Quil Lemons admits some of the subjects in “Quiladelphia,” his newest series of photographs, are shown in unflattering poses. But who’s to say which ones?
“I think that that was a really fun theme to really tease out — what’s unflattering to you might be desirable to someone else,” says Lemons, whose first solo exhibition in New York is on view at Hannah Traore Gallery.
The highly intimate and vulnerable works on view in “Quiladelphia” expand upon the young photographer’s early breakthrough series “Glitter Boy,” which featured Black men painted with glitter. Several years later, he became the youngest photographer to shoot a cover for Vanity Fair; he was 23 when he shot Billie Eilish for the publication. Since then, Lemons’ work has been commissioned by labels including Savage x Fenty, Calvin Klein, Moncler and Gucci.
His new creative series, which delves into desire, includes nude portraiture. “The thing I noticed when I was exploring different museums is that there’s so many white bodies that get to be nude and placed on gallery walls, museum walls, and I kind of wanted to shake that up a bit,” he says.
“When you say those things — Black queer photographer — there’s a lot of limits that society places on what that needs to look like in terms of respectability, and then also in terms of what I should be doing with my career now,” adds Lemons, who was born and raised in Philadelphia and is now based in New York. “What does it look like to be a Black queer photographer shooting Black bodies?”
Lemons notes that despite shooting high-profile subjects in his editorial and commercial work, he wanted to counter the “expectation of who could be shot by me,” he says. “I wanted to democratize my sitter, but also the idea of who was worthy of being shot by me.”
He describes all of the subjects in “Quiladelphia” as friends — some are professional models, some are from OnlyFans — but they’re “all boys,” says Lemons. “Some people are trans, some people are older, some people are younger. I really wanted to show a wide range of what is maleness? And what does that look like under a queer lens?”
With “masculinity” as the ongoing thesis for his creative work, Lemons describes “Quiladelphia” as an exploration of the Black male body that also speaks to the universality of desire. Many of the subjects in his photographs are pictured in various states of sexual engagement and expression and while the exhibition is provocative, Lemons’ hope is that the images provoke conversation.
“I wanted my viewers to be able to drop ego, to then question their own morality. I’m hoping that you drop your judgment. Some people might not be able to with the subject matter — but I think that’s the whole point,” he continues. “I wanted to bring in ideas of desirability; I also wanted to think about that through the lens of where my personal politics don’t really align with desire. And I think that’s the same for everyone else…your attraction might not be aligned with who you are on a day to day basis,” he adds. “I think that will be a really fun conversation to have because I think that immediately people are going to be like, this is only about the Black body, and it’s not,” he says. “My own sexuality isn’t limited to race. I don’t think anyone’s is; we’re all human.”
Lemons aims to center “Quiladelphia” in queer joy and pleasure, and hopes that the humanity of his images shines through for the viewer.
“There’s so many things that we can expand upon, and one I wanted to really tap into with the show is the human experience of living life,” he says. “I am trying to make more space for Black queer boys to just exist,” he adds. “Giving space for free expression of selfhood; that’s the goal.”
But rather than explain what lives within his photographs, Lemons wants viewers to see for themselves and draw their own connections and conclusions.
“[The images] are gonna tell you what they are,” he says. “I don’t really have to explain too much when you look at this work. I think it says so much.”
The exhibition is on view through Nov. 4.