Quil Lemons Wants to Be the Robert Mapplethorpe of His Community

Growing up in South Philadelphia, Quil Lemons first trained his lens on family and friends, his photographs of cousins and neighbors snaring the art world’s attention.

By the time he was 20, he was focusing on young Black men as the subjects of “Glitterboy,” a series that highlighted, as its title suggests, adolescents slathered in glitter and colorful grease.

Lately, Mr. Lemons has expanded his range. “Quiladelphia,” his new group of highly provocative, radically intimate photographs, on view through Nov. 4 at the Hannah Traore Gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is billed as an exploration of Black manhood.

Speaking by phone from his apartment in Brooklyn, Mr. Lemons, 26, said that his portraits, paradoxically raw and refined, were meant to dissolve calcified notions of Black masculinity, family, queerness, race and beauty.

“I’ve become more radical and so has the work,” Mr. Lemons said. “I have to keep dismantling what it means to be Black and queer.”

“Unititled 4” (2023).Credit…Quil Lemons
“Jabari” (2023).Credit…Quil Lemons

His mostly black-and-white photographs contain plenty of nudity, and in one image, penetrative sex.

There are plenty of memorable portraits, like “Thugpop,” a character draped in a bridal veil, a rosary dangling from his lips, or “Matt,” clad in stars-and-stripes-patterned tights and suspended from a rack. There’s also an unidentified subject in a crown of thorns hoisting a flag. Themes of faith and patriotism, subverted though Mr. Lemons’s lens, wind through the show.

Mr. Lemons’s images tend to mirror his personal experiences and those of others in his orbit, he said: “They enable people who have lived in the margins to take center stage.”

His less confrontational, commercial work has appeared in Allure, Garage, i-D, Shadowplay, The New York Times and Vanity Fair, which splashed his portrait of Billie Eilish on its March 2021 cover. Calvin Klein, Gucci, Moncler and Valentino have been among his fashion clients.

His “Quiladelphia” portraits are often nakedly emotional. In an image of Matt, the subject’s soft gaze suggests a candid vulnerability. In another portrait, “Ray,” the subject, flashes a spiky sidelong glance.

Mr. Lemons’s work is part of a continuum of queer erotic photography that dates at least from the 1970s. It is rooted in the work of artists and photographers including Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar and others. But most of those earlier artists were white, and their work reflected that identity.

“Quiladephia 1,” 2023.Credit…Quil Lemons

Like many of his predecessors, Mr. Lemons is close to his subjects, some of whom work as escorts or perform in pornography films. That helps explain why the people in his images appear so comfortable and free, suggested Ms. Traore, the owner of the gallery. Their ease with the camera changes visitors’ perspectives, and that is the point.

Antwaun Sargent, a writer, curator and a director of the Gagosian Gallery in New York, showcased Mr. Lemons’s work in “The New Black Vanguard,” a volume of photography he edited. “Quil photographs what is going on,” Mr. Sargent said in an interview. “This work really is a snapshot of his lived experience.”

If some of that work has an elegiac cast, it is not by chance. Mr. Lemons has an eerie sense of mortality, his own and that of others. “I’ve lost a lot of people to age,” he said. “And most of the friends I grew up with are dead or in jail. I’ve spent some years thinking about the people I’ve left behind.”

Despite his youth, he has cultivated a sense of urgency. “We have 70ish years to fulfill our goals,” he said. One of his objectives, he said, “is to expand our ideas of correctness.”

“For a long time in the art world, people didn’t look like me,” he said. “But we’re getting closer to recognizing things we didn’t see before.”

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