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Black Flower Power: The Portraits of Schaun Champion

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Every work of art bears the mark of the time in which it was created, but only a few achieve timelessness. In every age, certain works or genres have been wildly popular and beloved during the lifetime of the artist, only to be spectacularly forgotten. Others transcend time and space to become classics—a generative lifeline to the past, present, and future. 

The artists who can comfortably straddle the divide between history and the present moment achieve relevance by addressing the quintessential issues of our time, but anchor their message securely in an art historical context–by expanding or subverting established artistic traditions, materials, and genres. Since its invention in 1826, photography’s ability to capture a moment has been viewed as less subjective than other “hand-rendered” media like painting or sculpture, but the truth is the most iconic photographic images are no less composed, the product of an artist’s vision, media, and expertise. In an age where, on average, 1.8 billion images are uploaded every day, the photographers whose work stands out from the crowd employ traditional photographic techniques, tools, and language while expanding the canon to include contemporary subjects and viewpoints.

Schaun Champion is a Baltimore-based photographer who synthesizes classic photographic aesthetics of the ‘50s and ‘60s through film photography, allegorical props, and uniquely composed color stories. Chances are, if you’ve scrolled through Instagram or read Baltimore or Cultured magazines, you have taken note of Champion’s warm, saturated colors, the unique texture of shadow upon skin, and the overwhelming sense of sensuality, potential, and power that each of her subjects exudes. 

Champion shoots editorially and has worked for a number of publications across the world (including BmoreArt), but it is her personal artistic work that resonates the most. Her evolving portrait series, A Black Bouquet, has given unique visual sustenance to audiences in Baltimore and beyond, offering lush and allegorical portraits of Black women and men posed in nature with crowns of natural flowers atop their heads. Especially during times of COVID, where people are feeling isolated and lonely, and certainly after Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the globe, Champion’s portraits impart a timeless and nonchalant beauty to her subjects, individually and as a whole, and these images speak directly to the urgency of right now. 

 

 

The artist, a former teacher, has been working in photography for nine years. She has long been attracted to historic photos, especially black and white images with otherworldly, hand-colored hues and a glowing, soft lighting style, with compositions resembling the romantic and allegorical visions of Julia Margaret Cameron—the 19th-century British photographer heralded and reviled for her heavily costumed images of the artists of her time—or the American photographer Imogene Cunningham, part of the California-based Group f/64, whose botanical studies and allegorical nudes exude a tender, feminine vision.

Champion’s Black Bouquet series emits an intimate feeling and hovers between fashion and fine art photography, an intoxicating mix of luxurious details and textures that offers the cultural currency that dominates our life and times: authenticity. Deliberately composed by the artist—but also a collaboration with volunteer models and Sarah Ruberto of Pomona Floral, who creates the flower crowns—the series feels egalitarian, authoritative, and bold. In daring to present poised figures at ease in nature, A Black Bouquet is potent, like a balm for this difficult time, but not in a cloying or artificial way. The series presents a clear vision of human beings in communion with the photographer and with nature, presenting as imagined or ideal selves, made even more spiritual in the face of our current daily reality full of dire news, sickness, and violence. 

The first time I saw one of these images was on Instagram and I followed Champion immediately, thinking—I want to see more! I cannot get these images out of my head. I find myself thinking about them at random times of the day. Is it their arresting beauty and haunting photographic effects? Or is it their uncompromising vision, communicated so directly, but also generously, by a Black woman artist? Champion offered to talk more about her work with me by phone.

 

Has anyone seen a black flower? No one could give me an answer. They have to exist. And they do! I started questioning this. Why doesn’t anyone pick them? Why can’t we find them? I started taking pictures with people with the crowns on their heads. I wanted it to be a part of them.
Schaun Champion

Cara Ober: Your stuff is everywhere right now.

Schaun Champion: It’s kind of surreal. I have been finding my work popping up in places I wasn’t commissioned for, too. Work from one editorial will be featured in a completely different article. It’s wild. I have to thank my community for always sharing and getting my work seen by others. It has been fascinating to see some of my images being shared by people from all over the world. I just finished my first international commission for the magazine Rouleur in London. It’s long-form journalism and covers cycling and the Tour de France. I did the shoot for them here and it’s been interesting to see the impact around that. In my work life, I have bounced between Baltimore, Brooklyn, and London for a few years now.

What changed most recently for you?

I have been shooting around Baltimore for years. However, I have always been introverted, so I wasn’t putting myself out there that much in the past. In 2018 I decided it was okay to peek out of my shell and start sharing my work more. I started making sure that I posted more on Instagram and maintained a level of consistency. And then, in 2019, it started rocking and rolling, mostly from word of mouth. 

At the end of last year, I got a call from Bradford Young’s wife, Stephanie Etienne, who I admire so much. It was Christmas Eve and I decided to go ahead and work. I went to their home and we had this really lovely four-hour shoot and it was amazing. From then on, something felt different and it’s been a roller coaster ever since. 

Where are you from originally? Where did you grow up?

I was born in Columbia, MD, and I have been in Baltimore since the ‘90s. I went to middle school and high school in the county. I graduated from Milford Mill and then went on to Morgan State University, where I was a music major. I was there for music education and I play flute, piccolo, trombone, and saxophone. After college, I taught art and music to elementary and Pre-K students for a while. I had planned to teach older kids, but this age allowed me to have creativity in my classroom, and I needed that space to be creative. 

When did you move from music to photography?

I bounced between music and visual art for my whole life. My father gave me a point-and-shoot camera with the flashcube on top when I was a kid, and I knew then that I wanted to grow up to be like the photographers you see in movies, traveling, enjoying life, wearing an ascot [Laughs]. I knew that I would take pictures of my family all the time: my dog, my cousin—who is my best friend—and my little brother. My cousin still uses the portrait, which is the first picture I ever took of her. I still have it in my room in a frame. 

I got this drive from my mom. She has always considered herself the family historian, which is now my job, too. It was always her dream to be a photographer and travel the world. My mom had so many boxes of photos and albums and she documented everything. She likes to write more now, but she is definitely a photographer and has gotten back into it now that she has been watching me. 

Where does your aesthetic come from? It’s both classic and modern and feels cinematic, very film-based.

I’m inspired by film [cinema] and I have always had this vintage approach to the way that I see things, but I started noting that even though I noticed those muted colors, I wanted to make them feel more brand new. I watch a lot of classic movies, so my eye really appreciates the muted colors that aren’t so saturated and vibrant. And the style, I just look at that and I wish that I was there, so that I could capture things the way they were then. I started going through older images [of mine] that I thought were flat and started re-editing them and doing some color corrections and seeing what I could do to maintain melanin in the skin but also to keep that classic look and those colors while adding more color.

I kept practicing with older images and realized that this is what I like. This is what I wanted to see. And I stuck with it, and it has evolved. I appreciate the textures. The way that I approach shooting it, a lot of it is in-camera. I don’t do a lot of correcting later on. 

Do you shoot with film cameras or digital? There is a surface texture in your work that gives it a sense of reality, of imperfection, which you don’t see in digital photography that tends to be so polished and almost devoid of texture.

I do both digital and film. I have about nine film cameras. Right now I’m shooting with a Leica R4, a Rolleiflex, and then I have a digital Canon 6D (named Alice [my “Looking Glass”]) and now a Canon R Mirrorless. I love the accidental effects you see in film, and I work with the imperfections in film. It’s a bit like life. Even with these different approaches, visually my process is the same. I can already see the way that I want it to look, that vintage kind of film look, so even if I shoot digitally it feels like film. 

 

The way that people edit in general now, feels a bit artificial. Everything feels like it has to be shiny and perfect and that’s just not realistic. I like things to feel more raw.
Schaun Champion

Who are the photographers you look at the most?

Carrie Mae Weems and Annie Leibovitz are my heaviest influences—especially Annie for those muted tones. But I like the way that Carrie has centered women, specifically women of color. Locally, Kirby Griffin is somebody I watch and I feel inspired by. It feels like playing tennis when I’m shooting with Kirby. Both of us will go our separate ways and shoot, shoot, shoot and then post—and he elevates my attention.

Also, Adrienne Raquel. She is an established Black woman photographer, and just did the cover of GQ with Travis Scott. She was one of the first people I started following in 2017. I couldn’t find any Black women photographers—there were so few of them being showcased. I appreciated her consistency, her style, and that it looked different. She creates a lot of work that looks like it could be out of a ‘70s magazine and I was like—YES. That is what I want to do and not focus on what these other photographers are shooting and, instead, focus on what makes me happy, what I want to see in the world, what I wish there was more of.

What about your relationship with nature? What made you want to shoot people in a lush natural landscape?

I’m really into nature in general and I felt like it was the best backdrop. It’s the cheapest backdrop. I don’t have to get a studio and extra lighting when I can use what is available to me. I didn’t have the money for anything but natural light when I was younger. So my eye is trained to appreciate the “equipment” I had access to.

The series [Black Bouquet], in general, it started off with me questioning: Has anyone seen a black flower? No one could give me an answer. They have to exist. And they do! I started questioning this. Why doesn’t anyone pick them? Why can’t we find them? I started taking pictures with people with the crowns on their heads. I wanted it to be a part of them. I don’t want it to be glamorized. I almost wanted the flower to be a part of their actual being, as if they are part of the bouquet themselves. I started shooting these in 2018 and stopped to take on more work, but during the quarantine, it seemed like the right time to dive into this personal project that I had been wanting to do for a while. 

How do you select your models?

Mostly they pick me. A lot of the people are not models. The only models I have worked with for this project so far are Chaseedaw and Leticia. I met Chaseedaw a while ago at a styled shoot, 2016 maybe, and we hit it off really well and it developed into a friendship. Every now and then she will be like, wanna shoot? And of course I do! She’s one of my favorite faces.

So it’s very collaborative but also your own personal fine artwork. How do these two directions work together?

At different times of the day (or night) I will post in my Instagram stories that I have a couple of slots open and people have to sign up for it. I’ll go through the list and decide who best fits the vision that I have figured out. Then I discuss the color palette with Sarah from Pomona Florals, and I let her create whatever crown or arrangement she wants to create. I might request a couple of kinds of flowers and she is free to do whatever she feels is beautiful. I will decide on a location—the emails will go out, what time and where. And then we shoot and give the subject a tiny bit of backstory and it’s all organic from there. Everything you see is their energy that they’re bringing to the shoot. I like to have people come as they are because I want to capture them as they are. But when people ask what should I wear? I’ll suggest a color, but no other specifics. 

Can we talk about the history of flowers in paintings and photography? Their meaning—then and now—specifically to you?

The Black Bouquet series is appreciating the idea that it’s not here forever. To appreciate life right now and to consider what happens when you pick these flowers. This is why it’s so important to me to have real flowers and not plastic, they’re also a part of this person who will not always be there. It’s delicate and important and beautiful. It does not last and it’s particularly important for me to express that because I lost my cousin before quarantine lockdown. He was like my brother. He never got to really travel with me and for him to not be here anymore is very strange. It’s made everything more precious. A lot of my art, especially moving forward, is going to be influenced by that. 

What do you think of preset photo filters on Instagram and otherwise? I feel like when you can tell a photo is filtered, it’s a distraction.

I am not a fan of filters. I feel heartbroken when somebody takes my photo and puts a filter on it and then shares and tags it. I just think: You’ve sullied it. I’m also not a fan of plastic skin. The way that people edit, in general now, feels a bit artificial. Everything feels like it has to be shiny and perfect and that’s just not realistic. I like things to feel more raw. I noticed this a lot after Annie Leibowitz was catching heat for Simone Biles’ [Vogue] cover, with people telling her how to properly light Black skin. I wanted to explain to people that this is her style. And why do you feel like Black skin has to be shiny and greased up or overly edited to be beautiful? 

With my approach there are shadows, there are imperfections. I’m not editing every single wrinkle or freckle. I will get rid of that giant period zit, but I am not going to make you look like a digital hologram on a screen. The lack of authenticity in digital images is a double-edged sword. 

Filters are trying to mimic what cameras do. It also unfortunately gives people the idea that they are the greatest photographers ever. It makes them feel like professional photographers are the lazy ones… that we just press a button. And I’m like, what do you think happens after that? I think it’s also why I appreciate film photography. Everyone is so used to everything being so instant that film photography forces you to slow down and be extremely intentional about what you are capturing. 

 

Film photography does force a level of patience and waiting that seems insane by today’s standards. And yet it’s somehow more evocative and powerful. 

One of my favorite things to do is tell people to go through my images and determine which ones are film and which ones are digital. Just to see if people are really paying attention, or if they’re just used to people slapping a filter on them.

Back to The Black Bouquet and working with flowers and humans in nature… How did you get together with Sarah Roburto of Pomona Florals?

I worked with Sarah in 2016, part of a styled shoot. As soon as I saw her arrangements, I knew this project was what I had in mind. And then our friend, Andrew (street artist Gaia), commissioned me for something he had going on in the Netherlands and he asked me who I thought would be a good resource for flower crowns, so I recommended Sarah and then I felt like this portrait series needs to happen. And then Covid hit, so I started putting the pieces together. I reached out and asked if she would make a crown for me. And then we started doing this every other weekend. And that’s when I started posting the emails and people started asking so they can sign up to sit for me. 

What has been the response?

In February, Awesome Baltimore granted me $1,000 to get started on the project. I was supposed to work with Local Color Flowers and they were closed, but I ended up getting a bouquet sent to me. I gave it to Sarah and asked her to make a crown and she designed it. Hillen Homestead also reached out and they were excited, so she used some of their flowers, too. They gifted me big baskets of their flowers, which was awesome. Also, there’s an art and poetry website called Unveiled that gave me a grant, so there have been a ton of people supporting the project. I am buying the flowers from Local Color Flowers. And She Loves Me in DC is donating the flowers for a project in October and the series has been shared internationally.

Do you ever do commercial or contractual Black Bouquet shoots? Can someone hire you to shoot them? 

It’s a community project, but there is a commercial part that supports it. I have gotten a ton of requests but I turn most of them down because I don’t want these images to become not special. I occasionally do commercial shoots in this style, but not often. I do it for the funding, which contributes to the project. I prefer to do community shoots, but I offer a Bloom option, for commissioned portraits.

What’s a community shoot?

Before everything shut down, we would set a meeting spot and have 10-15, or more, people show up and wear crowns and get their portraits taken. One year, for Michelle Stafford’s Bemore Community Yoga class, I showed up to shoot portraits of people under the “Today’s Special” sign on North Ave. (It’s gone now. I have the last images of that wall.) There was a “Flowers on Your Head” event at Tha Flower Factory that happened in 2018, that really set the project in motion for me. People gathered just to get their portraits taken with flowers on their head. Laughing. Singing. In community with each other. It just felt good.

I have seen your editorial work and follow you on Instagram. Are there other ways to experience your work? Do you ever show in galleries?

Yes, I’m currently working on at least two shows for 2021. My exhibition, Thin Spaces: The Invisible Work of Black Women was up at Morgan State’s James E. Lewis Museum of Art and I have shown at the Antipode Gallery in Paris. I’ve done some smaller solo projects, but I do some of everything: commercial work, photojournalism, and I would really love to be a set photographer and get more advertising work. I just finished some work with Google and I would love to work with HBO and with National Geographic. There are so many images I don’t put out—still life, travel, the hustle and bustle of wherever I am.

Why do you live in Baltimore?

Baltimore has a bit of everything for me. I travel a lot and after a while I can’t wait to come back home. It’s slower than some places, but also faster than others. It’s an in-between place, with the best of both worlds in Baltimore. There are places in this city that remind me of Europe.

 

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