Jaimie Milner was a post-production intern at Disney when the studio was making its first film with a black princess, 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog.”
Using Milner and actress Anika Noni Rose as references, animator Mark Henn designed the movie’s main character, Tiana. But she noticed the film’s prince was racially ambiguous.
“I asked why isn’t the prince black,” Milner said, and the question prompted her to further contemplate how black men are portrayed in the media.
Over the next six years, the photographer worked to show different sides of black men — their beauty, vulnerability and brilliance. The product of that endeavor, “Gifted,” is a photography and interview series on display at Residency art gallery, created to promote black and Latino art in Inglewood.
“I didn’t see people like my father and friends reflected anywhere in the media,” Milner said. “I wanted to show that these men exist — men that cared, that were smart and applied their gifts and had a blatant purpose and wanted things.”
Phil Upchurch, a jazz guitarist who worked with Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan and Herbie Hancock, was Milner’s first subject.
Still a USC student at the time, Milner met with Upchurch at his home for the shoot, developing an intimate look that she carried forward in future shoots. Some subjects look directly into the camera’s lens, daring the viewer to look away; others gaze in another direction, perhaps toward meaningful people or objects nearby.
Milner’s subjects include men in the arts, business and politics, including Charles Dickson, an L.A.-based sculptor; businessman David Sutphen; and Robert Watt, hired by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the first black French horn player in a major U.S. symphony.
For one shot of two brothers, Milner said, “I could feel their same presence and essence on the page that I did in person. That’s what I want my images to be like. I want to translate someone’s spirit onto a page, which is kind of crazy when you think about it. It’s just a magical thing.”
Rick Garzon, Residency gallery manager, put up “Gifted” for one month in the fall. Its popularity prompted him to restage the work.
“Everybody gravitates toward it,” Garzon said. “Her eye, her composition is fantastic. I’ve never seen something like that.”
The last year has seen a resurgence of black representation in media. TV shows like “Luke Cage,” the black superhero series on Netflix, or “Insecure,” the HBO comedy about black millennials trying to figure out life, are adding diverse perspectives and potentially leading to even more opportunities for black creators.
Milner sees art is as another part of the effort to fight stereotypes.
“I feel like we’re supposed to be satisfied with the few shows that are out. And it’s wonderful, it’s definitely something so new for us to have all these shows to watch,” she said, before adding the inevitable “but ...”
“Black is so multifaceted,” Milner said. “I think we still need more, to have our voices out there. We need to be the creators.”
More than photos, the interviews that accompany the images serve as a platform for subjects’ voices to be heard.
During their photo sessions, men spoke to Milner about the myths of black men in America — that they were violent, criminals or hyper-sexualized.
“To see black men talking about their truth and how they feel so great when they don’t have to shrink themselves,” Milner said. “You need to see yourself reflected. If you don’t see a good vision of yourself, that’s not good. It’s all about perception, so if people see the good and the beauty of black men, I think it could help change.”
Milner plans to compile the photos and interviews into a book to introduce the project to a wider audience.
The “Gifted” show opened on the same day that Los Angeles police fatally shot Carnell Snell Jr., 18. Before Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck eventually released surveillance video showing Snell holding a gun moments before he was shot, demonstrators had gathered to express concern about yet another shooting of a black youth. One person on her way to a protest stopped at the gallery, staring at the images of uplifted black men.
“She said, ‘It was so nice to be able to come here. I didn’t expect this, I didn’t expect to feel so empowered on our way to something so tragic,’” Milner said. “So for her, the project provides a different viewpoint. That whole evening she doesn’t go seeing the death, she sees the power of us and that there is hope.”
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