Art & Photography


The Oklahoma-raised, New York-based photographer Rahim Fortune talks to Port’s photo director Max Ferguson

I’m really interested in the fact that you grew up in rural Oklahoma, and the landscape features heavily in your photographs. Perhaps you could start by talking about what it was like growing up there?
Growing up in Oklahoma was great as a kid; we had access to wide-open spaces and animals all around, in a pre-smartphone era. Much of our time was spent outside using our imagination, making treehouses or playing games in worlds of our own creation. It wasn’t until I got older that I was able to process the problems the small community faced – better understanding the hardships of my mother, grandmother and extended family. This work was extremely personal, so I chose to focus on the landscape and my remaining family in Oklahoma.

There’s a photograph of yours that I keep going back to: It’s a gas heater against a wall, with a painting of a glass above it; a paraffin lamp sits on a little shelf and there’s also an electric lamp with a crooked shade. So much going on in the image; perhaps you could speak a bit about it?

The photo you mention appears in Oklahoma vol.2, and is one of my favourite photographs in the series. The photo, titled ‘Propane Heater’, was made inside my grandmother’s home near Coalgate, Oklahoma. The image features multiple items typical in an old home. In Oklahoma we do not have commercial gas providers, so individual propane tanks are filled and used for hot water and heat. The kerosene lamps are dated but kept on hand for tornado season, which brings frequent power outages… All of this accompanied by a few picture frames and walking sticks. Though my urge to photograph the heater was instinctual, upon editing, the photo really struck me for its graphic quality and also for the fact that it shows so many small nuances of life in rural Oklahoma.

You now live between New York and Texas. How do you find taking photographs in New York?

Working in NY was very informative to my work; I was introduced to a world of art and internships that taught me valuable lessons both as an artist but also as a business owner. Upon arriving, there was a bit of a culture shock. Up to that point all of my work was about the American South and my family. It was at this time, while attending a community college in Manhattan, that I began to look at my surroundings as the focus of my work. I realised that my fellow students and friends were valuable realms of cultural production. I generally tend to be a positive person, and so I apply that same outlook to how I portray the spaces I photograph. A lot of my early photos in NY show my classmates, neighbours and people I encountered in the city as a skateboarder. I love people, and in NY folks are in the streets much more, as opposed to Oklahoma where folks are a bit more closed off or tucked away. I am grateful to share space with so many creative and inspiring people.

There’s a classical style to your work, and it’s hard to think about photographs of the American landscape without thinking of tropes of the ‘road trip’ and the early American photographers, but you’re not really an outsider in Oklahoma – this is/was your home I’m curious as to what your references are and what it’s like photographing a place you’re so familiar with?

I worked on this project over the course of four years. When I was first approaching making photos it was a bit of a buffer between myself and the experience of returning to Oklahoma for the first time since my mother passed away a decade earlier. It was interesting walking the line of inside/outsider; there is a particular feeling that comes from being in the landscape that raised you after a 10-year absence. My initial approach was a bit naive, though I often go back to those photos for inspiration. As I developed the work over multiple trips to Oklahoma, I was much more moved by artists like Robert Adams, William Christenberry and Ron Tarver. I think a lot about visual language when sequencing this work.

Is this work finished yet?

I plan to continue exploring stories and themes in Oklahoma, but for this chapter of the work it is finished. The photographs were expressions of a part of my life that I’m no longer in; now I’m more interested in seeing how these photos function in the world. Next year I will be showing these photos for the first time in an Oklahoma museum, which I’m very excited for.

This article is taken from issue 27. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here