'Black Utopia': ‘Everyone has the right to have their story told.’

Black Utopia by Mike Gray | Soho House

LA-based photographer Mike Gray talks through his latest photo series

Wednesday 16 February 2022   By Abigail Hirsch   Photography by Mike Gray

As an emerging film photographer with a spark for ingenuity, Mike Gray enthralls his viewers with cinematic stills, close-up portraiture, and staged scenes. Although he recently began to focus more intently on photography, he embarked on an exploration into the creative/ artistic realm a decade prior. 

Gray is best known for elevating people of colour by drawing on historic events to inspire his concepts. In this vein, he moulds his own narrative in each photo he takes, warping the past to weave a better future. His recreations of historical moments uplift ordinary people to compelling figures of power. Gray’s images, layered with shock value and meaning, enable him to comment on the political and social systems of our current and past generations. 

The LA-based creative’s latest series, Black Utopia, displays ‘a world in which all Black people are represented in a positive and powerful light’. See it on display at Soho House West Hollywood on Thursday 17 February and read on to hear more from the emerging photographer. 

Black Utopia by Mike Gray | Soho House

Tell us about your perspective as a photographer. What can viewers consistently identify in your work?  
‘Although I construct images of my own blueprint, I’m far from wedded to a singular artistic style. Some of my work is staged, but I allow natural instincts to inform the creative side. Spontaneity is a pivotal aspect of my documentary artistry. Progression is pivotal. My images, while distinguishable in their deliberate thematic motives, are simple with tangible rawness. I believe that my photography allows the viewer to step into an alternate reality, one seen through a learned lens of life experiences and documented Black history.’

Where does your inspiration come from? 
‘A great inspiration I address in my work is time period. I begin with the 1950s and 1960s, and add a personal modernised twist. I’m also inspired by an array of people from different backgrounds: Gordon Parks, Spike Lee, and Malcom X; individuals who have served as pioneers for culture. Black Utopia is a specific series of mine, but I take photos of everyone, as long as the individual is willing to live in the created world for a brief moment in time. Race means absolutely nothing to me. Everyone has to right to have their story told.’

Black Utopia by Mike Gray | Soho House
Black Utopia by Mike Gray | Soho House
Black Utopia by Mike Gray | Soho House

How do you hope to evolve your work? 
‘I aim to press forward and create more images to complete the Black Utopia series and add to my upcoming book. There’s never an end point to evolving as an artist. My goal is to one day be in numerous respected art galleries around the world. These stories don’t stop inside of the United States. People from all different backgrounds and facets of life deserve to have an experience with a framed piece of my work. Photography has also given me the film bug; I can see myself directing movies in future, but I’ll never stop taking pictures.’

Where did the idea for Black Utopia stem from? 
‘I’m not a fan of how African Americans are portrayed publicly, whether it’s displaying us in a negative light in the media, constantly beating slavery over our heads in schools and movies, or the many injustices we’ve faced over decades within the judicial system. I understand that history can’t be rewritten; it’s a part of who I am as a Black man, but what I can do is use my art to alter the narrative and put my people in a positive light. This is how I came to the idea of Black Utopia.’

What would you like viewers to take away from the series? 
‘I want them to dive into a beautiful Black experience. There’s a way out of every negative situation. Black Utopia is a mindset. They say beauty is pain, and with all the pain we’ve endured over the years, it’s time for the perfect world of happiness.’

Black Utopia by Mike Gray | Soho House
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