When I co-organized a fall student art show at my college’s student gallery during my sophomore year, one of the artists who submitted work and immediately caught my eye was Noah Morrison. Morrison’s sophisticated black-and-white photography belies his age, drawing from a well of emotion and empathy to evoke a heightened sense of melancholy. Hailing from New York City, Morrison takes a cinematic approach to his chosen subjects of quotidian street scenes and his friends, striking a fine balance between the posed and the candid. He has exhibited at the School of International Center for Photography in New York, among other venues, and enjoys experimenting with digital and video art, as well as documentary and narrative filmmaking.
All photographs courtesy of the artist.
How did you get started making art? Have you always focused on photography, or did you experiment in other media?
I began taking photos during a rough time in my sophomore year of high school. I had reached out to my doctor asking for solutions to my boredom and unhappiness, and she advised me to find a hobby outside of school to pursue. After a short discussion, we settled on photography, and the next day my dad and I went to J&R and he bought me a DSLR and lens. For a long time after this, I would bring the camera with me everywhere, and spend hours after school walking around my neighborhood taking photos. My focus has always been on photography outside of basic painting classes in high school. I have made some videos (documentary and narrative) for various classes, and am always experimenting with video making on various digital platforms. I would love to expand this focus in the future.
What subjects do you find yourself drawn to as a photographer? Why?
As a photographer, I find myself broadly drawn to ephemera. I find that focusing on items, emotions, and situations that only last for a brief period of time helps me reflect deeply on myself. Maybe even, photographing ephemera in various ways is a true reflection of myself, or the pursuit of such a truth. In photographing my friends, I tend to understand the level of intimacy between us through photos I take of them. I try to capture personal moments from which I can see the relationship between the camera, the setting, and the person’s mental and emotional state, as well as myself at the moment. Photographing in the street is more is much more of a personal exercise, and connected to the reasons why I began to photograph in the first place. My discovery of photography coincided with my discovery of a love for being outside by myself, and a need to leave the confines of my small apartment. I found that, initially, photography gave me a good excuse to get out for a few hours and walk around aimlessly. However, after some time, the act of walking itself became connected with the act of photography, and one became inseparable from the other. Through constructing parts of my self on the streets, I began to photograph objects and situations that I felt were connected to this self. The act of walking was inherently lonely, and thus much of my subject matter reflected this outwardly. The catharsis in photographing this subject matter on the street was in being able to see myself in the world around me.
To what degree are your compositions posed or candid? Which do you prefer? Do you like to take your camera around with you and capture your friends in particular in small moments, or do you stage shoots with them?
I genuinely try to make every composition candid, and I would say that the majority of my images exist somewhere in between posed and candid, depending on my relationship to the subject. I feel like candid and posed are on a spectrum, not in opposition to each other, but in constant conversation. For example, sometimes I will allow a subject to pose themselves in a way that is recognizable, such as smiling, putting up a peace sign, etc. Yet in this situation, I will usually hold the camera ready to take a picture until some façade of the pose falls, and something else is revealed. There is often a particular moment after people pose themselves that they begin to question the pose, and that is where I try to insert the image. All this being said, the majority of my photos can be read as candid, and I think this has something to do with the ephemeral nature of the emotions or moments that I try to capture with my subjects. I rarely stage shoots with my friends unless I am working on a specific project. Even if I am working on a specific project, I tend to focus around real, lived situations of the subject. Often these photos exist on the spectrum between candid and posed as I mentioned above.
Why do you focus on black-and-white photography? What kind of equipment do you use?
I focus on black and white photography because I appreciate what I can capture in terms of light in black and white as opposed to color. I believe I know how to understand contrast, highlight and shadow better in black and white. I love how people photograph in natural light in black and white as well. In terms of equipment, I usually use a Nikon F100 to shoot 35mm, but when I was in Jordan, my camera temporarily broke. In a wild turn of events, I found a store right near my school that was selling a cheap, Fujifilm point and shoot camera, the Zoom Date 90SR, so I used that for a lot of my shots in Jordan, and in Philadelphia over the summer. But now the Fujifilm camera’s almost broken, so I’ve begun to use my Nikon again. When I’m shooting medium format (6x7), I use a Mamiya RB67.
What teachers, mentors, or other artists have been influential and inspirational in your development as an artist?
Some of the teacher’s I’ve had the privilege of working with at the International Center of Photography have been some of the most influential in my photographic life. Taking a class with Bayeté Ross-Smith helped me understand the importance of identity in my work, and aided in making my work even more personal. His project, Question Bridge: Black Males, which deals with asking questions related to perceptions of blackness and masculinity to Black males across America, was being exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum when I took his class. Seeing this kind of photographic/video work in a museum inspired me to continue down a path that would bring my identities and my work closer together. Additionally, working with different instructors, including Josie Miner, Charulata Dyal, and Nona Faustine, during my time at “Teen Photo Fridays” at ICP helped me develop extensive photo editing and darkroom skills that have been immensely helpful to this day. Finally, I got the opportunity to TA for master printer Jim Megargee at ICP two summers ago, and the lessons he taught me (even as I assumed the position of teacher myself) about printing processes and preservation of image detail during the course of that class were some of the most important things I’ve learned related to photography. On a more personal level, the work of Bruce Davidson, Carrie Mae Weems, Australian photographer Trent Parke, Caravaggio, musician Dean Blunt, and the films of Alfonso Cuarón inspire me.
Do you hope to work professionally as a photographer and artist? Would you want to work commercially?
I do hope to work full-time as an artist as soon as that is possible. Whether that means making work and getting it exhibited and sold, or teaching art, or working on community arts programming, or some combination of all of the above. I don’t see commercial work in my future per say; yet I’m not ruling out anything, as long as I can continuously develop my skills.
What has been your proudest moment as an artist?
My proudest moment as an artist was most definitely having my photo series on my identities exhibited at the School of the International Center of Photography to culminate the yearlong class I took there. Besides having my photos featured in this exhibit, I also delivered the commencement speech for the program. Seeing and hearing artists from different walks of life react to both my photos and the speech was validating and inspiring.
Can you talk about your experience as an artist on Swarthmore's campus? Do you find that students, faculty, staff, and/or the institution have a positive view of the importance of art on campus?
In all honesty, Swarthmore is not a great place to be a practicing artist, especially a photographer. The nature of the space is such that less value is placed on pursuits that are not academic and nature. Additionally, I’ve found every class here to value analytical and critical thinking over visual narrative and ways of complicating and understanding the world. This way of work combined with the quantity of work assigned leaves little room for artistic practice, especially if you are not a studio art major. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because critical thinking about various issues related to society and self needs to be a part of artistic practice. This being said, I have had the privilege to take a photography independent study class, and I will be taking an alternative processes class in the spring. There are pockets of acceptance and encouragement, including with our photography professor Ron Tarver, and among a selection of studio art majors. However, I’ve found that I can really only practice at my fullest outside of Swarthmore.
What is the most challenging aspect of your practice?
The most challenging aspect of my practice is aesthetic consistency. This could have to do with the fact that my photos often are reflections of my self as much as they are reflections of the world around me, and both are in constant flux. I’ve found the pursuit of a certain aesthetic to be an endlessly difficult process, which seems to have an equal amount to do with editing, the negatives themselves, when you shoot, who you shoot, what you shoot with, and how you relate to your photos. Additionally, I often oscillate between wanting consistency in my photos and thinking that I do not need to be aesthetically consistent to be true.
What do you hope people who see your photographs take away from them?
For me, photography is a systemizing tool for the organization and understanding of beauty in relation to shifting notions of self. I hope that people can recognize that beauty is conceptualized in diverse and ever-shifting ways just as each person’s self is, and that all photography has the power to make these connections [a] personal truth.