Zora J Murff

The esteemed photographer talks us through his new roster of exhibitions and book, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis)

American Father, 2018

For Zora J Murff – a photographer, artist and educator based in Arkansas – to be published by Aperture is not too dissimilar from a chimera. An illusory dream of kinds, Zora could “hardly believe it” as he won the Next Step Award and was affirmed a new book from the publisher, entitled True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis). Coupled with an exhibition at London’s Webber Gallery plus a presentation of his new series American Mother at Paris Photo, Zora is sharing perhaps his most direct and critical commentary of work to date – that being a compilation of photographs, archival imagery from the past 12 years. In these works, the artist speaks of power, privilege, race and white supremacy, plus the impact it’s had on Black people in America. Zora tells me more below.

Fronting (Affirmation #4), 2020

It would be great to begin by hearing about your first steps into photography. What sparked your interests in the medium? 

I started taking photographs in my early 20s. At the time, I was a social worker providing services to kids in the juvenile criminal justice system. I found the work rewarding in many ways, but something always seemed missing. Being an employee of the criminal justice system was conflicting. Even though I served kids and families who found themselves in difficult circumstances, I was present as a punitive measure. It was an environment where most of our practices and processes were dissonant from rehabilitation, and even though I could understand what changes could change that reality, I wasn’t in a position to speak on or enact them. 

I often felt stuck and decided to go back to school to study art. I started my first serious body of work, Corrections. Creating that work was my first education in researching a violent system and speaking on that violence through the practice and interpretation of image-making. Furthermore, I was fortunate to have a couple of professors, Margaret Stratton and Jeff Rich, who were present for my ideas and taught me how to articulate what I was trying to express both visually and in language. I quickly learned that I had been searching for a profession where I could work with people and help them in similar ways. 

At No Point in Between

What’s your ethos and what messages are you hoping to share? 

My ethos as an artist is to have the courage to be vulnerable and to speak my truth. In my earlier works, I kept a distance between myself, the subject, and the viewer. I am present with my thoughts and camera, but I am speaking on those things through nuance and perhaps imperceptibly. I credit this to studying in historically/predominantly white institutions where Blackness had not been allowed, was not accepted and therefore not understood. Because of our society’s belief and wholesale practice in racialisation, I find myself in adversarial situations for being Black. These confrontations happen daily, sometimes self-initiated but mostly by force. My work deals directly with existential questions and presents various aspects of our social reality. Those answers I have found don’t differ from my early experiences with my first professors: being an artist is an endeavour in self-determination. I carry this sentiment with me into everything I do. 

At No Point in Between

You’ve opened two exhibitions and recently published a new book with Aperture — tell me about this new body of work. How does it compare to your past projects? 

True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) is me going for broke. When I first learned that I had won the Next Step Award and would be publishing with Aperture, I could hardly believe it. I had a conversation about it with the good homie Kris Graves, and his advice was, “Now is the time to be direct.” This book is me, parts of my life narrated by me and a choir of folx who have all supported me in getting to this exact moment. It’s not so much a body of work, but my collective commentary on the last 12 years as a means of being critical of “the come up.” I am talking about what it means to participate in systems whose agents have continually seen and used me as a diversity token. 

At No Point in Between

How do your hope your audience will respond to the work?

My goal with this process was to create something that pulled out all of the stops because it’s not every day artists get to publish at this level. My goal with this process was to spread this opportunity as widely as possible, so my people could eat. 

I don’t have goals for audience response or plans for what this work can accomplish in general. As the title states, the book is me putting out affirmations for myself as I experience a crisis of consciousness. People who have lived similarly to me will find themselves in these pages. The only thing I could ever ask is that viewers bring themselves to the artwork with an open heart and critical mind (both outward and inward). 

What’s next for you?

I’m going to take some time to celebrate and enjoy in this work with the people I love. Everything else is just white noise. 

Gas Money (Affirmation #1), 2019


At No Point in Between

Self Portrait as a Dreamed Man (After Bayard), 2020

Untitled (False walls #1), 2020

Food Photography Over the Years

Jo Ann Callis, Black Table Cloth, 1979
Spanning fine art, fashion and advertising, the author of Feast for the Eyes discusses the rich history of food photography through the lens of five influential images 
The first-ever photograph of food was taken in 1827 by photography pioneer Nicéphore Niépce, who captured a set table within a ten-hour exposure time using a camera obscura, commonly referred to as a pinhole camera. Over the last two centuries, food photography has continued to evolve. Since the emergence of digital cameras in the 1980s and the internet in the 1990s, it has remained a focus in photography, although rarely has it been recognised as an important subject. Meanwhile, the rise of social media and blogging culture has meant that food is in fact being photographed more than ever. 
In response to this, writer and independent curator Susan Bright’s book Feast for the Eyes is the first publication to explore food photography’s significant history. Bright’s book traces the development of the genre and celebrates photographers who have played a critical role in conveying ideas that go far beyond the food they have captured. Irving Penn, Stephen Shore, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Martin Parr are just a few names featured. “We understand what it means to photograph food more than ever before,” she explains. “It’s never just about the food, it’s about everything else. It’s about the person, always. Food is a symbol.”
Here, Bright discusses five photographs from Feast for the Eyes taken between 1947 and 2008.
Victor Keppler, (General Mills advertising campaign—Apple Pyequick), 1947
“Keppler was amazing at advertising and colour photography. This image is made up of only four colours but it is instantly recognisable as apple pie. He was so good at paring down colours in advertisements. It is very American and nationalistic; nothing is more American than apple pie. It is about the atomic age of American shortcuts which we can understand immediately. I think it is complete genius, using photography to short circuit the brain.”
Harold Edgerton, Milk Drop Coronet, 1957
“This photograph is just fantastic. Edgerton was a scientist and would claim he was never an artist, but there is a joy to this photograph. There is a mixture of science, art, wonderment and entertainment. I’ve seen this picture a million times and I still go: ‘wow’. We tend to look at the history of art through art photography but it was in science and commercial photography where huge innovations were being made.”
Jo Ann Callis, Black Table Cloth, 1979
“This is a very puzzling image, you’re not sure where you are.  It’s not a diner, it’s not a home; it feels very curious. We question why there is an empty bowl and strawberries in milk. There is something illicit and cinematic about Callis’ work, a tenseness and obsessiveness about it that I really like. Her use of colour is extraordinary.”
Martin Parr, Untitled (Hot Dog Stand), 1983–85
“There is a tenderness to Parr’s images of Britain, but this photograph is quite humorous. The Last Resort was his strongest body of work for me, where he manages to smash through certain British stereotypes as well as rely on them. It was really important to show the idea of the ritual, whether it be a birthday party or going to the cinema and having popcorn, or going to the beach and getting a hotdog.”
Tim Walker, Self-Portrait with Eighty Cakes, 2008
“Tim Walker manages to tap into the childlike quality in us. When you see a Tim Walker photograph you just know its him because he pushes fantasy further than anyone would in a very sweet way. It’s completely fantastical and joyful. He includes food in his photographs because it adds another layer of fantasy and narrative. It reminds me of kids stashing their sweets under the bed but he’s just putting it out there.”
Feast for the Eyes is out now, published by Aperture