(Re)Discovering Photographer Willie Middlebrook

Photographer Willie Middlebrook

During a conversation with photographer Gerald Cyrus at my ICP-Bard MFA solo exhibition, the work of photographer Willie Middlebrook came up – yet another Black photographer who’s work I’d never knew.

Born in Detroit, Middlebrook moved to Los Angeles as a child in 1960 where he developed his creativity through both his father (who worked on the Disney lot) as well as through formal art education: he studied at Compton College, Art Center College of Design and the Communicative Arts Academy founded by assemblage artist John Outterbridge.

In LA, Middlebrook was exposed to the Black Arts scene that gave birth to many artists like Outterbridge, David Hammons, sculptor Melvin Edwards and video artist Ulysses Jenkins. For more on LA’s Black Arts movement, check out the catalog for the Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 show recently on view at PS1 MOMA.

 Related reading: More on the Brooklyn Museum’s recent acquisition of works from the Black Arts movement.

Middlebrook built his career as a documentary photographer making work about street life and the people (mostly African Americans) of downtown Los Angeles and Watts, CA. His transition to fine art photography began with what he called his “photographic paintings” which involved spraying and brushing developer to reveal emotional portraits through drips then adding toner and bleach for extra effect, as seen in the image below.

Portraits of My People #319, 1990  by Willie Middlebrook

“Art is about communication…  I need to tell, to show what I see, what I feel. I am intrigued and motivated by life experience, the human condition… My subjects—family and friends—and I have an understanding focused towards a single goal: to speak about our people, our communities. My drive, my direction, my strong social and aesthetic convictions in everything I do stems from my parents, who endowed me with strong feelings about the ideals and the integrity of being black.” 

– Willie Middlebrook quote from the article, “Portraits of His People: A Tribute to Willie Middlebrook” by Paul Von Blum

The Monk Project – 005 by Willie Middlebrook

Looking for God – Angel 2 by Willie Middlebrook
From the C.O.L.A. Project

Unfortunately Middlebrook passed away in 2012, but his work will of course live on. If you’re looking to collect, Ebay has several Middlebrook’s early ’90s “photographic paintings” for sale, like this “Pomp #478” and”Pomp #574” To get a deeper sense of the artist, read this 2012 interview with Willie Middlebrook where he talks about his transition from photojournalism to fine art, being an artist in the Black community and much more.

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