Stark, barren desert trails beside hundreds of miles of sun-scorched highways. A Joshua Tree bends away from the light as the road continues on its solitary path in shadow. Hills undulate, filling, then vacating, the horizon. Follow this road long enough and you might find yourself in Southern California, a place where the stucco houses stare straight into the naked morning light. It’s a place that’s almost as notorious for its artifice and decadence as it is for its seemingly endless supply of bright days and inescapable heat.
Tyler Morgan is a photographer from Southern California. Getting to know her body of work means becoming better acquainted with these deserts and the buildings and roads that line them. In harmony with the landscape, we see bodies of varying sizes, genders and races, standing in repose, simultaneously unassuming and confident.
The dewy, unsaturated light is unmistakable. These places, these people, it would be too easy to gaze at them through the lens of Southern Californian fantasy. Though very clean and traditional in form, there is no attempt to hide or recreate these subjects to better suit the viewer’s expectations. Morgan, instead, nudges the viewer’s narrative towards a more welcoming reality. The result is a bold but reassuring reclamation of space from preconception, and the creation of a new, neutral alternative. In this new space, both subject and viewer can finally relax. We are able to see the subjects simply, as they naturally might present themselves. We cannot help but respond with natural empathy.
This candid gaze is most poignant in Morgan’s portraits. An open, unfettered view of each subject provides ample opportunities to investigate our own comfort and preconceptions. True to life, we see a variety of subjects. A diverse group of people stands serenely, presented as the sole objects of interest within the frame. The backgrounds are washed out, the colors soft and gentle. It is as if any opposition to the subject’s natural state has been dissipated and calmed by a warm palette of soft focus and beautifully rendered light.
Morgan’s work resides in this half-state between truth and perception. The subjects, whether human, architectural or landscape, are presented as truly neutral, with no traditionally heroic or beautifying signifiers to influence the viewer’s warmth towards them one way or another. Each subject is nakedly themselves. Here, a desert highway is equally as undressed as the human form.
Time spent in this middle ground between tension, relaxation and introspection make engaging with Morgan’s work a rare treat. I recently had the chance to speak with Morgan about her work, background and process. She was kind enough to include some of her favorite pieces to accompany our conversation.
SJD: In your portraits, the poses are very honest and expose the subjects in a way that isn’t idealized but truthful. Is this reflective of your beliefs as an artist?
TM: Thank you for that observation. It’s interesting, during the majority of my process making this work, I was often told my subjects were too idealized. That I was creating a utopia or an idealistic place. However, I always felt that that was confused with praising their honesty and glorifying their content demeanor. I definitely believe highlighting one’s truthful and vulnerable state, accompanied by calmness and a self-assuring manner, is a reflection of what I am after as an artist. In all of my art forms, I try to brighten the idea of a person feeling at ease in their body and exploring who it is they feel they are, rather than blindly accepting the stereotypical image a culture or society has branded them with.
SJD: What is your own background and how does it inform your interaction with your subjects?
TM: I am a Southern California native. I personally like to capture the land I’m immersed in. The land that’s most familiar that surrounds my upbringing.
SJD: Tell me a little bit about your selection process for models and landscapes. How does your own identity inform these selections, or does it at all?
TM: The main influence on my selection was diversity. I wanted a varying spectrum of skin tones. A lot of the portraits are of students I attended school with at SVA. There is much more under the umbrella of diversity that I was aware of, wanted to include, however, posing and sharing yourself nude is difficult for some. It is a body of work that’s still being made with diversity and empowerment in mind.
SJD: Your work in progress seems to have more human subjects juxtaposed with natural backgrounds. There also seems to be more clothing and context for the background: How do you see yourself evolving as an artist and where do you think your work will take you in the future?
TM: My latest photographic work is reflected in Work in Progress. It’s a selection of some of my self-portraiture. I am really excited to continue this series. I always felt connected to the natural elements and feel their presences is needed in photographs with me. I am also a dancer. … I have recently been expanding and disciplining my dance vocabulary. I’m studying Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, Haitian, Congolese, as well as Belly Dancing. I have a project in the works to merge my dance with my photographic work. I have also been experimenting with video work.
SJD: What inspires you the most when beginning new pieces?
TM: My inspiration really fluctuates, currently the spirituality tied to majority of the dance forms I’m studying have birthed new photo project ideas. There is a similarity in beliefs that flows through Congolese, Afro-Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban dance that deeply resonates and has been awakening me.
Morgan is inspired by a number of ideas, including empowerment, roots, love, righteousness, liberation, kindness, balance, consciousness-raising, warmth, sunshine, feminism, movement, shifting outdated paradigms and empowering those who are oppressed.
These qualities are certainly present in Morgan’s pieces and can be seen throughout. When much of modern photography relies so heavily on immutable space and fostering tension, it is a breath of fresh air to experience an alternative crafted in the hopes of warmth, empathy and kindness. In a world that is always finding new ways to be oppressive towards nature and people alike, the space that she creates for her subjects of assertive serenity is as much protest as revelation.