On view now in a vast, illuminated exhibition space tucked between the wealth of Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood and a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing project are works by 21 photographers that one would only know came from the lens of a Google Pixel 7 phone camera if they were told. The images convey lessons of openness, individuality, and vulnerability.
The group exhibition on view at 456 West 18th Street is the seventh season and 100th project coming out of the Google Pixel Creator Labs, a visual arts incubator created in partnership with Google Pixel and the artist representation agency SN37. The program is fully funded by Google and has followed the same model since its founding in 2019: A group of lens-based artists 18 years and older are awarded the latest Google Pixel phone and asked to take photos with it. Selected artists receive a stipend to create their work. For the latest edition of the exhibition, on view through April 1, the photographers created work under the theme “Be Seen, Be Heard, Belong.”
Andy Jackson, a fashion and lifestyle photographer who has been part of the group exhibition since the sixth season, says the lab helped him to home in on his mission to capture a person’s sentiments. “I think usually when I do my work, it’s fairly fashion based,” Jackson told Hyperallergic. “So sometimes I don’t necessarily get onto the deep ideas and concepts of people around shooting them in that kind of world. It’s been an opportunity for me to kind of explore those kinds of stories and conversations about identity and also proceed into myself as well.”
Jackson’s untitled photo series puts a new spin on the portrayal of transgender youth and non-binary femmes, questioning how films and TV shows like Pose (2018) and The Rocky Picture Horror Show (1975) depict their aesthetic as “campy.”
“I wanted to do something so that you can see a trans person of color in all different kinds of ways in different environments,” Jackson said.
The resulting portraits express his desire to make trans, queer, and non-binary femmes feel seen. His photographs flow together to tell a story about separation and closeness: In the first image, he captured his model, Dylan, alone, and in the next series of images, the subjects Dylan and Theron are standing side by side. In the last picture, the viewer sees Theron alone. Jackson’s usage of soft light and monochrome colors throughout the series allows Dylan and Theron’s personalities to bleed through the frame.
Myesha Evon Gardner, a photographer and art director originally from Cleveland, Ohio who also joined the lab in season six, used imagery to highlight the experience of five Black women navigating changing their bodies through plastic surgery to define beauty for themselves. Her work Our Bodies Ourselves (2022) consists of three rows of three images. The outside colored photos are close-up shots of Black women’s faces, and the black-and-white photographs in the center, printed on contact sheets, portray women in tightly fitted corsets. Each woman pictured has had a cosmetic procedure.
“Each of the subjects were photographed in the studio to explore and embrace their journeys of that physical self-expression,” Gardner told Hyperallergic. “They were wearing undergarments such as waist trainers, stockings, and corsets, basically pieces that really mold and sculpt the body to achieve their own desired body type. I wanted to continue to explore [how] pain inspires and creates beauty, and examine how healing, discomfort, and beauty is ultimately defined personally by the subjects that I’m photographing.”
She hopes to continue her series even after the exhibition ends to further her philosophy “that there is no one way to be a woman — there are multiple levels of femininity.”
MaryV, a portrait photographer whose work has been featured in Creator Lab since its beginnings, asks individuals to reexamine their biases towards others. MaryV was born in Denver, Colorado, and her portraits of subjects including friends, strangers, and even a baby explore the variety of people she encountered growing up and examine the typecasting of Coloradans.
“When people think about Colorado, it’s kind of middle America, white cowboys, and mountains,” she said. “And yeah, that is a big part of Colorado, but also there is so much diversity here, and there’s so many different cultures and ethnicities that all come together.”
MaryV creatively sought out New Yorkers originally from Colorado. She chose to include 30 photos in her series because her birthday is on March 30. The last image in her photo essay is of herself.
Other artists in the exhibition include Adrian Octavius Walker, Aidan Cullen, Amber Grace Johnson, Andre D. Wagner, Andrew Thomas Huang, Anthony Prince Leslie, Chiara Gabellini, Coyote Park, Glassface, Kennedi Carter, Lawrence Agyei, Lelanie Foster, Mayan Toledano, Natalia Mantini, Neva Wireko, Shikeith, Texas Isaiah, and Tim Kellner.
Their art is on display behind NYCHA Chelsea housing, whose residents mostly lack the resources to access art of this magnitude. They are also those who are most likely to be able to relate to the stories being told. Michelle Venson, a resident of Chelsea NYCHA housing, thinks the art should be more accessible to people who live there. “It’s something new — some people have probably never been there, so it could be a new experience for them,” she said. “They might like it, they might not, but you know, as long as you experience something new, that’s cool.”
Venson’s observation makes it clear that in order for the work on view to tell the stories of solitude, queerness, wealth, and motherhood as the show intends, Google should support not only artists but the communities that represent the people in the art.