Photographer Kenneth Royster embeds himself in communities

The man in the photograph has collapsed to his knees and holds his head in his hands. He leans onto a folding metal chair, his Bible resting in the chair. Titled 'The Prayer,' the photograph, taken by Baltimore photographer Kenneth Royster in 2000, captures a man utterly overcome.

"That's from West Virginia," Royster says of the photo, which is included in "Kenneth Royster Retrospective: Photography & Printmaking 1976-2016" on view at Morgan State University's James E. Lewis Museum of Art through June 26. The dates mark Royster's tenure at the university, as the associate professor retired at the end of the 2015-'16 school year. "They were having a camp meeting, and this man had preached. It was all fire and brimstone, and once he finished he just walked down from the pulpit and fell on his knees and started praying. I was standing nearby and just happened to capture that."

He speaks with such a humble calm that he downplays his role in this image, making it sound as if he were merely in the right place at the right time. From the late 1980s until 2003-'04, Royster visited African-American places of worship in Baltimore, around Maryland, and around the country. He took photos in churches in Philadelphia, Raleigh, Washington, D.C., and the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. He took photos of worshipers at the United House of Prayer for All People, where mass baptisms are still done with a water hose. He traveled up to take pictures of congregants at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, also in Harlem, where the late Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., ministered. In the 1990s when he would travel out to Los Angeles to visit his daughter Christina Royster Sykes—a former City Paper staff writer who worked at the paper at the same time as this writer—he would invariably find his way to a black church, chat briefly with the minister or another church official, and ask if it'd be OK if he took some pictures.

This more than a decade-long project became his "Praise" series, and some of its more striking images come from when he accompanied a black church for an immersion baptism ceremony. 'River Baptism,' from 1995, shows a woman extending her arms after being submerged in the water by the two men who stand on either side of her. Her eyes are closed but her mouth is open in an indelible O, as if simultaneously drawing in breath and erupting in song.

"The baptism ceremony itself is transformational," Royster says. "You would see people go in in one state of mind and they would come out and it would seem to me as if they were a whole different being. Many of them would break down and weep. That fascinated me."

"Praise" is indicative of Royster's patient approach to creating photographic series, projects he's pursued since taking up the camera as his media of choice in the 1970s. He grew up in West Baltimore, and credits a third-grade art teacher with kindling the idea that you could have a career as an artist. After graduating from high school he worked for a year and took classes part time at the Maryland Institute College of Art before enrolling in Morgan State's art department, graduating in 1967. He earned his MFA from MICA in 1973, but he had primarily studied printmaking and painting.

"I bought a camera from a pawn shop and I used to carry that camera everywhere, taking photographs of everybody, everything, and I just kind of fell it love with it," he says. "But for some reason I never really thought about a career in photography. Once I got out of graduate school, for some reason I just started to make more photographic images. It wasn't something that I consciously did, it just happened."

He alighted to his personal style early on: Royster's images are almost exclusively black-and-white—"to me black and white seems more dynamic," he says, "it seems to have move drama involved, and it doesn't represent the real world so it looks more like art to me"—and capture ordinary people in distinctive ways. His photos differ from the social documentary style of traditional street photography, even though he's photographing people in public places: think less Garry Winogrand and more Roy DeCarava.

That hair split of a difference lends Royster's photo series consistent throughlines in mood and tone, as if we're not simply seeing the world captured as it ostensibly is, but as it is understood and felt by this artist's point of view, empathy, and experiences. That emotional cornucopia is felt in his series from Namibia, where he traveled on a Fulbright-Hays grant in 1993. A mix of joy, pain, and endurance ripples through his series on East Baltimore residents being displaced by the East Baltimore Development Inc. A few times a week from 2003-2010, Royster says, he would go down to the East Baltimore neighborhoods being affected, talk with people, sit in on community meetings, attend picnics, and take pictures. Those images, some of which originally appeared in the 2009 Reginald F. Lewis Museum exhibition "East Side Stories: Portraits of a Baltimore Neighborhood, Then and Now" are powerful images of a community uprooted. 'Moving Day,' from 2009, shows men lowering a mattress out a second floor window of a rowhouse down to street. The rowhouse next door is boarded up, a reminder that the entire block is slated to be razed.

It's a potent image that quietly sketches its narrative and emotional landscape, one born out of the time and patience Royster put in to understand the people and the community he followed. Royster's daughter says growing up with an artist father taught her "to see something through your lens—or in my case, my pen—that inspires people," Royster Sykes says. During her time at City Paper, they collaborated on a few feature stories, including a two-part history of Pennsylvania Avenue. "The biggest lesson I learned [from him] is that I could step out on my own talents and achieve something that inspires people."

Royster aims to spend more time with his camera in his hands now that he's retired from teaching. And he's got a project already rattling around his brain.

Two photos in his Morgan State retrospective cling to the eyes because they don't have people in them. They both come from street memorials in East Baltimore where people were killed. One shows a rowhouse's stoop lined with rows of empty liquor bottles; the other one shows a small tent and stuffed animals laid in front of the charred home where a firebomb killed seven members of the Dawson family in 2002.

For an exhibit at MICA, Royster initially paired a few of these images with text, such as lines from the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Countee Cullen, but Royster feels he's got more to say about them. During a visit to Santa Fe, he saw street memorials that he says looked like prayer stations, ridden with flowers, rosary beads, and Catholic icons.

"It was just an amazing site to see that," Royster says. "Those street memorials [photos] are from a series I started a few years ago but I never really felt like I completed it. So I want to look for other memorials and do something more with them."

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