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The work of Nydia Blas is not a site for standard expectations or predictability. Its life is not given through the observation of others — instead, the work is alive itself. Her work pulls at viewers because of the way those in her photos look back.
Blas’s use of what she describes as the “Black feminine lens” sets her apart. It’s something that coaxes one’s gaze as much as it troubles it. She is challenging the onlooker by validating the experiences of those that she shoots through her loving immortalization of their lives with her camera. Blas is who she shoots, and she guides the process of creation instead of asserting absolute control. In spaces where many seek to center to experiences of the overlooked, Blas begins by challenging why we’re all looking in the first place.
As Blas prepares to leave her hometown of Ithaca, New York and head south to Atlanta to explore new horizons, she’ll be making a dramatic shift that could surely influence her work. I spoke with Blas about her purpose, expanding access to her art, and where she sees herself going with her work.
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William C. Anderson: How do you engage your subjects, particularly these young Black women and girls you’re working with?
Nydia Blas: I usually photograph people that I have some sort of relationship with already. I really think of photographing as an exchange and also a collaboration. Although I’m the one with the camera, I really think that a photograph is made between two people or between multiple people. We’re sharing time, we’re sharing space together, we’re sharing words together, we’re sharing input.
I usually start out with some type of idea, and then that turns into something else in terms of who I’m working with and their viewpoints and how they feel comfortable. And what I can pull out of them or those moments that we share together, that lends itself to creating the image.
Most specifically, in The Girls Who Spun Gold, I met the girls in those images in a girl empowerment group in about 2012 in Ithaca. I was working as a program educator at Southside Community Center, and even though I had known their families for years and seen them grow up around town, it was the first sort of chunk of time we spent together where we were really close. We formed a relationship where I was this adult who wasn’t quite an adult. I was very recently divorced from my first marriage and sort of feeling like I was new and finding myself again in the same way that they were teenagers figuring themselves out all in the same sort of super white, super boring space of Ithaca, New York.
WA: What has the success or popularity of The Girls Who Spun Gold meant for the girls you photographed?
NB: When we were first making images together I would have some ideas that felt outlandish to them or I’d have some rule, like to never wear shoes. I think that one of the elements that is important to me in the process is there not always be a specific reference to a time period, but that’s open. So [the photograph] can shift and you’re not tied down to one time and space. And shoes, to me, seem to be a big indicator of time or era. So I think they got used to me having these quirky things.
I made these photographs when I was in grad school. I was reading things, I was working with my peers, I was looking at their work. I was commuting back and forth on a bus from Ithaca and Syracuse. I was watching people, I was watching embraces and exchanges. And so I brought all of those things into the images that we made together. I think at first it was confusing, and then when we got further along I said, “What is this work about?” And they were like, “It’s a story, it’s our story, this is like about us.”
We talked about self-esteem. We talked about how as girls we never learned to look at our bodies. We never learned those things, we cried about those things. It’s cool because I’ve brought them to artist talks and they’ve gotten to speak and talk about their experiences. They’re excited to see themselves. They think it’s really cool. I think one of the exciting things, too, for them is to see how much the work resonates with other people. And now that they’re older, people who are their age now, or younger than them.
WA: Tell me a little bit about the colors that you use in your work.
NB: I come from a film background, really, and for a long time, I shot 4 by 5 film. That’s, you know, the camera where you put the sheet over your head. So you really have to think about your composition, and it takes a while to make a photograph. So when I look at these images I really think that’s where, because they seem so still to me, which seems weird because they’re photographs. In that way, I kind of think of the images like the studio. I really like the work of James Van Der Zee, who was a portrait photographer in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance.
Color palette has been really important to me. There aren’t very many super bright colors [in my photographs], I just wanted to create more of a sense of that world and that everyday sort of space. I had been working with gold for a really long time, so gold was just a color that I kept returning to. I kind of worked backward to think about what that means, what does gold represent? It’s about value, it’s about coming to an understanding of yourself in a world that tells you who you are and places a value upon you that literally plays out in the world and how you get treated and how you live your life and the things you have access to. Gold sort of references that value.
WA: I love that you shoot in the woods a lot; it’s great to see Black people in the woods. Can you tell me more about that?
NB: There’s something about the woods. I guess it’s that sense of unknown or that sense of something that’s overwhelming to us as humans. I also think that there’s also some type of connection there to history for me … The woods and the greenery, the lush and the void too have no reference to a certain time period. Also, growing up in Ithaca, growing up in a place where you have access to that, is something I got really used to seeing and engaging with opposed to living in a big city.
WA: So you’re from Ithaca, can you tell me a bit about how you grew up and your background?
NB: I’ve lived there my entire life. All 37 years. I grew up with my mom. My mom is half Black and half white; her mom is white and her dad is Black. She’s very light-skinned, which ties into my understanding of myself. My dad, as he calls himself, is a Black Panamanian with some Chinese background in there. I didn’t really grow up with my dad, I mostly grew up with my mom and I grew up with Aunt Beverly, who was a Black woman. She graduated from Cornell University, she was a principal, she was an educator. I really grew up with my mom and then with [Aunt Beverly] as a second mom. And also, I had an older brother in my house, an older half-brother.
I think I grew in this interesting space, I always remember I grew up around a lot of images. We had family portraits, my great grandmother and my Aunt Beverly were the photographers of the family. So photography was always something that was a part of the family. I was always really used to being around images … I really loved to read books when I was young and I was always really intrigued by this idea of stories and being able to create things.
WA: How did you come into photography? Was it during your youth, or later on?
NB: I went to alternative middle school, it was a smaller school that you had to get accepted to. I was lucky enough to be able to take photography in the 7th grade. I started photographing my family, and mostly kids like my nieces and my cousins, black and white photography, working in the dark room. Photography was always something that I was intrigued by.
WA: Tell me about all the different types of ways you’re influenced.
NB: I’m influenced literally by everything. I’m most definitely inspired by the things that I read. I’ve always been really inspired by books. And books that have this sense of magic … stuff where Black folks were the subjects of magical spaces. I love that space in a book where you get to bring the image to life in your head.
I also say that I’m inspired by people, I love to people watch. It’s been important for me to take those moments and then go back and recreate them.
I watch Love and Hip-Hop and other reality shows sometimes, and those inspire me. And things come up in different ways where it feels like sometimes I’m like “Oh my gosh! I’m going to make a photo of this thing!” But I know that it has to be the result of an amalgamation of everything.
WA: What do you think of the art world in general as a place for liberation or for your personal expression?
NB: I think we’re in a trend that I hope that we’re coming out of in the art world: there is this obsession with making art and exploiting the other. There are many white artists that are making work about non-white people and I hope that we are in a time where that gets to shift a little bit. I think there’s a responsibility, too, that if you’re going to make images of non-white people that you’re going to speak to the history of that image and the history of the representation of the people you’re photographing. And that you’re not using those people as props. I think it’s really easy for white folks to photograph the other and gain some sort of excitement about having access to other cultures and really using the camera as a tool of power … I think it’s time to make a new narrative and to have the power to make the narrative on our own behalf.
WA: Politically speaking, what does your work mean in this current political moment?
NB: Nothing really changes, it shifts the way that it’s packaged and that’s the way that I feel. And I feel right now we’re in a really truthful moment in our country and people are shocked, and I don’t find myself too shocked. I feel like everything’s sort of laid out on the table as it should be. So I don’t feel shocked by who our president is, I don’t feel shocked by things that he says, I don’t feel shocked that he has so many supporters … I kind of see my work functioning as telling the truth. My goal is to tell the truth about my experiences in what may feel poetic and magical but are rooted in living at a disadvantage. And in living, my subjects, in bodies that already carry a history and carry stereotypes and carry very real consequences. And for me, there’s always been a beauty in that struggle. So my goal is to expose the magic that inherently lives within the struggle or within a negative circumstance that has been created for you.
WA: Can you talk to me about what’s next for your plans with your art?
NB: I’m excited about what is to come next. I really would like to do more freelance stuff, I am still going to be making my own work. I would love to and I’m figuring out how to make a short film that I want to make on my own. I would love for The Girls Who Spun Gold to become a book. I have another archival project that I’m working on. I’d love to start writing about photography. I just have all these interests and I’m excited to see what route my life takes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.