Answer the Call: Turning the Lens on Photographer Raymond Thompson Jr

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

The National: Best Contemporary Photography is a hybrid invitational and juried exhibition, anchored by photography standouts Melanie Walker, Raymond Thompson Jr., Morgan Barrie, Jack Sharkey, Karen Klinedinst, Ian van Coller, and Jeanette May. The call for entry, now live, is turning the lens toward the photographers, looking for talented artists from across the country who are pushing the boundaries of the medium with adventurous techniques and original subject matter. In terms of aesthetic quality, technical innovation, and cultural relevance, contemporary photography has increasingly proven its dominance as a 21st century art form.

With submissions for juried entries now open, we wanted to introduce our invited artists! Leading up to the submission deadline, June 19th, 2022, we’ll turn the lens on these photographers. Next up: Raymond Thompson Jr.

A photo of two men on horses, their backs to us, walking along with a path with a solitary tree on the left. The photo is printed on a leaf.
Raymond Thompson Jr. American, b. 1978. Untitled (After Dorothea Lange and the trauma of white light #3). Chlorophyll print on tobacco, 2020. Image courtesy of Raymond Thompson Jr.

When it comes to The National, FWMoA strives to invite strong, visually compelling story telling and innovative use of creative processes. Raymond Thompson Jr. ties history, both his own and that of the United States, with unconventional methods to create his unique photographs that fit the bill exactly. Taking images from the Farm Security Administration (FSA), scenes his own grandfather experienced as a young teenager, Thompson prints them on tobacco leaves, a plant harvested by slaves. The images are subtle, like a faded photograph in a family album, sometimes barely visible without looking closely. The sepia tone combined with the texture of the dried leaf comes full circle with Thompson’s message of investigating family history, only to find glimpses of what life was like through FSA documentation. To create these works, Thompson uses an alternative photography method, chlorophyll printing, which uses photosynthesis to create the image on the dried leaf.

A photo of four young black children sitting on steps in front of what appears to be a stone building. The photo is printed on a leaf.
Raymond Thompson Jr., American, b. 1978. Untitled (After Marion Post Wolcott and the trauma of white light 3). Chlorophyll print on tobacco, 2020. Image courtesy of Raymond Thompson Jr.

Thompson says of the series, “The trauma of white light features appropriated photographs created by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers in the 1930s. These images are reprinted on living tobacco leaves using the chlorophyll printing technique.

Tobacco is a plant whose taproot is buried deep in the American experience. Like other cash crops, it had a whole agricultural ecosystem devoted to its cultivation. Sharecropping was one part of the ecosystem that formed in the wake of slavery in which sharecroppers worked land they did not own and paid a share of their crop to their landlords as rent.

The violence of the transatlantic slave trade left many African-American people with truncated personal histories, myths, and family memories. The images created by the FSA represent one of the few sources of visual information about life in this part of black North Carolina in the 1930s.

As African Americans our history begins with violence. We were marked as black when we were enslaved. With the same act of violence, all that came before it, our history, our culture, our families, and our memories were stripped from us. The tragedy for me is that I as a black person looking to understand parts of my own history have to do this through the mediated lens of the white gaze.

Cotton and tobacco were at the heart of my family’s mythologies that surround my grandfather. In searching for my own origin story, I wanted to find a way to move one step closer to my grandfather’s experience as a teenager and young man. I know this is a futile quest, because the holes in my family’s memory and the political nature of the American archive are far too great to recover what has been lost.”

A close-up photograph of a black man whose hand is covering up his face, making his eyes the most noticeable thing. The photo is printed on a leaf.
Raymond Thompson, Jr., American, b. 1978. Untitled (After Rothstein and the trauma of white light #1).
Chlorophyll print on tobacco leaf, 2020. Image courtesy of Raymond Thompson, Jr.

We are now accepting entries! Open through June 19th, 2022, submit your photo(s) now for the chance to have them displayed at the Museum alongside Raymond Thompson Jr.’s work! The National will be on display September 17th, 2022-January 8th, 2023.

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