Donavon Smallwood – Languor

Donavon Smallwood’s first book Languor contains portraits of Black Americans and landscapes from Central Park in New York City.  This setting seems simple enough for a photobook.  But there are layers to unfold in the work beyond the seemingly utopian world in which Smallwood’s subjects exist.

In recent years, we have seen several books with similar subject matter by Tyler Mitchell (I Can Make You Feel Good), Rahim Fortune (I Can’t Stand To See You Cry), and Irina Rozovsky (In Plain Air).  Languor is not simply a book about the physical space of Central Park itself, nor its inhabitants.  It is not just about the dynamic between the chaos of city life and the pockets of peace one can find among it.  The book presents deeper questions about the dynamics of the photography world as a microcosm of the current state of society.

The word ‘languor’ itself has two meanings: (1) the state or feeling, often pleasant, of tiredness or inertia, and (2) an oppressive stillness of the air.  Smallwood, who won the 2021 Aperture Portfolio Prize, has stated that the body of work depicts Black Americans in nature and at leisure, a reading that would coincide with the first definition.  Influenced by the likes of John Gossage and Vanessa Winship, Smallwood sought to build a separate world from within the boundaries of the park.

In reality, this world already exists, as the park’s history includes that of the Manhattan borough of Seneca Village, a 19th century settlement of mostly African American landowners.  Today, this reality exists in the form of an invisible dividing line within the park, where the northern end (near what was once Seneca Village), is the section closest to the borough of Harlem, which is predominantly occupied by Black Americans, and where Smallwood himself grew up.

The current reality of racial discrimination and socioeconomic inequality is still presumably the driving force behind Smallwood’s vision of a Black utopia.  But beyond the park’s borders, the ‘Promised Land’ is still a long way away.

This historical background seems to be lost within the praise that the book has received since its publication.  To complicate things further, Trespasser Books, run by Bryan Schutmaat and Matthew Genitempo, has previously published a run of three books by white male artists: Good God Damn by Schutmaat, Errors of Possession by Garrett Grove, and Polar Night by Mark Mahaney.  Smallwood’s book is the first in their catalog by a photographer of colour.

The underlying issue seems to be the same one that motivated  numerous other publishers, galleries, and agencies in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, as they scrambled to give opportunities to photographers of colour such as Smallwood, Fortune, and others who previously had been shut out or simply gone unnoticed.  Institutions that had been predominantly white and insular wasted no time in attempting to become more open and inclusive.  Good intentions aside, it’s hard to shake the feeling that these after the fact efforts to respond to social pressures might have been too little, too late.

Trespasser’s publication of Smallwood’s work also is certainly well-timed, coming on the heels of his Aperture award and his growing reputation within photography circles.  Although it makes sense that Smallwood’s work fits the imprint’s aesthetic – bodies of work containing mostly black and white documentary photography incorporating landscapes and environmental portraiture – one gets the sense that Trespasser might have chosen Smallwood at least in part to fill a demographic gap within their catalog while still retaining the look and feel of their previous publications.  In other words, a piece of the puzzle is swapped out, but the overall picture remains the same.  

To tie things back to the historical background of Central Park, the dividing line within the park reflects a larger and more obvious division within society that persists even as the aforementioned institutions reached across it to secure the appearance of balance and opportunity.  The current reality of racial discrimination and socioeconomic inequality is still presumably the driving force behind Smallwood’s vision of a Black utopia.  But beyond the park’s borders, the ‘Promised Land’ is still a long way away. 

Can utopia be achieved without conflict?  If the goal is utopia, then what is the path to get there?

Flipping  through Languor is a strangely inconsistent experience.  There is a sense of calm and innocent wonder, especially in the landscapes.  Shooting mostly with a digital camera, Smallwood is able to capture detailed close-up images of trees, leaves, branches, and flowers, long exposures of water, and sharp, contrasty nighttime scenes, giving the environment of the park an exceptional visual atmosphere.  The portraits, shot on medium format film, are mostly center-weighted headshots.  Their tonal consistency makes up for the lack of diversity in the compositions, but the portraits could have done with more integration of the subjects within the surroundings of the park.  While there are several standout images in the sequence, the book overall feels somewhat formulaic. 

The design is also a head-scratcher.  The offset print quality is great, and the weight of the paper stock makes the pages feel like individual prints in the hand.  But, at roughly the size of a small pillow, it’s confusing why the images weren’t printed larger to take advantage of the extra paper space.  Instead, images sit on the pages surrounded by plenty of empty white space, making the book feel more like a sequenced exhibition on a wall rather than a well-designed photobook.  

Returning to the second definition of ‘languor’ – an oppressive stillness of the air – we can see that all is not as it appears on the surface.  Undoubtedly, Black Americans still face oppression on many levels in today’s sociopolitical reality.  Can utopia be achieved without conflict?  If the goal is utopia, then what is the path to get there?  If the park in Languor represents a vision of Black utopia, then it must be asked – is this a realistic vision within reach? 

Smallwood does not tackle these questions in the book.  Instead, he opts to build an imaginary world where the goal has already been achieved and people can exist in a land of peace and harmony among nature.  The images depict a world that we should indeed all aim for and work toward.  The book succeeds in its ability to draw attention to  the theme of an idealistic world in which separation is transformed into wholeness and connection.  In reality, division remains, and the dividing line cannot be eliminated simply by a hope for something better.  Hope must be transformed into hunger, and hunger into change.  Languor reads like a hopeful and vivid dream, but one that remains forgotten once the dreamer awakes.

Donavon Smallwood
Trespasser Books 2021

All Rights Reserved: Text © Andy Pham;
Images © Donavon Smallwood/Trespasser Books