Nita: An Impossible Dream is photographer DeMarcus Allen’s homage to his beloved mother. Shot over six months across four continents, the collection celebrates the power of melanated beauty.
Many would argue that the impact of photography lies in its ability to capture a singular moment in time. The medium's healing power, however, can be transformative. The creation of imagery offers a glimpse into the artist's soul, as they turn their experiences into symbols of who we are, what we fear, and who we've loved.
Nita: An Impossible Dream is lensman DeMarcus Allen's homage to his beloved mother Nita, who passed away in 2019. Shot over six months, creating the collection of works was no easy feat. Allen would endure a range of challenges during shooting, from a battle with depression and navigating production in Africa with a negative $68-dollar account balance, to being robbed at gunpoint in the favelas of Brazil. The 260+ page work celebrates the beauty of Black models and is broken into four chapters that represent the elements of Air, Water, Fire and Earth. Melanated beauties stun against picturesque backdrops in Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, France, South Africa, Namibia and more. Poetry and lyrics by Black artists and writers help tell the story of each magnificent journey.
A former English and Literature professor who worked with Allen on the planning of his book, Nita was his biggest advocate. In honor of her lifelong dedication to education, Allen founded a scholarship for his mother at the university she loved. "Sales from released and unreleased artwork from [the book] created the Nita B. Wood Fine Arts Scholarship Fund at Norfolk State," he shares. "She taught classes there, as well as did her bachelor's and master's at NSU, so I grew up on campus in a way." Funds will benefit existing and incoming students pursuing degrees in the fine arts.
Though NITA released last year, Allen plans to continue rolling out new prints periodically. Check out our exclusive interview with the visionary below and visit www.demarcusallen.com for more information.
EBONY: When did you first fall in love with photography?
DeMarcus Allen: Honestly, I didn't have a huge interest at all in photography. As a kid I always appreciated the family photo albums, but I didn't buy my first camera until I was moving to Paris in 2009. Even then, I only bought it to show "Paris" to my mother. But once I got to Paris, I met my mentor, legendary American photographer Ernest Collins, who sadly passed away during Covid. After class, I would go to Ernest's apartment in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris to watch FashionTV and listen to his stories of photographing different people & artists.
What inspired Nita?
The original project was titled "Move / Feel", in reference to the movement often present in my photos, and an homage to the beauty & strength of black women. I had this idea in 2015 to travel the world, photograph models in beautiful locations--my eyes are trained to look at the landscapes, as I went straight into landscape photography when I arrived in Paris--and have an art gallery exhibition of the images. I only told this dream to one person, my mother Nita "Bug". When she passed in September of 2019, I flew home to the funeral from France. I decided, when hearing her students talk of her impact on their lives, that I would finally create this artwork. I didn't have the money, but on the flight back to Paris, I had a dream that my mother came to me to tell me she loved me, give me a hug, and hand me a check before leaving. I woke up confused in Paris after my flight, but happy to see her in my dream. A few hours later, my oldest brother sent a text asking for my bank account information in France, as my mother had a secret life insurance policy, and that there was money for me.What she left me, funded the majority of the project, and the proceeds are going to create a photography studio / creative workspace in Paris, and later in my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia.
Describe the process of putting together this stunning work.
The process started with compiling the different dreams. Since a child, I was taught to write down my dreams. I never really understood why, but I always have done it. So for this book, each photo shoot from the book is birthed from an initial dream that I woke up and wrote down before it disappeared. From there, I went into determining the locations. My very first photos were landscape photos, so the location is always important for me. I had locations in mind for years, since 2015, that I would love to use as a backdrop for a shoot. Then was the contacting modeling agencies that were at least somewhat close to the location (the model in the Bolivia shoot was flown from Brazil; the model from Namibia was flown from South Africa)… And then, I assembled the rest of the teams of make-up, hair, styling, etc. There was a different team for each shoot. After this, I started contacting resorts and hotels about sponsorship of rooms to offset some costs. Checking Covid rules was also important, as they changed every week around the world. After shooting, I would narrow down the 2,000+ images from each shoot, to about 35. I'd work from 2:00am - 5:00am on the color tones and exposure, for about two weeks. From there I would wake up at the same time to retouch the images in Photoshop.
How long did it take you to complete the project and what challenges did you face?
In all, the project took a little over 6 months. The first shoot was the end of February, and the last was the beginning of September. As it was the middle of the worldwide pandemic, travel was extremely difficult. For example, to shoot in Bolivia, my flight path was: Paris - Dallas - Los Angeles - Atlanta - Miami - Rio - São Paulo - Santa Cruz (Bolivia) - La Paz - followed by a 9 hour bus ride. A team of 4 traveling from all different locations, and due to the Covid rules, our 3 days to shoot was cut to 7 hours. I was also robbed at gunpoint in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I broke my nose after fainting from anxiety during shooting…I arrived in South Africa for 2 shoots there and 1 in Namibia, with a $-68 account balance. It was a pretty rough ride, and then adding in a constant battle with depression after losing my best friend, then my nephew to Covid, a cousin to diabetes, both mentors, among others.
How did you carve out your style as a photographer and how would you describe it?
I've always struggled with this question, because for the longest, I would just see a lot of things I didn't like, and try to do the opposite. But in looking through Nita, I feel like it perfectly describes my work. I think it's a raw image that shows a love of feminine classic beauty, yet merged with an understanding of human agility and athleticism. Again, most of my work is based on dreams I have, and so I take elements of myself (former collegiate athlete, southern, elements of solitude) and use them to re-create my dreams in an artistic way).
What do you hope viewers will take from your work?
I realized after receiving my first shipment of books, that this project served me as means of coping with depression following loss; a sort of grief management. That's great to me, but the reason I started this project was really to show the beauty of Black, something that the fashion industry seems to have a hard time with throughout history. My images aren't over-retouched; the Black model doesn't serve as an accessory on the arm of a white model in my book. I was hoping to shoot something purely to celebrate our skin, and to give people a visual, mental vacation for the rough days. I wanted to create something people could look at and simply enjoy the beauty of it, and the experience of flipping through it.
What needs to change for Black photographers in the industry?
From the area in which I work, high fashion, I think diversity is important. I know that sounds like a generic answer, but I don't mean diversity among all photographers. I mean diversity in the black photographers who are chosen. We don't all shoot the same style or type of subject, so I think it's important to have diversity in each aspect of photography, be it with fashion or street photography.
Why are Black photographers important?
For me, we are the driving force behind documenting not only our own environments, but the world from our eyes. I know that a black photographer will photograph a black model with different eyes than another race would. And even on work where it's not a predominantly black publication or brand, our culture is what drives our country - why not see things through the eyes that came from that culture?
What is your proudest moment as a photographer?
I think I have two. One is, of course, releasing my first book. For it to be an idea and dream for so long, I'm still in awe at the images and that I'm even still alive after it! The second was going to clean out my mother's office, and seeing copies of all the magazines I shot for, on her desk. Her students told me she would always show them my work, and so it was a sort of confirmation that I made her proud.