For Dontre Major's last show as an art student, he put together a series of photographs on a subject he'd never had on display — the experience of being black in America. The work proved powerful enough to get him into College of Charleston's 33rd Annual Juried Student Exhibition, or Young Contemporaries, as the exhibition is known at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. It features the work of 48 student artists and is well-regarded in the college community.
Major is a CofC grad now, having taken the stroll across the stage in December, so it's fitting that his "Black Amerikkka" photograph collection got its inspiration from a couple of working, out-in-the-world artists.
First, his teacher Michelle VanParys pushed him in the direction of the piece. Then listening to noted photographer Lyle Ashton Harris solidified Major's resolve to explore a new subject in his work. To hear him talk about the art work and the people and how he was trying to show their feelings and emotions was inspiring, Major says.
"He talked about the black community and how he was trying to show them and support them and also the gay community," the 28-year-old photographer says. "It pushed me toward the black community especially being here in Charleston with what happened with the Emanuel Nine and the history with the Charleston area in general."
Major's photographic compilations bring together pictures of various platforms of film and digital creation. Alternative film technique, cyanotypes, and liquid emulsion films come together to depict different eras of being black in America from enslavement to recent years. From the staging of the photographs to working with models, a new technique for Major, the collection had its challenges. Even pulling together the concept took time to evolve.
"This piece meant a lot to me when I was finished with it. It spoke to me," Major says. "It definitely shows progression and improvement from the earlier work I've done. That was the opportunity to bring all those skills that I learned together and see what I could come up with."
The Young Contemporaries exhibition and its juried competitions has been a defining presence over Major's time as a student of photography. He's been in the well-regarded show twice before. This time felt different.
"This is the last time that I can be in it," Major says. "So it really means a lot to me. I was really happy and excited I could be in it one more time."
Getting accepted this final time also validated Major's move towards portraiture. He'd worked with landscape photography in the past. With that prior experience and