Twenty-one-year-old photographer and artist Quil Lemons grew up in South Philly toying with his aunt's $5,000 photography equipment, unconsciously developing his creative eye.
Now, he's landing assignments for Vogue, Gucci, the New York Museum of Modern Art — and, soon, a collaboration with Target — thanks to his wildly successful Instagram project Glitterboy, which showed men of color wearing glittery makeup and challenged stereotypes of masculinity.
His latest shoot for Vogue, for Mother's Day, featured portraits of four generations of women from his family all wearing the designer Batsheva's floral frocks.
On Friday, Lemons will bring his talents to the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Final Friday series with his personal interpretation of the exhibition Face to Face: Portraits of Artists, featuring rare photographs of such figures as Ella Fitzgerald, Jacob Lawrence, Muhammad Ali, and others. He'll lead a tour of the exhibition, which focuses on the ways photographers have helped to craft their subjects' public personas, and then will show his own photographic re-creations of some portraits from the exhibit.
Lemons will be joined by Philly spoken-word artist and rapper Ivy Sole, whose performance will be live-streamed on Facebook by headphone manufacturer Skullcandy.
He spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News about honoring the women of his family in Vogue — "It's an institution that I wanted to crip-walk into and show that black people can be in this space," he says — about the Glitterboy phenomenon, and about being tapped as an artist by the Art Museum.
Being a native Philadelphian, what's the significance of having your work shown at the Art Museum?
Well, it's one of the biggest museums in the U.S., so I was shook when they emailed me. I thought, 'Are you sure you reached the right person?'
The Art Museum has been a staple in my life since I was born. When you grow up in Philly, you drive around the city and the museum is something you always see. So to work with such a monolithic institution that's a landmark in our city is great.
How were you inspired to create the Glitterboy series?
I think Glitterboy found me. I really wasn't looking for anything.
I went to this launch party for this brand called Milk Makeup in late 2015 … There was free makeup and I thought, 'Should I get my makeup done?' And then there were all these questions of what men should and shouldn't do.
I feel like there are always these rules that society places on you, and no one questions or challenges why these [ideas] are in place. I was sick of all the rules, so I let [the Milk Makeup staff] do my makeup and I took a picture and posted it on Instagram and the reaction was kind of polarizing.
When I shot my friend Harley, I asked him if he was OK with wearing makeup, and he was like, 'Yeah, let's do this!'
I got those photos back and realized there was something there [about challenging masculine norms] that hasn't really been explored, and I finished the series, which took about three months.
I shot [Glitterboy] in my dorm on the patio [at New York's New School]. The series is also an homage to Frank Ocean. He's one of my biggest art inspirations, especially as a queer black man, which can be difficult.
How has social media influenced your work?
Social media is such a weird space to navigate, especially now with how everything is so commodified and there's no margin of error.
There's so much sensitivity on the internet, and we're all humans and growing. I've been questioning social media in a lot of ways. I've cut back on sharing personal things in my life because it's just going to be put under a microscope.
I don't think it has to do with social media. It has more to do with the ideology that people expect you to perform in association with your brand, not as a human.
I also think social media is a really great tool for artists of color who don't really have access to a lot of spaces. With social media, the gatekeepers of the industry — whether it's fashion, whether it's art, whether it's writing — are broken down and an artist is able to share their work with people all over the world. So I'm very grateful for that.
What are some pitfalls or clichés you notice photographers falling into?
There are so many different types of people. Diversity is not something that should be practiced once a year.
This should be a year-round focus. I'm sick of the idea of tokenism, where people only want to talk to me during Pride or Black History Month.
What's the best photo you've ever taken?
It changes, but in this conversation, the photo [for the Vogue Batsheva series] of my grandmother, who was born in 1926.
What's your favorite piece of photography gear?
Film. I only shoot in film. I don't think a lot of people know that. I do not shoot digitally.
When I started doing photography, I had a Nikon D3100 SLR and I switched over to film.
With film, I'm required to be more thoughtful with planning. It's not the easiest thing to do with lighting and focus, and I never know what the photo is going to look like until I go to develop it.
Describe the thread that connects the photos you take.
My overall personal growth, just me getting better.
I want to create meaningful work that touches people, and I don't know what that looks like just yet.