Many would say that the power of photography lies in its ability to capture a singular moment in time. The healing power of the medium, however, can be transformative. The art of photography offers a glimpse into the soul of the artist, as he transforms his experiences into symbols of who we are, what we fear and who we have loved.
Nita: an impossible dream is photographer DeMarcus Allen’s tribute to his beloved mother Nita, who passed away in 2019. Filmed over six months, creating the collection of works was no small feat. Allen would endure a series of challenges during filming, ranging from battles with depression and navigating production in Africa with a negative $68 account balance, to robbery at gunpoint in the favelas of Brazil. The 260+ page work celebrates the beauty of black patterns and is divided into four chapters that represent the elements of air, water, fire and earth. Melanated beauties stun in scenic settings in Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, France, South Africa, Namibia and more. Poetry and words from black artists and writers help tell the story of each beautiful journey.
“Sales of published and unpublished works of art by [the book] established the Nita B. Wood Fine Arts Scholarship Fund at Norfolk State University.
-From Marcus Allen, photographer
A former English and literature teacher who worked with Allen on planning his book, Nita was Allen’s biggest advocate. Continuing her legacy, Allen recently founded a scholarship in her name at the university she loved. “Sales of published and unpublished works of art by [the book] established the Nita B. Wood Fine Arts Scholarship Fund in Norfolk State,” says Allen. “She taught there, as well as her BA and MA at NSU, so I grew up on campus in a way. and incoming students pursuing fine arts degrees.
Although NITA was released last year, Allen plans to continue rolling out new prints periodically. Check out our exclusive interview with the visionary below and visit www.demarcusallen.com for more.
EBONY: When did you first fall in love with photography?
From Marcus Allen: Honestly, I didn’t have a great interest in photography at all. As a child, I always enjoyed family photo albums, but I didn’t buy my first camera until I moved to Paris in 2009. Even then, I only bought it to show “Paris” to my mother. . But once I arrived in Paris, I met my mentor, the legendary American photographer Ernest Collins, who unfortunately died during the Covid. After class, I would go to Ernest’s apartment in the 18th arrondissement of Paris to watch FashionTV and listen to his stories of photographs of different people and artists.
What inspired Nita?
The original project was called “Move / Feel”, in reference to the movement often present in my photos, and a tribute to the beauty & strength of black women. I had this idea in 2015 to travel the world, photograph models in beautiful places – my eyes are trained to look at landscapes, as I went straight into landscape photography when I arrived in Paris – and d to have an exhibition in an art gallery of images. I only told this dream to one person, my mother Nita “Bug”. When she passed away in September 2019, I flew in for the funeral from France. I decided, hearing his students talk about his impact on their lives, that I was finally going to create this work. I had no money, but on the flight back to Paris, I dreamed that my mother came to tell me she loved me, gave me a hug and gave me a check before leaving. I woke up confused in Paris after my flight, but happy to see her in my dream. A few hours later, my older brother sent me an SMS asking me for my bank details in France, because my mother had a secret life insurance, and there was money for me. What she left me, funded the majority of the project, and the proceeds go on to create a photography studio/creative workspace in Paris, and later in my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia.
Describe the process of creating this amazing work.
The process started with compiling the different dreams. From a very young age, I was taught to write down my dreams. I never really understood why, but I always did. So for this book, every photoshoot in the book was born out of an initial dream that I woke up and wrote down before it disappeared. From there, I went into determining locations. My very first photos were landscape photos, so location is always important to me. I had places in mind for years, since 2015, that I would like to use as a backdrop for a shoot. Then there were the model agencies contacted that were at least somewhat close to the location (the model from the Bolivia shoot was flown in from Brazil; the Namibia model was flown in from South Africa). Sud)… And then I got the rest of the make-up, hair, styling, etc. teams together. There was a different crew for each shoot. After that, I started contacting resorts and hotels about sponsoring rooms to offset some costs. Checking the Covid rules was also important as they changed every week around the world. After shooting, I would whittle down the 2,000+ images from each shot to around 35. I worked 2:00-5:00 on color tones and exposure, for about two weeks. From there I woke up at the same time to retouch the images in Photoshop.
“The reason I started this project was really to show the beauty of black, something the fashion industry seems to have struggled with throughout history.”
-From Marcus Allen, photographer
How long did it take you to complete the project and what difficulties did you encounter?
In total, the project lasted a little over 6 months. The first shooting took place at the end of February and the last at the beginning of September. As we were in the middle of the global pandemic, traveling was extremely difficult. For example, to shoot in Bolivia, my air route was: Paris – Dallas – Los Angeles – Atlanta – Miami – Rio – São Paulo – Santa Cruz (Bolivia) – La Paz – followed by a 9 hour bus journey. A crew of 4 traveling from all different locations, and due to Covid rules our 3 days of shooting were reduced to 7 hours. I was also robbed at gunpoint in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I broke my nose after passing out from anxiety while filming…I arrived in South Africa for 2 shoots there and 1 in Namibia, with an account balance of -68$. It was quite a tough race and then a constant battle with depression after losing my best friend and then my nephew to Covid, a cousin of diabetes, both mentors, among other things.
How did you shape your style as a photographer and how would you describe it?
I always struggled with this question, because for a very long time I just saw a lot of things that I didn’t like and tried to do the opposite. But browsing through Nita, I feel like it describes my work perfectly. I think it’s a raw image that shows a love of classic feminine beauty, but fused with an understanding of human agility and athleticism. Again, most of my work is based on dreams that I have, and so I take elements of myself (former college athlete, southerner, elements of loneliness) and use them to artistically recreate my dreams ).
What do you hope viewers will take away from your work?
I realized after receiving my first shipment of books, that this project served as a way for me to cope with depression following a loss; a kind of grief management. It’s great for me, but the reason I started this project was really to show the beauty of Black, something the fashion industry seems to struggle with throughout history. My images are not too retouched; the black model does not serve as an accessory to the arm of a white model in my book. I was hoping to shoot something purely to celebrate our skin and give people a visual and mental vacation for the tough days. I wanted to create something that people could look at and just appreciate its beauty and the experience of flicking through it.
What needs to change for black photographers in the industry?
From the field in which I work, haute couture, I think diversity is important. I know this sounds like a generic answer, but I’m not talking about diversity among all photographers. I mean the diversity of black photographers who are chosen. We don’t all shoot the same style or type of subject, so I think it’s important to have diversity in every aspect of photography, whether it’s fashion or street photography.
Why are black photographers important?
For me, we are the driving force behind documenting not just our own environments, but the world of our eyes. I know a black photographer will photograph a black model with different eyes than another race. And even on the job where it’s not a predominantly black publication or brand, our culture is what drives our country – why not see things through the eyes that come from that culture?
What is your proudest moment as a photographer?
I think I have two. One is, of course, the release of my first book. For this to be an idea and a dream for so long, I’m still in awe of the pictures and even alive after that! The second was to go and clean my mother’s desk and see copies of all the magazines I worked for on her desk. Her students told me she would always show them my work, so it was kind of confirmation that I made her proud.