"Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Vermeer, in that order." Brooklyn photographer Nigel Morris doesn't hesitate for a moment when you ask him to list the painters who have inspired him the most.
As a child, Nigel was an avid museum-goer and began attending art workshops at an early age. That is how he became familiar with Renaissance and Baroque painters (among many other artists), tucking his discoveries away in his memory.
A fascination for classical painting
It would take him many years, and a detour as a photographer before Nigel began to revisit classical painting and the light that emanates from the portraits of those periods:
"I rediscovered Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Vermeer about five or six years ago. The light is probably what inspires me the most in their portraits. My favorite Rembrandt paintings include Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan, Self-portrait in Oriental Attire, and Portrait of Oopjen Coppit.
His project Black Renaissance applies his love of painting to his implication in the fight for the rights of people of color. The series raises awareness around the lack of representation of the black community, who are often absent from historical paintings, or depicted as slaves.
Correcting the lack of representation of people of color
As a person of color himself, Nigel Morris seeks to correct injustice in his own way, reinventing the past in an effort to change current mentalities.
Using ornate embroidered dresses and other typical features from Vanitas paintings, such as three-quarter and profile poses, his portraits are nearly identical in style to the works he admires, except they feature black models.
He also uses skulls in his portraits as a symbol of human mortality, and as a reminder of the atrocities that black men and women have endured and overcome:
"I wanted to create a parallel universe where people of color would finally be represented in art history as proud and majestic. If I were to describe the goal of this project, I'd say that I created it to elevate and inspire people.
Make them reflect and ask questions. People of color are often described using negative language, so with this project, I wanted to reverse that image and bring a new perspective, a new light."
Similar to his favorite painters, Nigel Morris places great importance on the lighting in his portraits, giving special attention to the faces of these nontraditional models. As a result, his portraits feel strikingly modern, in total contrast with the meticulous trademarks of historical portraiture.
The careful attention given to light is essential to the photographer's work, as he chose to specialize in portraiture from the very beginning. He sees this light technique as a means of exploring the personalities of the models he photographs and he tries to create ties to their stories within his images.
In this way, Black Renaissance is intrinsically linked to the photographer's own life experience and convictions:
"I had a real revelation when I discovered the work of Richard Avedon, Dan Winters, Mark Seliger, Nadav Kander, Joe McNally, Marco Grob, Gordon Parks and Erwin Olaf. To me, photographing people is almost therapeutic.
I am very curious by nature and I always look for commonality with my subjects, beyond our differences at first glance."
Due to a lack of funds, Nigel had to put the project on hold, but remains firm in his resolve to complete the project as soon as possible. Stay tuned!