Aaron Turner is a photographer, artist, and curator based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Aaron received his M.F.A in Visual Arts from Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, an M.A. in Visual Communications from Ohio University, and holds a BA in Journalism & Fine Arts from the University of Memphis.
He uses photography to pursue personal stories of family and resilience, in two main areas of the U.S., the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas. Aaron also uses the 4x5 view camera to create still life studies on the topics of race, history, blackness as material, and the role of the black artist. His work has been exhibited at Vassar College , the Houston Center for Photography, SUNY Buffalo State, SlowExposures Photo Festival, Click! Photo Festival, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. His awards include participation in the New York Times Portfolio Review, 2018 Light Work Artists-in-Residence , 2019 En Foco Photography Fellowship, 2019 Adolf Fassbender Travel Award from the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) - at the University of Arizona, and 2020 Project Space Residency at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY.
Aaron currently works as a Research Fellow in Photography at the University of Arkansas School of Art where he founded and runs The Center for Photographers of Color, which seeks to promote the advancement of emerging and under-represented artists of color working within photography, digital imaging, and other lens-based media.
1. Black Alchemy, 2015
2. Untitled (self), 2015
3. Looking at Drue King, 2018
4. Feel That, 2017 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyfP1nN45XY
5. Savion Glover, the White House, Kerry James Marshall and the Negro Artist, 2016 - https://vimeo.com/277800870
Q&A with BASEMENT Curators
I am intrigued by "alchemy" in your title, which alludes to a process of transformation. Does this concept play a key role in your thinking, and if so, how?
Indeed it does. Alchemy plays a crucial role in my thinking because I'm trying to reach a point of reconciliation with the things I'm interested in, but in a precise way, such as the chemical process of working in the darkroom making prints or developing film in my case. I construct and place things in the studio and record it with my 4x5 view camera, but I don't necessarily know how that will come out. I have a good idea, but I really won't know until I finish, and I can see the negative with my eye and after scanning it.
Another act of transformation that I'm looking for is phenomena, which is more intellectual. This ties into my overall goals as an artist, stepping back and saying I have these materials; paper, mirrors, light, space, and time. How can I make the most significant impact with what I have and make a nod towards art history and the contemporary, by operating in the discursive field we as artists find ourselves in? What already exists, art produced in the present, and the potential of impacting what comes in the future? ( the speculative space, not so much control here, but I can make it in the studio with such intent that what I'm after is present in the work).
alpha 60, omega 2018 (the dash), 2020
Formally speaking, what/who are some of your influences?
Great question. This directly relates to where I left off on the last question, the discursive enterprise of art-making. Things have happened before us, things are happening now, and there are things to come. Where will you find yourself within this conversation? This is the question I ask myself. Within that, I'm also trying to set myself apart as uniquely as possible from everyone else, but still be in the conversation.
Suppose I can recall everyone that has had an impact on what I do. In that case, I'd have to say: Kerry James Marshall, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Jennie C. Jones, Barabra Kasten, Leslie Hewitt, Eileen Quinlan, Erin O'Keefe, Jessica Eaton, Sheree Hovsepian, Glen Ligon, Torkwase Dyson, William T. Williams, Jack Whitten, Melvin Edwards, Adam Pendleton, Demetrius Oliver, László Moholy-Nagy, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, John Mann, Sonja Thompsen, James Henkel, Stanley Whitney, David Hammons, Howardena Pindell, and so many more.
Do you believe that alchemy has more to do with your process or your subject matter?
I believe alchemy deals with both my process and subject matter. And how I see that playing out for me is more so in the aesthetics. I'm always interested in creating speculative spaces, which means for me to imagine a future landscape of sorts, some future existence. I use the past a lot to speak about the present and future of my work. Some kind of relation to Afrofuturism, but not directly. And again, the developing process of the film I use is more of a practical alchemy process, but it informs the way I see and think about the work. I like the labor of that process.
Untitled (colors in the dark), 2020
Has working on the "Photographers of Color" podcast influenced your work?
It hasn't affected my work personally in terms of my studio practice. It does, however, influence my curatorial practice. Each artist I talk to, I've most likely been following their work for a while personally. Still, then I want to sit down and have a broad conversation that others can enjoy. I never want it to be insular. I like the artists to speak for themselves and speak freely. In this social media age, we see things go viral repeatedly, and tons of things published about the artist, but what doesn't happen enough is hearing the artist's actual voice and the way they think, instead of reading someone else's opinion about them. Now that everything is virtual, more and more people can hear directly from the artist, something I feel was more exclusionary by location in the past.
Of dreams to come #1, 2020
While recording for "Photographers of Color" is there any dialogue that has been transformative in the way that you view photography?
Yes, one comes to mind in particular, episode eight with Lonnie Graham. I love his position on what an artist should be doing, taking their skillset, and solving community problems through collaboration. One of my favorite projects of his is the African/American Garden Project: In 1996, Graham was commissioned by the Three Rivers Arts Festival to create the project which provided a physical and cultural exchange of disadvantaged urban single mothers in Pittsburgh, and farmers from Muguga, a small farming village in Kenya, to build a series of urban subsistence gardens.
Talk about direct impact as an artist, and locally at that. Lonnie also has many other things he's been involved in over the years but is just a fantastic example, and a place I'm challenging myself to take my work next. So, I guess working on the podcast has influenced my studio practice.
Of dreams to come #2, 2020
Given the current moment, what role do you think photography should play in society?
Photography and artists have to understand the role representation plays, and how essential photographers and artists help reflect or document humanity in our society, globally. Art is vital to humanity. It can do things that other forms of expression and representation just can't.
One Up, One Down, 2020
Has moving to Arkansas influenced your work?
I've moved so many times at this point; it was just another move. A move to come home, I'm originally from eastern Arkansas, a town called West Memphis, Arkansas, where the most famous thing it's known for is the "West Memphis 3" criminal case.
Now, I live in Northwest Arkansas, and I'm absorbing the local history and narrative of BIPOC folks and incorporating it into my studio practice. I'm just happy to be back in a familiar place at the point in my life and continuing my project Yesterday Once More.
The joy of Roquemore #2, 2020
You often use historically influential people within your images; is there anyone from the present that you could foresee becoming a focus?
Great question. As if right now, I can't think of anyone. I think time is just moving too fast. I'll let other artists think about that for now. My main concern is understanding the present by looking at the past for now. So much information is thrown at us every day, it's becoming so overwhelming at moments.
Study #2: Untitled (thinking about Agnes), 2020
Reflecting upon your works presented during the digital residency, IG allows me to view your work serially. I am able to visually interpret bridges between posts. I was struck by the tactile quality of your work. Sculptural use of form, space, light and subject. From this comment, a question I have are these works presented in 3D?
Thank you for that question, and the answer is that I'm working on that side of things. For the last two years, I've been trying to incorporate 3D and virtual reality in my practice, specifically with Balck Alchemy. I make these sculptures and installations in space for a short period, then they become something else and never to be seen in real-time again. I think about displaying the structures within the prints incorporated and having the audience view the space with a VR headset to walk about them in virtual or augmented reality. I am still working on it, teaching myself everything. Maybe I can partner up with a company in the future to handle all of the technical stuff and move it along faster.
Also bouncing off the previous question addressing historically significant people. I was struck by your use of the icon versus the everyday person. And then how I experienced anxiety around me knowing and then really knowing and then not knowing who are represented in your work. What is the responsibility of the artist as cultural producers? Is there a tactic, a means of civic engagement with what expected result?
This question makes me think of two instances. The first being in grad school when I started Black Alchemy. A professor told me that Martin Luther King Jr. was too recognizable of a figure to use in my work and that I should focus on lesser-known people. The reasoning being that people would write the images off quickly and say I understand already and not spend time with the image. I've also taken that advice into account. Still, I continue to use MLK in my work, regardless. For example, in a recent work Untitled (I can't stop thinking about MLK), 2020 came to fruition, so the important thing was that I had to understand why I was using the imagery and not worry about how others would react.
This question makes me think of Kerry James Marshall's piece Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Myself, 1776. The reason being is because when you see that work, the visual representation of Scipio Moorhead is a younger grade school photo of Kerry James Marshall himself. Marshall's reasoning was that he was a good enough stand-in to what Moorhead probably looked like. I like that idea. Moorhead is known for making a portrait of Phyllis Wheatly, and she makes mention of him in some writing, but that's the only instance, and there is no visual representation of him. Also, he could quite possibly be one of the first Western Black Artists. SO I like how Marshall dealt with it all in making that piece.
When I think about the faces represented in my work, they are stand-ins for people I know and occupy my memory. The images I select are familiar and resonate with me. So in terms of civic engagement and cultural production as an artist, I hope people are interested enough to want to talk about their perspective on the imagery I select, me, and others. I hope they see something familiar that resonates with them, and if they don't, I hope it helps to start an internal dialogue on why that is. Also, I give specific historical context when I give a talk, and sometimes I hint at things in my titles.
Photographers of Color