This is piece on Donavon Smallwood is featured in issue 20, out now.
Winner of the 2021 Aperture Portfolio Prize and the 2021 Daylight Photo Award, Donavon Smallwood (b. 1994) is a self-taught photographer from East Harlem. His series, Languor, uncovers Black tranquility in Central Park, and recalls the forgotten history of Seneca Village—once home to the largest community of Black property owners in pre-Civil War New York. For Donavon, photographs reveal stories, and he uses the medium as a means of exploring humanity, displacement, and nature through portraits and landscapes.
Like you, I grew up in a household that emphasized literature and the arts, and I think it’s why I became a storyteller. How did artmaking enter your life, and when did you know you were an artist with stories to tell?
I don’t think it’s stories I’m interested in telling, but rather stories or mysteries I’m interested in uncovering. I wanted to be an archeologist or paleontologist growing up and that pattern of thinking has always been with me. From looking and seeking to uncovering, I believe stories are revealed.
What drew you to photography specifically, and how has your relationship with the medium evolved over the years?
I took a photo class in high school, and after making the connection between photography and archaeology/anthropology, a spark went off in my head and I went one-hundred percent into images—the relationship has evolved in that I’m constantly learning new things in regard to taking photos and just seeing the world.
Who were your early influences, and what drew you to them?
The first photographers I fell in love with were Eggleston, Meyerowitz, and a few other classic New York street photographers. I loved the idea of spontaneity and finding moments in the city that were seemingly random acts of beauty—some only lasting a split second. Took me a couple years to realize that wasn’t really my thing, but I still appreciate it tremendously.
How has New York, specifically Harlem, inspired you and the work you make?
Living in Harlem provides a real sense of community, as I know my neighbors and have since I was a child. I see people I grew up with all the time and we still spend moments together even if they’re not so expansive anymore. I’m not sure how obviously this inspires my work though. I think a lot of what I’m doing now comes from within and looking elsewhere, though I’m sure the level of intimacy I have with the neighborhood as a whole can help when it comes to the level of intimacy I try to capture in an image.
Portraiture is one of the most intimate ways to create art, and as a photographer, you’re always going to see your subject differently than the way they see themselves. How do you navigate that with your subjects, and does that tension serve the collaboration in your eyes?
I feel like the people I’ve photographed are extremely open with themselves to me. If it’s not a close friend, than it’s someone I’ll probably only meet for ten or fifteen minutes, and it’s typically a very intimate experience what we share, after we get the phatic communication out of the way. There’s no tension at all—it’s just another person, me, and a camera having what seems to be a frivolous moment, but it means so much to me anyway.
Languor, your prize-winning series shot in Central Park over the past year, tells a side of New York’s story that most people might not know about. Tell us what you can about this body of work and specifically the history of Seneca Village.
The series is a collection of portraits and landscape images of the park itself. I spent my entire life hanging out and just exploring the park with love. The history of Seneca Village just brought to mind a lot of works I had read regarding nature and humanity. Civilization being formed out of a taming of nature, the idea of Eden—cultivating a garden or a patch of civilization from the chaos of nature. Then, thinking about what it means for nature to be given priority over a civilization. What are you saying about the humanity of a people? So it’s really about these feelings all mixing together, thoughts of personal love and acknowledgement of yet another instance of humanity being stripped. Coming out from that moment with just peace or tranquility.
Pick a historic moment from the last hundred years you would have brought a camera to.
Maybe some big time party in Idlewild, Michigan in the 50s.
If you could pick a piece of music that captures the spirit of your work, what would it be?
Third by Portishead.
For more from Donavon, follow @xdonavon on Instagram.