Russian photographer Liz Johnson Artur is best known for her work as “Black Balloon Archive”, a title that encompasses the entire collection of Russian Ghanaian photographer Liz Johnson Artur. The extensive project, which is far more than a traditional series, is an ongoing record of photos over a 30-year span.
Named after the song “Black Balloons”, from Syl Johnson’s 1970 album “Is it Because I’m Black”, the name was derived from Syl Johnson, an American soul singer. “Black balloons fill up the air. Black balloons, they are everywhere,” sing the happy lyrics. They echo Johnson Artur’s huge visual log of the “Black diaspora” she refers to in London and all over the globe.
She photographs Black people of all ages and genders. She doesn’t caption her photos often and is not ashamed to admit that she has no interest in explaining the work to anyone, even her subjects.
She said, “I don’t always explain what I do,” from her London studio on the 13th floor in a concrete tower south of the River Thames. “But, to be honest, I don’t have to.”
“When I approach people, I tell them that I will try to get them into good company.
Johnson Artur does not treat her subjects with insensitivity. Johnson Artur’s photos are inviting and nuanced, without any description. They ask viewers to examine each subject closely, to see the images for clues about their lives. The photographer has photographed Black people from all walks, including young children, models, musicians, and women in religious wear.
Her work will be recognized at Rencontres d’Arles this week, an annual festival of photography held in the south. She will receive the Kering Women in Motion photo prize. This award is relatively new. The winners so far are Sabine Weiss and Susan Meiselas in 2019, and 2020, respectively.
The 57-year old photographer was not well-known despite her prolific career and accolades. She only became known a few years back. Her first solo show was not held until May 2019, which featured works from the Brooklyn Museum’s “Black Balloon Archive”, which is where she discovered her passion for photography.
Born to a Russian mother, Liz Johnson Artur was raised in Bulgaria by a Ghanian father. As a child, Liz Johnson Artur immigrated to West Germany. In the mid-1980s, Liz Johnson Artur made her first American trip. She stayed with a friend of the mother in Brooklyn’s predominantly Black neighborhood. It was a completely different scene than what she was used to. This was the trip where she learned to trust her camera and gained confidence.
She recalls a picture she took while walking through Central Park in the early days. One of the park’s most famous boulders was occupied by a man. She recalled the moment and said that she felt guilty for taking his picture. She said, “It feels like you’re stealing something.”
As she was getting ready for her shot, the man suddenly woke her up and saw her. She didn’t know what she should do. “So I kind of looked back at him, he looked at my face, and then he went back to sleep,” she explained. She took the photo and recalls feeling relieved. She said that it changed her attitude towards street photography. “It didn’t feel like theft anymore.”
Johnson Artur has been a photographer for magazines such as i-D, The Face, and photographed Lady Gaga and Rhianna on tour. She also worked with labels like Valentino’s Italian fashion house, Valentino and Rhianna Fenty. She also had a child during that time.
In 2019, she held her first UK exhibit at the South London Gallery. It focused on Black life in London, where she has lived since 1991. She was among 10 artists who received a cash bursary last year from London’s Tate galleries. This award was in place of the annual Turner Prize which was canceled due to pandemics.
Johnson Artur was asked to define her work and she replied, “It is a lot of different people.”
She stressed that there is no one-size-fits-all mission. She stated, “This isn’t about an agenda.” It’s all about people and interactions.
Are you cynical about the sudden interest in her photographs over the past few years, especially since it coincides with the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter? Yes. She said that she lost track of how many emails she received from institutions during the demonstrations last year. It bothers her. It doesn’t seem to. Johnson Artur believes that Johnson Artur has been photographing Black people for over three decades using her unique lens. Nothing about her work has changed. It doesn’t matter if curators and brands are more aware of it now. Johnson Artur is more curious to see what happens. She said, “As far I’m concerned I’m just there to do my job.”
She enjoyed the Valentino book shoot and said that she was happy to be a part of it.
She said that “some people are genuine”, but it didn’t feel like she was being exploitative.