In 2017, Jamaican-Canadian photographer Jorian Charlton’s father gave her a bag full of slides, “for safekeeping.” The handover was so casual that Charlton didn’t look into the bag for several years. What she eventually found was a treasure trove of candid portraits and documentary photographs that her father, an engineer, had taken during the 1970s and ’80s, along the route that brought him from Jamaica to Toronto, by way of Atlanta and New Jersey. Charlton’s solo exhibition “Out of Many” pairs images from her father’s archive with her own recent photographs. Because of the pandemic, the show, originally intended for Toronto’s Gallery TPW, is instead presented on a dedicated website, out-of-many.ca.
In Charlton’s portraits, style, pose, and repose become mood. The first section of the website presents fourteen of her photographs, interspersed with text by the show’s curator, Emilie Croning, and quotes from bell hooks’s 1995 essay “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life.” The first image displayed, Untitled (Shai & Lex), 2020, shows a soft embrace: perched on a kitchen counter, one person snuggles, eyes closed, while the other looks straight at the viewer. Charlton often stages this kind of ambiguous intimacy: in Untitled (Keosha), 2020, for instance, Charlton’s model leans back on a sofa, wearing a black bathing suit, bandana headscarf, and white stiletto boots. Her face is at ease, staring back at the viewer with an almost-smile. Shot from an oblique angle, the frame reveals awkward glimpses of the surrounding space, including part of the floor and rug, and an expanse of white wall, and a package peeking out from under the couch.
A link at the bottom of the page invites you into a virtual tour of “The Living Room.” You are guided through a wood-paneled bungalow decorated with tropical plants, a plastic-covered couch, a record player, and a set of ceiling-high speakers. Framed images from Charlton’s father’s archive line the walls, and a slideshow flashes across the screen of an old television set. These are portraits of men, women, and children in their everyday lives—at the beach, on the street, in the backyard, showcasing the most fashionable looks of the era.
Second-generation kids often have to build their own understanding of the past their parents left behind. “The Living Room” was designed to look like a Jamaican-Canadian household from the ’70s or ’80s, the period represented in the images. In this way, Charlton’s exhibition gently brings her private archive into the public. We have different sets of expectations for images depending on where they are shown. By sharing these documents from her father’s past alongside her own contemporary portraits, Charlton recontextualizes them, an important translation that shows how we as Black people see each other, and prefer to be seen.
In Untitled (Georgia), 2020, a model in a pale skirt leans back into the grass and calmly faces the viewer. One leg is crossed archly over the other and the ties of her strappy sandal zigzag up her calf. There’s a lot of skin here, but this bareness, as in other photographs by Charlton, is not sexualized. Regardless of what they wear, her models are beautiful because they are self-possessed. They cannot be consumed by the viewer’s gaze; they own the world within the frame, and this security makes them untouchable. Representation is significant to Black people because our existence has long been circumscribed by surveillance, and our ways of being have been extracted to produce value and profit elsewhere. With Charlton’s photographs, it feels as if you, the viewer, are being looked at, and not the other way around.
This article appears in the May/June 2021 issue, pp. 111–112.