Curiosity, Truth, and the Pursuit of ‘Black Magic' with Photographer Adam Davis

By Olivia Johnson | April 26, 2022

Creating art in its rawest form brings people together and tells the honest stories of those depicted. Educator and artist Adam Davis aims to share such truths through his distinct photography. Via tintype, a.k.a wet-plate photography, Davis creates stunning portraits that paint the beauty and magic of Black people in America. “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned recently was that nobody is asking us to make art! It sounds pretty messed up, but it really helped me refine my approach to making things for myself and myself only,” Davis tells EDITION.

See more: Behind the Lens with Campbell Addy

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Hakim Tafari, Shot by Adam Davis

With his latest project, Black Magic: Portraits of Black America, Davis was initially inspired by an image he saw on the website of Driely Vieira, one of his favorite photographers. The photo used tintype as its medium. Davis' interest was immediately piqued upon viewing the influential print, which led him down a rabbit hole into creating his own images using tintype. “I’m the kind of nerd that will obsess over a topic until I know literally everything there is to know about a subject matter. That’s what inspired this – curiosity,” says Davis.

During the pandemic's peak, Davis reached out to his friends in the area and asked them how comfortable they were about sitting for a portrait. This outreach started a movement with many people lining up to be photographed by Davis. Twenty pictures and a brief stint in Mexico later, Davis realized how diverse the lives of his subjects were. He adds, “That’s the ‘image’ I want to share with people everywhere. The Black body has no limit to its expression and does so by default to survive.”

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Jazzi McGilbert, Shot by Adam Davis

Historically, wet-plate photography was used by the wealthy who had access to its resources. Tintype typically involves much time and labor combined with the processes of mining, chemical synthesis, and precision. Combining a metal plate with a grayscale image chemically suspended over the material is the product of all of Davis’ ideas about intention, light shaping, and relatability to people. “It’s been fun to explain to people that visit my studio that getting the supplies to make a tintype back in the mid-1800s was no small feat,” states Davis.

Beginning in May, Davis plans to tour historically Black cities across the States. “Expect to see some things you’ve never seen before by some really amazing Black folk,” says Davis. “Black people as a whole deserve to not only think with the same levels of freedom as other communities but have access to resources to thoroughly execute those ideas from start to finish.” During his travels, he has discovered many opportunities to work with local artists and school districts to begin the next volume of Black Magic – with an aim to reach 5,000 portraits.

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Koshin Finley, Shot by Adam Davis

Davis has the best of both worlds combining art with teaching his students about the different types of photography, including tintype. Having learned this medium through trial and error, Davis instructs his students that it’s okay to fail when creating a vision. “The only way to teach photography, in my opinion, is to go out and take photos. I try to create classrooms that encourage failure, sometimes even promote it more than actual successes,” says Davis.

Davis has hit multiple hotspots through his travels and explorations, including Los Angeles, New York, and Mexico – but his favorite place he has taken pictures was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “While I was in Tulsa, I engaged with so many beautiful Black people that welcomed me into their space with such comfort and intention. It led to the creation of some of my favorite images since I began photographing ten years ago,” Davis reflects.

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Maggi Simpkins, Shot by Adam Davis

Black Magic currently features portraits of the beautiful faces of Black people from Los Angeles and New York. However, if there were a face Davis would love to capture, it would be his father. “He’s the reason I was introduced to photography in the first place. It’d be an honor to spend time with someone I’ve grown with,” says Davis. Photography has brought Davis clarity about his relationship with his father and helped them strengthen their bond.

Black Magic: Portraits of Black America is currently at the Byrd Museum in Los Angeles, California. You can also catch Davis’ work on tour as he explores historically Black cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Tulsa. Click here for details.

Photography by: Adam Davis