Lyle Ashton Harris: Today I Shall Judge Nothing That Occurs; Selections from the Ektachrome Archive

The cover of Lyle Ashton Harris: Excessive Exposure

FOR THREE DECADES, Lyle Ashton Harris has been producing portraits, collage installations, and other works that demonstrate a voracious approach to art history. He devours photographic conventions and reconfigures them, calling attention to the charged intersection of race, gender, and desire. Harris’s “Ektachrome Archive” includes more than 3,500 personal photographs, made from 1988 through 2001, that display the sensuality and rigor singular to his work; Aperture’s new monograph Today I Shall Judge Nothing That Occurs draws nearly two hundred images from this series. Across these pages, Harris documents intimate encounters, includes photographs of pages from his journals, and captures an impressive group of cultural luminaries—particularly from artistic communities of color—in moments of both performative presentation and casual repose.

The images offer an embodied, immediate engagement with the catalytic moments and influential figures they picture: Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden and trustee Ray McGuire converse excitedly at a dinner for Golden’s seminal Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition, “Black Male,” in 1994; authors Coco Fusco and Samuel R. Delany lecture alongside each other at the “Black Nations/Queer Nations?” conference in 1995; Stuart Hall, Douglas Crimp, Thomas Allen Harris, Catherine Opie, Michael Richards, bell hooks, and many acclaimed others also appear. Editor Johanna Burton has assembled texts from an esteemed “chorus” of twenty contributors, including Thomas J. Lax, Catherine Lord, Mickalene Thomas, and Robert Storr. These open-ended accounts commingle public history and private experience to illustrative effect—an approach that aptly reflects the ethos of Harris’s project. As the artist puts it, “Personal subjectivity is central, and it’s informed by, and in turn informs, intellectual discourse in the public sphere.”

Image from Lyle Ashton Harris’s “Ektachrome Archive,” 1988–2001. 42nd Street, New York, 1993.
Image from Lyle Ashton Harris’s “Ektachrome Archive,” 1988–2001. 42nd Street, New York, 1993.

Set against the backdrop of the aids crisis, Today I Shall Judge Nothing That Occurs has an aesthetic and feel—candid, tender—comparable to Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, though Harris’s ebullient images detail a much more diverse milieu. The book immerses us in an unprecedented period for the articulation and visibility of black queer subjectivity, a moment anchored by the unsparing poetry of Essex Hemphill, the experimental performativity of Vaginal Davis, the cinematic work of Isaac Julien, and the incisive art of Glenn Ligon, among others; all four appear, projecting confidence, in Harris’s photographs. And Today I Shall Judge Nothing That Occurs attests to the redemptive potential of archives, which can remedy cultural amnesia by bringing consequential histories and figures to the fore. Indeed, in one of the book’s most striking images, the late artist-educator-activist Marlon Riggs sashays in a T-shirt reading unleash the queen at the “Black Popular Culture” conference, a landmark event hosted by the Dia Center for the Arts and the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1991. Here, Riggs talks back, claiming space for brazen queerness in a rarefied setting. It’s a radical gesture that exemplifies the spirit of the book: Intellectual and sexy, joyful and defiant, Harris depicts an enrapturing time when a new sensibility was unleashed.