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Friday, December 01, 2023

‘Reflections' offers intimate look at African American legends of past and present

‘Reflections’ offers an intimate look at African American legends of past and present

Mara Benowitz

My skin was burning as it adjusted to the warmth of the Education building after braving the wind outside, but when I saw Terrence A. Reese’s “Reflections” series in the gallery, I got chills.

“Reflections” is a beautifully intimate collection of black and white photographs of renowned African Americans, but they’re not your average portraits. In fact, in many of them, the iconic faces that paved the way for Reese and so many others aren’t even immediately visible. The real subject is their homes and the vulnerability of showing the world the spaces they’ve created and filled with memories. The people in the pictures are icons—we know their faces. “Reflections” is about their lives.

The truly incredible thing is how a young photographer from Chicago got B.B. King, Gordon Parks and Jesse Jackson to let him into the most intimate rooms in their homes in the first place. But from the moment he spoke, I understood; his charisma was infectious. His thin dreadlocks bounced with excitement when he talked, and his eyes glowed with an energy that reignited each time his eyes met one of the legends in his pictures.

The subjects themselves are reflected in a mirror placed somewhere in the room. For some like Richie Havens, the folk icon who opened Woodstock, the wall length mirror takes up most of the picture. Most, however, are hidden on shelves and tables, steeped in memorabilia that tell the person’s story better than their faces alone ever could. Reese said this was a very intentional aspect of the project because it forces people to slow down. “Everything moves so fast and you miss things,” he said. “But if you sit and just look you see the paper coming out of the fax machine, the shoes, the little details that you just miss that were so pertinent to these people at the time.”

Reese looks at the pictures with nostalgia like an album of memories with his closest friends and remembers each shoot with startling clarity. He says the journey to the photos was as important as the pictures themselves because “Reflections” is about the parts of a person that stay hidden from the public, and that only shines through when people are comfortable. “I told them I’m not going to take the picture until I make you smile, I act a fool with you and you look like you’re at home,” he said, “because when you make people smile, make them relax, they open up.”

The faces in “Reflections” opened countless doors for African Americans throughout the 20th century. By the time Reese began the project in the early 90s, many of them were already nearing the end of their lives. The understanding that this was his last chance to meet some of his idols, and many their last chances to choose how the world would remember them, adds a layer of depth to the photographs. “Everybody wants to be immortalized in something that’s new and original,” he said. “I just wanted to have fun with them and just be with them because I know they’re not going to be here for long and I feel honored to have the opportunity to be with them.”

Reese plans to expand the project to legends from all ethnicities, stating that he won’t be finished until he has at least 2000 pictures. For now, he’s proud of the art and the experiences that he’s created. “To have the opportunity to visit their homes, sit on their sofas, ask them some questions, make them laugh, step behind the public façade and see them in their own private environments,” he said, “it’s a beautiful thing.”

The gallery will be open Monday through Friday in the main gallery of the Education building until March 4, and the full collection is available for purchase online.

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