Timeless Composition

Artist filmmaker Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989/2016) is being brought back to life in two locations this summer. Beginning with “I dream a world” Looking for Langston, the seminal piece will be represented in an exhibition of newly-conceived, large-scale and silver gelatin photographic works and archival material at Victoria Miro on 18 May. Concurrently, Photo London, running from 18-21 May, will stage a special presentation of images displayed as both large-scale works and silver gelatin prints, accompanied by an installation of the award-winning film.

Shot in monochrome, Looking for Langston is a lyrical exploration of the private world of poet, social activist, novelist, playwright and columnist Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and his fellow black artists and writers who formed the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. Julien directed the film while he was a member of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective and he worked with film critic and curator Mark Nash, cinematographer Nina Kellgren and photographer Sunil Gupta on its realisation. Set in the jazz world of 1920s Harlem, Julien complicates historical periodisation by playing with low-key lighting and sculptural smoke to provide a 1940s film noir feel. This combination of epochs creates a ‘creolisation’ of photographic forms as well as a potent timelessness.

Additional influences on Julien when he was directing the film include the photographs of James Van der Zee, George Platt Lynes and Robert Mapplethorpe. It is even possible to see a direct relation between images imbued with references to the history of 1930s black-and-white African American photography and 1980s Queer cultures. As a landmark exploration of artistic expression, the piece is a hallmark of New Queer Cinema and is now regarded as a touchstone for African-American Studies and has been taught widely in North American art schools for nearly 30 years.

Recognised for his use of advanced pre- and post-production technologies, Julien has employed both digital and analogue techniques to instil an immersive, cinematic atmosphere into his large-scale prints. In addition, smaller photographic works from the Looking for Langston Vintage series will be displayed in their original form as silver gelatin works printed on Ilford paper. Rarely shown archival material such as storyboards by artist John Hewitt, colour Polaroids taken during the making of the film and material relating to its original presentation and critical reception will also be displayed at Victoria Miro.

Isaac Julien, “I dream a world” Looking for Langston, 18 May – 29 July, Victoria Miro, London, and 18-21 May, Photo London.

Visit: www.victoria-miro.com.

1. Still from Looking for Langston, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro.