Sometimes the past should remain in the past, but for Dontre Major, embracing the past is the only way to move forward. This is the message of his Black AmeriKKKa series which explores black history from enslavement to the present day, and which earned him the title of best in show during The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Arts’ Young Contemporaries exhibit earlier this year. These portraits depicting nameless figures from across time have been cleverly manipulated in the darkroom utilizing photographic developing methods like Van Dyke Brown (a printing process) and liquid emulsion.
Major layers dramatic brush strokes and textures during the development process to contribute an emotional element to each image. He wants to spark conversation about racial inequality and to encourage social change; “I just hope that my images can really speak for themselves. I try to let the viewers come up with their own ideas.”
Major’s talent is all the more impressive given that it wasn’t long ago that he discovered his passion for artistic expression. He grew up in Oklahoma where he says he wasn’t exposed to the arts. That changed in 2008, when Major joined the Navy as an electrician and was able to travel abroad, gaining exposure to art from around the world. His travels sparked his imagination, and he began to wonder if there was a place for him as an artist: “I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself and my life. I really got into art. I thought, ‘What can I do? Can I paint? Can I draw?’ I enjoy looking at photos, so I decided to get into photography.”
After five years in the military, Major moved to Washington, D.C. to take photography classes at Northern Virginia Community College, but he didn’t feel that his work was being fully cultivated there; he wasn’t inspired by the classes and felt stagnant in his process. Instead of giving up, he started researching programs online and soon discovered the work of Michelle Van Parys, a professor of photography at the College of Charleston. Says Major, “I saw Michelle’s photos, and I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is somebody I like. I like her work. I’d like to learn from her.’ So, I moved to Charleston.”
This decision would shape the future of Major’s identity as a photographer.
At CofC, Major was able to study analog photography and darkroom development, entirely different processes from what he’d been taught at Northern Virginia where only digital techniques were available. “At the College of Charleston, I had to learn film first. This was something that interested me because, first off, I didn’t even think that people still shot in film,” says Major.
Learning the film process and development by hand taught him a greater appreciation for the art form and the beauty of a well-developed print in an overwhelmingly digital age. Major enjoyed the challenge of not being able to check his work, only seeing what had been captured after the photos were developed in the darkroom. “You really have to know your setting,” he says.
Still working through discovering his signature style and his voice as a photographer, Major found a calling in portraiture. He credits Van Parys for helping him push past his comfort zone and into the style that viewers see in Black AmeriKKKa. When he first began to explore photography, he shot entirely landscapes, but Van Parys saw something more in him.
“She dragged it out of me, and I’m glad that she did,” says Major. “Without her, I wouldn’t have had that nudge. I wouldn’t have been able to see what else I could do.” He was also inspired by renowned artists Lyle Ashton Harris and Fahamu Pecou who both explore black identity and social issues in their work.
Major is still exploring portraiture and has been working with Redux Contemporary Art Center, currently as a studio artist through a collaboration with The Halsey. “There’s some great people at Redux,” he says. “They’ve been really supportive.” He’s also looking forward to showing his work to his father, who has been serving overseas for the Army: “My dad is someone that I hold in very high regard. I’m excited for him to see my photos for the first time. It means a lot to me.”