title refer to exactly?

The title refers to the cultural and historic baggage so often inherited by African-Americans and their continuing discriminatory treatment in our society. Whether by institution or outside influence, in many ways the oppression of slavery still bares down on these resilient people – and in particular – black men.

How does your own race inform the work?

Not being black, I can step outside the immediate ethnic sphere and hopefully see a more holistic composition. Naturally, not being a black male has distinct disadvantages. But I embrace the biological concept of “race.” There is only one human race or else we would not be able to easily and successfully mate. Africans and their immediate African-American ancestors are the original humans. All of our ancestors came from Africa. These people should be celebrated, for without them, none of us would be here.

What do you hope to express about black men in our culture?

It is my hope that the honesty I portray in my imagery will support discussion. I hope that these photographs will show these men as beautiful, smart and complete. I hope that viewers can gaze upon my imagery without fear or trepidation.

“Modern Slave,” July 24 (5-8 p.m.), artist discussion, July 16 (3 p.m.), AxD Gallery, 256 S. 10th St., 215-627-6250.