Photographer addresses race, politics in new exhibit

Photographer addresses race, politics in new exhibit

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If you don’t catch JD Dragan’s exhibition June 24-July 30 at AxD Gallery, you probably won’t get the opportunity to see it again unless you’re willing to travel outside the city.

Dragan has been photographing nude men of color for over 30 years. The “Modern Slave” exhibition at AxD will span 10 years of some of Dragan’s more provocative work, reflecting his beliefs on the effects of the external and internal forces that stifle men of color in America.

Dragan said that AxD is the only place in Philadelphia willing to exhibit his work.

“I think Philadelphia is incredibly conservative when it comes to art,” he said. “I’ve tried other galleries in the past and I’ve gotten comments that my work was too edgy. I’ve often wondered what that meant. I was standing in a gallery talking to the curator and right behind her was this enormous naked butt of a man in a large picture. She told me my work was too edgy. I said I have a lot of different flavors and I don’t have to do anything overt. Then she comes back with the ‘edgy’ thing. I looked around the gallery and I finally said to her, ‘Oh, my work is too black.’ That’s really the perception I’ve gotten in Philadelphia. Outside of Philadelphia, it’s a very different story. I’ve shown in New York without any problems. I had a show at the gay and lesbian center in Chelsea. They actually invited me back to lecture. Harrisburg, of all places, loves my work. They treat me like some kind of movie star there.”

Dragan also said the fact that he’s a white photographer who only photographs black male nudes raises a few eyebrows — and even more questions — at his exhibitions.

“I realized that fully when I first started showing in galleries and I’d be there,” he said. “Most people wouldn’t realize I was the photographer. I remember when I was identified as the photographer: If the person happened to be white, the question would be, ‘Why do you do this?’ If the person was black, the question would be, ‘Why do you do this?’ It was different emphasis but I got it. My response was, when I started photographing, I looked at the work of my contemporaries. And I noticed that when they show white guys, there was this whole range of expression in the photographs. Sometimes it was erotic. Sometimes it was subtle. Sometimes it would be shadowed. But there was this whole range. When they photographed black men, the photographs focus from navel to mid-thigh, front and back. I was very incensed by that. I thought this is an incredible disgrace and they were obviously objectifying their subjects. I wanted to try to photograph the individual and do a better job of it.”

Race, religion and politics are major themes running through Dragan’s photography, and each of his subjects are chosen after several lengthy interviews to evaluate their comfort with the subject matter. Dragan said it took a long time to find a model willing to be photographed in what is probably going to be the most controversial of the images displayed in the exhibit.

We’ve seen it and we’re not going to give it away. See it for yourself.

Dragan said that getting to know the models, their backgrounds and their personalities is essential to his work.

“Most of the time, but not all the time, I kind of know going into a photo shoot what I want to get out of it,” he said. “There are times when I’m on a political train of thought and I have to make sure the model is OK doing what I want them to do. I really respect them when I photograph because without them I am nothing. If I have an idea, I tell them: This is what I would like for you to do. Do you object to this? Is this going to make you uncomfortable? If they say they don’t want to go there, we don’t go there. The interview allows me that kind of insight to know the man and what his personal life and the kind of individual he is.”

JD Dragan’s “Modern Slave” exhibition opens June 24 at AxD Gallery, 265 S. 10th St. The photographer will host an artist talk at the gallery at 3 p.m. July 16. For more information, visit or call 215-627-6250.

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