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Isaiah Winters’ Visual Reprieve from COVID Monotony

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A couple of weeks ago, we had a pretty substantial snowfall. I still marvel at how snow sticks on the ground here, frosting on this concrete-laden city that I love so much. For the first time in years, I decided to rewatch Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a movie that has felt especially relevant for me after almost a year of quarantining.

The protagonist, Jack, is a writer who, along with his wife and son, is charged with taking care of a sprawling hotel in the middle of nowhere. At The Overlook hotel, Jack descends into madness. The movie was always terrifying for me because as a person who has experienced depression, I recognized the crippling weight of the terror when your mind fails you. I’ve often had to reconcile when my own mind does not operate how I want. What does that mean for someone whose life’s work is born from processing and imagining? 

These past eleven months, cabin fever and I have gotten pretty familiar with each other. I have struggled to combat loneliness, to continue to be productive in a demanding society. But the constant panacea for all of this struggle has been the ability to consume art digitally. Although I can no longer freely roam around galleries or museums, I’ve grown to relish my ability to view art on various screens. The photographer Isaiah Winters’ Instagram has been a particularly welcome and pleasant visual reprieve from the undulating monotony of Covid-19 life. 

Village, Hampden, Baltimore

Human subjects have been absent in a lot of Winters’ recent work, but these places devoid of people in view are still full of palpable human emotion and beauty. Many of us have been hitting our “pandemic walls” lately; several of my friends have been going through difficult times.

We’re all lonely, we miss human contact, we miss the clink of silverware in restaurants, the gaze of strangers, the thrill of interaction with the unknown. And although much of my writing this past year has involved longing and loneliness, the process has allowed me to cultivate and maintain a connection with people who I might never get to physically share space with. 

 

Sharp II at Mama's Place, Baltimore
North Avenue Market, Baltimore

When I interviewed Winters, we spoke of our love for Stanley Kubrick. Both Kubrick and Winters are masters of the integration of shape and color. Their compositions are nearly always flawless. When I close my eyes to imagine Winters’ work, I immediately see the color red, not in the glaring horror-movie way, but in the beautiful, striking crimson hue. Red as a stop. As a signal to pay attention, to listen, to look. Red alerts and alarms us.

Winters’ mastery of color and composition, his attention to placement and symmetry, are strong. When he told me that he is moving towards creating more motion pictures instead of focusing solely on photography, it made perfect sense. Some of his photographs look like stills from sweeping panoramic shots. 

Bushwick Brooklyn

Winters’ work is visually stunning, but his colors are not overtly vibrant (aside from those reds that I love) or stark. The photos are gentle on the eyes; the colors, the landscapes, the architecture make you feel good. His portraits are my favorite—I’ve seen fewer of them and for that reason I savor them. They’re soft and present. In a world so inundated by the digital and the immediate, Winters’ work allows you to pause and contemplate, to mindfully take in a work of art. I imagine his subjects caught in a moment, the perfect freeze frame, gazing at the viewer before they turn and resume their individual lives and passions. 

The artist’s IG feed recently has featured a mixture of photos from Montana, Baltimore, and New York. I’ve enjoyed wondering where each photo was taken, what time of day, what the weather was like, and how many times Winters passed by this particular subject before deciding to immortalize it in film. These photos showcase his ability to translate the mundane and elevate it to the status of “art”—or just something that we should pay attention to for a few additional seconds. Through his craft and intention, he makes apparently banal things quite important. 

County Laundromat

I especially love his photo taken at night at a Sudsville laundromat. Viewing it, I can almost hear the whirl and hum of the machines within, I can smell and feel the texture of the powdered laundry detergent. The glow of the fluorescent lights seems close. The neon blue lights of the structure guide your gaze from left to right. Sudsville is not centered in the photograph, and your eye eventually lands on a figure in bright red inside the laundromat—a beautiful diversion and juxtaposition, as the red and blue are the boldest elements in a sea of white, gray, and tan tones. 

Another favorite is a photo with a stone edifice anchoring the bottom of a powder blue sky. The middle structure reads “Baltimore Cemetery” in white text. This image is another that looks like it could be a still from a Kubrick film, an image from an abandoned set of some post-apocalyptic thriller, or just Baltimore in 2020 during a global pandemic.

Baltimore Cemetery
Baltimore really did shape me as a person. It makes you driven—you see things and want them done and then you’re just like, “I have to do it” or “I have to find people who are going to do it.”
Isaiah Winters

Teri Henderson: Tell us who you are, where you’re from, where your people are from. 

Isaiah Winters: My name is Isaiah Robert Winters. I am currently in Baltimore, Maryland. I’ve been living in Baltimore for about eight years now and I’m originally from Brooklyn.

Why did you come to Baltimore?

I chose Baltimore for a number of different reasons. I actually joined the Air Force after undergrad. Most people didn’t know that. Most of the years I’ve been active working in the city, people had no idea I was in the military. I’ve had two lives, really.

When I joined the Air Force I was stationed out in Monterey, California, and then a few different places around the country, to become a linguist. I learned Urdu and some Hindi when I was out there. I was supposed to get stationed in Hawaii. And at the last minute, they changed my orders to Maryland. I went to middle school and high school here in Maryland. I went to college in Maryland. I wasn’t going to complain; I had friends getting deployed all over the world.

I got stationed at Fort Meade; NSA straight, like, 20 minutes away. And I just always wanted to live in Baltimore. I wanted to be in a city again. It’s hard traveling all around the country. So I came to Baltimore in 2012 or 2013, and then it’s just been nonstop from then. Most people think that I was born here. Baltimore really did shape me as a person. It makes you driven—you see things and want them done and then you’re just like, “I have to do it” or “I have to find people who are going to do it.”

North Ave, Baltimore
Baltimore

In your own words, describe your artistic practice.

That’s always the hardest thing. I’m a photographer. I consider myself a documentary photographer, but I really like to focus on banal scenery. A lot of people know me for my architectural work and my [use of] light and color. I like to find beauty in the everyday, or in the things that are overlooked. I know that’s pretty standard, but I would consider myself a conceptual artist. 

You can kind of do what you want and go down different routes. I find that I’ve been doing that a little bit more in my work. In my street photography, my documentary work, my editorial work, I’m playing with some different themes that maybe only I’m aware of, or maybe only people who use certain types of film are aware of. But I’m really playing right now, conceptually, with the way that text works on buildings. Not only that, but then the way that color can play into things. Materiality and nostalgia. 

Baltimore County

People look at my images and I think in a lot of cases they like them but they don’t really know why. It may be aesthetically pleasing, but I’m using specific tools to try to evoke an emotional response. And I think Baltimore was a good place to hone that skill because there’s so much negative press here, there’s much focus on the negative. And I think for me, it was empowering to say, I’m going to take this place that everyone thinks is the worst place in the world. I don’t care what it is, I’m going to shoot at a convenience store or whatever—and I’m going to [use] light and color and everything, and use certain film stock and cameras and all of that, just to make people think about something else. 

That’s been something that I’ve been leaning towards a little bit more. I definitely am moving more into video and moving images. I think my goal as a child was to be a director and screenwriter. I like the base I’ve been able to build in photography, and I think I’m comfortable with composition and lighting now where I want to expand that out a little bit more. As much as I love the power of an image or the narrative baked into a certain image or series, there’s just so much more power that I’ll have with a moving image. That’s kind of where I’m leaning towards. I won’t say less photography, but more video in the future.

Yes, I saw a short film on your website. I’m excited to see more of that work. 

I’m excited to see it as well. For years I’ve been dabbling and there’s so many things on my phone. It’s like, you make all this stuff but you never show anyone. So I’ve been pushing myself more. I got Wes Anderson’s book, I just picked up The Stanley Kubrick Archives

I LOVE HIM. 

That’s like my Bible right now. I’ve always been a photographer who was inspired by film more than contemporary photographers. That was always my weakness. That’s part of the reason I went back to grad school. That’s why I’m at Parsons now, because I realized I was so into cinema and film and all these directors and cinematographers and that’s kind of why my work looks the way that it does. 

I’m just really excited that with video, I’ll be able to finally share a lot of these things. I have pages worth of stuff that I want to film and it’s like, who stopped me from doing it? Me, I’m stopping myself. Obviously, there’s the financial aspects, but I’m resourceful enough that I can do it.

Well, you’re in grad school! Grad school is no joke. Be kind to yourself. When do you graduate? 

I graduate in 2022. I started June of 2020. I’m in the MFA photo program. I love The New School because we get to jump to all the different schools. So I’m taking a ton of fashion history, fashion design, all of it. I’m absorbing all of the information. Honestly, my electives outside of my studio courses, they’ve really started having an impact on my practice. I’m just getting better at research and references and things like that. 

Created with RNI Films app. Preset ‘Kodachrome Generic v.6’
Tokyo
Baltimore Inner Harbor

Okay, next question. What is your favorite song of all time?

That’s a hard one, but it came to my mind and I can’t change it: It’s “Pony” by Ginuwine. Anybody that knows me knows that’s my song. That’s my karaoke song.

That is incredible.

If I do karaoke, it is only for that song. It takes a lot of convincing. If people convince me, I’ll do that song. And then I’m out, like, mic drop, I’m done.

In 2019, before COVID, I was taking a plane to Las Vegas. I think I was going for a job. But I get to the airport and I’m looking at this guy sitting down, and I’m looking around at other people. No one’s paying attention. But it was Ginuwine. There happens to be one other Black dude, like 20 feet away or whatever, he looks at me, I look at him, and he just nods. I was like, “Okay. I’m not crazy right now.” No one else noticed until we started boarding and obviously he went on first and people were like, “Who’s that, who’s that?” And I was like, “It’s Ginuwine.” So that’s the song. That’s it.

That’s probably my favorite answer I’ve ever gotten from a subject. Have you ever done karaoke at The Crown? 

I haven’t done karaoke at The Crown. I’m not brave enough. That’s a real crowd. I’ll stay behind the camera.

What is your biggest artistic influence? And what is your biggest non-artistic influence and inspiration? 

My biggest influence has been Matisse. I grew up loving Matisse’s work. My mom was a musician and an interior designer. And so, growing up, obviously we didn’t have any originals or anything, but she made sure that we had different prints. We had those typical Picassos and things like that. I think my favorite artwork is “Nu Bleu” by Henri Matisse. I always have that one in my house. I don’t know what it is, but ever since I was a child, the form of it, the color, the boldness, it just really made me start thinking about color and shape differently.

“Nu Bleu” by Henri Matisse

Everything is art. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m like, all of these things are kind of art in a way. I can’t work without music. Sometimes in my [Instagram] Story I’ll post a song, and most of my image captions are a reference to some random song or some random movie. I really like pop culture, Easter eggs and things buried into my work.

Non-artistic influence, I think I’m just going to go with it and say natural color and texture, because it is art, but it’s naturally occurring or even man-made. I’m looking across the street right now at my neighbor’s house, and there’s row homes here. And one neighbor has a beautiful, bright yellow house. And then his neighbor attached to him has a mint green house and they go together. 

I would just stare at stuff like that for a while and be like, “Why does this work? Why doesn’t it?” The yellow is kind of dingy. But it adds to it. I feel like I spend a lot of time observing non-traditional artistic objects, and I consider them art.

Are there any common themes or elements that show up in your work? I love seeing red show up in your work because it’s just so stunning and sharp and it’s never a flat red. It’s very compelling. And knowing that you’re inspired by Kubrick and Wes Anderson makes a lot of sense because they both love those bold, sharp, primary colors. I’m just thinking about The Shining, which I love.

The Shining is number one. Between The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey, when I’m looking at stills, that’s what I’m staring at for hours. I want to do something like that, I need to figure out how to meter or expose to get that. It’s almost like problem-solving for me with some of those references. 

Those are definitely things that are buried in there. And I think some people know—with the music, some of it is obvious. But a lot of it is some random reference to either a show or a film. And most of those references will either be tied to that original work or the work that was inspired by it. 

I’m a history nerd. I was a sociologist in undergrad. I spent a lot of time researching just for fun. There’ll be something buried in an image that’s kind of a reference too. I have projects where I spell things out a little bit more, but the work that I’m more known for, my cityscapes and things like that, I find a way to bury in a little bit of those references.

Sharp II, Baltimore
Creative Alliance, Patterson Park
The intention [with The Bmore Creatives] was to create a community in Baltimore. There's so much art, there's so much creativity here, but I feel like it can be intimidating. It was just a way to help open things up.
Isaiah Winters

Can you tell me about The Bmore Creatives (@thebmorecreatives)?

It’s Alexa Gaines, myself, and Becky Staveley. Alexa is currently traveling cross-country. She converted a bus with her partner, Kyle, and it’s a full living bus called @endlesslyroaming on Instagram. They’ve been out, I think it’s coming up on a year and a half. Becky is a photographer as well, @ourendlessadventure. We’re the current members. [The Bmore Creatives] was started by Alexa Gaines and Lucy Camp in 2015. I’d been in Baltimore for two or three years. I was still focusing primarily on the Air Force, and I was going out and shooting and I had a few influencing jobs that I got before influencing was a thing.

They had just started doing events and they invited me to an event, and it happened to be my birthday. And I had never met these people, it was maybe a group of 10 to 12 artists in the community. It was actually at some pizza shop in Fed Hill and they had the restaurant prepare me a pizza birthday cake. I had never seen those before. I’d been having the worst day. I think my identity had been stolen that day. And so they brought this out and it was like, wow, this is what I needed. You know when you kind of need something, like an act of kindness, and then it just happens?

They did a Meet The Makers Event at Mount Vernon Marketplace when it was first opening, and I did all the event photography because I realized they had been doing this stuff, but no one was really documenting it. It kind of became a partnership where we were just helping each other out, and then eventually Lucy moved to Chicago and Alexa asked me to join.

I became an official part of it in 2017. I met all of these entrepreneurs and all these people who were just starting in the city back in the day. It’s so exciting to me, even just walking into somewhere like Good Neighbor, and I see these people’s brands up and it’s like, we really had just been hustling and thriving and supporting each other. I feel like that base group of people I met in that first meeting and in the subsequent meetings, those are my core friends. These are people that I ask for help, I collaborate with them. They’re my portrait subjects. It’s been really beneficial to me. That was always the goal of The Bmore Creatives. The intention was to create a community in Baltimore. There’s so much art, there’s so much creativity here, but I feel like it can be intimidating. It was just a way to help open things up.

Look at the recent ways that the city has tried to market itself and rehabilitate some of the negative things that are coming about—it’s all about the creative industry here. It’s been such a great experience for me to be able to be part of that community growth and now help steer it. We don’t want to push anything on Baltimore. It’s more about facilitating those conversations and if people go onto The Bmore Creatives and they interact with each other, comment, and become friends and they go out, that is the goal.

Castle Home, Baltimore
Morning Light, Baltimore
Bushwick
ABC Roofers, Baltimore

If you had a magic wand and an unlimited budget what would you want the rest of 2021 to look like for you?

I want to make at least one short film, but I think I’m going to make more than one. That’s the goal. I think I want to do two to three, realistically, nothing too long. Again, I’ve had all these ideas that I’ve kind of been sitting on. I’m shooting a few things on super-8 right now, just to keep familiarizing myself with the medium. 

I’m shooting on 16 mil now. I’m practicing and getting it right because that film is not cheap at all. It’s like a few hundred dollars, I think it gets you a 10-minute short film. 

That’s the goal of two, minimum, short films on 16 mil. I have two ideas right now. It’s pretty loose, and I’m not the type of artist that always wants to focus on my race, but I think with what we’ve seen in the last year or so, it’s hard not to voice some of my opinions on certain things. And I’ve never been one to not voice my opinions, but I think working that more into my work is helping me process a lot of things. One of the films, I want to focus on Black male friendship and the ways that we interact with each other, maybe playing against some of the stereotypes just to show life as it is. And then the next one is going to be more conceptual and fashion-oriented. 

Have you ever exhibited your work in Baltimore? 

I have, we did a few small group exhibitions here in Baltimore through The Bmore Creatives. We had a few with some other artists who are doing amazing work now. That’s always the best part about it. I’ve done a lot of commercial work, I’ve done a lot of advertisements and things like that, and I’ve been published, but I haven’t done a solo show yet. I think that I’m ready. I actually had a solo show set up for 2020, but that was before COVID. Hopefully, by the end of this year I’ll get something set up. I think I want to collaborate more. I have a few ideas for shows, but I’m thinking of collaborating with multiple people. 

I feel there’s been so much strength, and we’ve seen it especially in some of the work from Black visual artists and people of color, the power of collaborative work. I’ve been doing a lot of research into Civil Rights-era photography and queer rights photography. There was a huge emergence of that in the ‘70s. All those groups showing that solidarity. I think we’re living through a repeat of a lot of that stuff. I won’t lie and say I don’t want to do a solo show. I think I’ll be ready too soon, for sure. I have some exciting stuff coming out.

 

Graffiti Alley, Baltimore

Images courtesy of Isaiah Winters

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