Stranger Fruit, Jon Henry’s portraits of Black mothers holding their sons in poses that suggest the pietà, is on view at the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside, through February 11, 2024, and a book of the photographs was published earlier this year by +KGP / Monolith Editions. The recipient of the 2020 Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture, Henry began the series in 2014, after the murder of Sean Bell in 2006 by police, on the morning before his wedding in Jamaica, Queens. Henry was raised in St. George’s Episcopal Church in Flushing, Queens, where he worked as a sexton and also had a photo studio, and he grew up steeped in religious iconography. Earlier this year, Stranger Fruit was scheduled to go on view at Daytona State College’s Southeast Museum of Photography, but a month before the January 11 opening, the show was canceled. Henry was told the cancellation was due to water damage from a malfunction in an HVAC system, but he later discovered it was because of its subject matter, police violence against Black men. PEN America has since called on the college to reschedule the exhibition.
Jon Henry answered Five Questions from photograph.
Name a photograph that brings you joy.
A Great Day in Hip Hop, Gordon Parks. This image is one of those masterpiece images I’ve always admired, and I always wanted to make something of this magnitude. And of course Gordon is one of my heroes.
Of course I need to vote for my book [Stranger Fruit] as my favorite photobook, but Raised by Wolves by Jim Goldberg is one of the greatest books I own. I remember seeing the work in San Francisco years ago, and I knew I had to have the book. It is beautiful, challenging, detailed, and saddening all at once. The sheer amount of work put into that project is so overwhelming, but the book represents it accordingly.
Last exhibition you saw?
Henry Taylor: B Side at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Go see for yourself. It’s currently in NYC [at the Whitney Museum of Art, through January 28, 2024].
Favorite work of art that’s not a photograph?
Any of Kara Walker’s silhouettes. Before I knew much about contemporary art, I saw Kara Walker’s work in a museum and was blown away. Not just the subject matter but the decision to use these silhouettes. It really opened my eyes that art can be represented in so many ways outside of photography and traditional painting.
A photographer who’s influenced you?
Three: Gioncarlo Valentine, Erik Carter, and Camila Falquez. Someone needs to hire me as a curator so we can see more of these legendary portrait photographers in MUSEUMS…not just the publications they are commissioned for. It’s 2023. There is new photography worth seeing in these spaces.