‘autoportrait’ is an eight minute and 50 second 35mm black and white film produced collaboratively between artist Luke Willis Thompson and its subject, Diamond Reynolds. It is also intended as a ‘sister image’ to the video documenting the fatal shooting of her partner, Philando Castile, by a police officer in Minnesota, which she broadcast via Facebook Live on 6 July 2016 and which has consumed Reynolds’s identity over the past year.
Here, she’s poised in three-quarter view, head bowed, in the midst of a silent incantation. The film’s warm glow reflects off her thin wire spectacles as her head bobs rhythmically, lost in song. Its impact is trance-like and regal: suspended somewhere between golden-age Hollywood and High Renaissance portraiture, with a touch of the sacred. The projector’s loud rattling is the only sound – both jarring and cathartic, it seems to underscore the stakes of the work.
In a powerful conversation with the artist published earlier this year by Mousse Magazine, writer Tobi Haslett addresses the materiality of the representation of black death in the media vis-à-vis Thompson’s use of precious, art world sanctified Kodak Tri-X film (a favourite of Andy Warhol) for his earlier work, ‘Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries’ (2016). “We’re accustomed to jerky, blurry footage of black death – moving images quite literally jolted by crisis,” he suggests. “It’s perverse to think of those cell-phone videos of police abuse as comprising a “genre,” but it’s true, they do.” If we can then view this documentation collectively forming its own genre, what is at stake with this media transfer – which can’t, in terms of economy, quality, and prestige – go unseen as an elevation, as it enters the gallery as subject to all intrinsic art world power structures? What is the goal?
Drawing down on the void between the preciousness of film and flawless production techniques against the crude format in which violence and trauma is largely captured and disseminated is not a new tactic – Richard Mosse’s ‘Incoming’, a staggering, supersensory documentation of migrants fleeing Syria across the Aegean Sea shot on heat-sensitive military camera and presented at the Barbican earlier this year, is one such example – but the intentions of ‘autoportrait’ are wildly different in that it makes no effort to reproduce or directly engage with the source material that informed its making. Instead, it conceptualises a parallel narrative for Reynolds to occupy in the wake of Castile’s death and the video that has since burned into public consciousness as her identity.
“I’m not interested in telling her story or having her relive anything,” Thompson reportedly told Reynolds’ lawyer, who was concerned the film could negatively impact the case. It was agreed that Reynolds would not speak; only her image would appear on screen. But the strict conditionals framing the collaboration has produced a work that’s both otherworldly and crucial, both ethereal and profound.
Just five days before ‘autoportrait’ opened, the police officer responsible for Castile’s death, Jeronimo Yanez, was acquitted of all charges. As a soundless, endless work, the film manages to maintain its power as an alternative vision of Diamond Reynolds that is unaffected by this trauma, or any associated event that has passed or will pass. Anyone who knows its subject likewise already knows that context. By avoiding an explicit re-presentation of her video and instead presenting a new portrait of Reynolds over which she had full choice, ‘autoportrait’ offers an invaluable space for our contemplation and her autonomy.