It seems so simple. Rog Walker is a photographer. But that simplicity is far from being simple at all. Its so complex that it’s landed him as a student of the art – digital first, now analog, the auteur of urban visual editorials, as the main eyes behind the documentation of music’s beloved soulful indie flower child Solange’s wedding, to the gent who in the year 2015 has a 19 foot print of Steven Onoja, a ‘Dandy Lion in the current exhibit bearing the same words at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP), which sits less than half a mile from the ten years young and running, specialty coffee shop, Dollop Coffee Company.
Yes, things are complex, culturally complex for Rog Walker.
I originally requested to speak with Walker as part of a Cool Hunting piece I was reporting on to give voice to the exhibit Dandy Lion: (Re) Articulating Black Masculine Identity. Our conversation was too rich to not share its entirety here, for its inspirational nature and for the transparency with which the interview shares how an artist is an artist.
c.: Rog, it seems so simple what you do. But, how not simple is it for you to be a photographer?
r.w.: That’s a good question. In this day and age it’s hard for someone like me to be a photographer. If you dress relatively well, you’re put into this box that you’re the Black Ivy street type menswear guy. That was my introduction to the exhibit [which began years ago in a smaller form].
I was approached not as a photographer but to have my photo taken. Myself, James Jean, K.John and Raleigh and I had a group photo and then a separate photo. I was in the exhibit for a while and I wasn’t used as a photographer. I guess after a while l worked myself out of the bubble of ‘you dress nice’ to ‘I’m a photographer.’
This year Shantrelle [P. Lewis] – MoCP’s guest curator – gave me the honor to be in it and to submit a photo. I have so many stylish friends that fit the theme and they loved the photo of Steven. I recently started shooting film; I did the SLUMFLOWER exhibit by Street Etiquette. With digital you can print only so large – 20×30. But with medium format I could go large, Steven’s image is a 19-foot photo.
c.: How did analog come to you?
r.w.: It’s about the nature of who I am as a person, be it bookmarking or photography, I get introduced and I dive all the way in. I picked up film photography from my friend, Andre Wagner and I thought ‘oh this is a good concept’; I’m going to try. He taught me how to lock and load film. I researched for a while and once I make a decision, its made.
I love the feel, to be able to blow up a photo as large as possible. With film, I’m shooting twelve photos intentionally, not 250, twelve photos.
c.: When did you begin shooting film?
r.w.: October 31, 2013.
c.: You remember the date?
r.w.: Yes. It’s very specific, because I remember the first photo. I was poor at the time. I’d been using digital as a quick meter to see if the lighting was right and then using the real camera. Digital is secondary to medium format, I may use it for family photos now, but other than that, I’ve taken digital out of my process and I’ve had such a great experience.
c.: How did this experience of being included in the exhibition come for you? And, how do you feel that your work, complete with Steven Onoja’s image speaks to that?
r.w.: It’s the photo that’s speaking. But, it’s Steven. I didn’t make this image; I took this image. That’s the virtue of him being that. Steven is very much like that, he gives it off in a natural way and all I had to do is point. For this exhibition, I did give some studio stuff that I produced, but I feel Shantrelle chose this because it’s authentic, its real and its him. For that original shoot, we hopped in the car and we’re going to find something and we found this spot. We hopped out and did [the photo] then and there. Everything was authentic. For me and for him it was intrinsic, even in the motion. You’ll see guys in a photo buttoning up, being the standard dandy, but his motion was his movement even to him looking down – it’s very much a document, his pose, his motion, his essence in the photo.”
c.: This exhibition tackles the existentialism of style for the black male – the expression of an alternative in some respects – but to a very familiar male for many women and men of color whose heritage stems beyond the current zeitgeist of showcasing it. Now your photography is used as a voice to show the black males existence. You’ve said before that photography is your voice, its how you speak. Can you speak how you’re speaking through this exhibition?
r.w.: It’s a very natural conversation, re-articulating black masculinity. I was born in Jamaica and grew up with traditional parents and with what is deemed proper. You come to America; you’ll go to school and be successful. To be an artistic goes against that very nature. To do this thing and communicate using this medium – and on the other side this is how I express my masculinity, those two things go at odds in culture in general. It’s my radical voice and their radical voice having a conversation.
c.: Its like a meeting ground of voices but through the image.
r.w.: Yes. People talk counter culture and alternative culture and it makes sense. In everything I do I am already walking in the alternative. As a Caribbean black male, I’m already walking in the alternative of what’s expected, of what is natural. And, to do it in not just any period of time, but now, I feel like doing these documents is an act of service. Whether its style, photography, or writing, [my voice] is a service. I want to do a service to that culture with my work.
c.: I understand that. I feel the same when it comes to the culture of coffee. It’s a lens, a way to see and my duty is to service the culture, to leave a body of work that documents what it was, what it looked like, what it did, what it inspired.
The MoCP exhibition hinges its sartorial trope on city landscapes. You live in a city landscape: New York. There’s a clear intimacy you have with New York and the environments in which you capture your subjects. Can you speak to how landscape plays a role in the trope of your visual voice?
r.w.: Landscape is so important. The studio serves as a landscape. My hometown in Mount Vernon because that means so much to me and its so much there – it’s the base for everything. Its what I start with. After the idea of what I want to do – whether its solitude, friendship – the landscape is the art point. New York has been the greatest landscape.
I’ve been connected to so many ideas and people. The city takes on textures, which speaks to past and layers of so many things. Landscape takes on the culture that lives within. Or, my parents’ hometown for instance, theirs shades of pasts dormant and present that speak solitude. Landscape is the starting ground; it’s the beginning of all visual creation – ground zero.
c.: That was so well emoted and articulated. I’ve just learned something that I’ll carry with me for a lifetime. Thank you. How does history in photography play a role in your work? And how does contemporary notions of photography play a role from your analog use of photography to an almost non-existent digital social footprint except for that of your name as a hashtag on Instagram?
A chuckle by Walker.
c.: Analog photography, the practice will play a role because that’s what I’m practicing. But history plays a major role in my work, in my inspiration. I’m not on Instagram but I troll it. Another chuckle. I need some sort of reference. I need to start a conversation visually ;I need to see something. I’m always going back to the past, Brian Duffy, Richard Avedon. Peter Lindbergh. I’m always looking at the historical culture of photography; Avedon spoke to his culture and generation, so I want to do that.
r.w.: Lindbergh told great stories and produced them like movie sets; Duffy didn’t care and went against the grain. I love Sally Man, there is so much there looking at that history and what was done, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s not about doing something new but taking the torch and keeping it going. What they had, we have and it’s speaking for us too.
I’m honored that Shantrelle asked me to be in this. It’s not about one of us but the collective. This is a great thing that she’s doing. She brought us together; it’s her vision. It’s important for our stories to be seen and the culture to be documented properly. It’s about self-expression at the core.
You may visit the exhibit through its stay at MoCP until July 12, 2015, discover all the more than twenty photographers in this exhibition essay and watch a talk here on the ‘The Black Dandy” Cultural and Historic Context’.
Photo courtesy of RogWalker.com.