Souls Against the Concrete

The cover of Souls Against the Concrete

IT IS NOT UNUSUAL for a photographic project to focus on a single place—a country, a city, a town, a neighborhood—but even so, Khalik Allah’s Souls Against the Concrete is unusually specific. The photographer and filmmaker’s recent book captures people on a single corner, at the intersection of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City. Growing up, Allah passed this intersection countless times, and his earliest impressions were of “drugs, selling and using, accented by a heavy police presence, bogus arrests, and clouds of smoke.” He began to take photographs there, mostly at night. While to some darkness means fear and danger, to Allah it is immensely freeing. Eventually, he knew everyone on the corner, and everyone knew him. Most of the people pictured are etiolated, isolated, and deprived of basic necessities—of representation, of opportunity, of care. Many have a glazed look in their eye, perhaps due to intoxication or exhaustion, but their stares also contain a distinct emotional charge, conveying everything from defiance, apprehension, and terror to amusement and warmth. Despite the hyper-specific location, some of these images are devoid of any scene-setting information. And it is here that Allah’s work diverges most radically from the tradition of street photography. Taken at night with a flash, these shots offer little more than the hazy spheres of light from headlights and streetlamps to suggest they were captured outdoors. In some, the background is a dense, matte black; in others, the sky reveals the inky blues of those hours that are neither morning nor night.

Khalik Allah, 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, New York, 2013. © Khalik Allah.
Khalik Allah, 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, New York, 2013. © Khalik Allah.

While documentary photographs often rely on rich details to construct a sense of place, they also wrestle with a tendency to flatten individuals into images and images into symbols. Allah’s goal is less to leverage material reality as a signifier than to escape it altogether, pushing the project into a metaphysical realm that transcends place and time. The book’s title suggests a fundamental antagonism between our spiritual beings (souls) and the material reality they inhabit (the concrete). But these individuals never become abstract. The artist’s ability to conjure a void in expanses of opaque black ink, while also fixating on granular, sometimes gruesome, detail, bespeaks a revelatory humanism. The photographs somehow contain the overlapping realities of multiple worlds.

Isabel Flower