Being the first or one of a few to accomplish a rare feat can become an unwarranted burden. For Quil Lemons, a brilliant photographer who has captured the likeness of many greats across genres, he remains centered through the strength of his identity and upbringing. It is these tenets that informed the collection that will be on display in his first ever solo show, Quiladelphia.

Through masterful imagery paired with thought-provoking messaging, Quiladelphia sheds light on the Black male form and its varying iterations and meanings. The show will be housed at the Hannah Traore Gallery and will be on view starting September 6 through November 4, 2023. Through this space that Lemons has curated, he prioritizes Black queer joy and a look into life as a Black queer man—all while simultaneously challenging boundaries of comfortability and sexuality.

Ahead of the show's opening, Quil Lemons spent time chatting with EBONY about his influences, being Philly born and bred and how a Black queer consciousness informs his art.

EBONY: In 2021, you became the youngest person to photograph the lead image used on the cover of Vanity Fair. How has your world opened up since then? 

Quil Lemons: It was really fun. It all happened so fast, and it's been a little bit of a whirlwind but in the best way. Since then, I just feel like I've been to so many different places I've dreamed of going. Now I know these cities like the back of my hand in the same way that I know my hometown of Philly. I have a very visual memory; if I go to any place once in the daytime and probably twice at night, I will probably forever remember it. So much gratitude for that and for getting to know myself so well in my early 20s. I don't think many Black people get that chance.

How have you been able to build community amongst other Black photographers in this creative space that's constantly evolving?

I feel like collaboration is a huge part of this journey. I wouldn't be able to make images as a photographer if I did not have a group of people around me that supported the vision and actually use their hands to help me bring the ideas in my head to life. A lot of times, people that I'm working with—including my subjects—share a similar lived experience as me. I wanted to invite people into that sense of community and having somewhat of a say in what we were doing, as images are how we make meaning. I invited so many people from different walks of life to be shot for this project. I wanted to completely democratize the idea of who was going to be in front of my lens and who is deemed "worthy" of being shot. I think my curiosity is the other thing that keeps this conversation of collaboration and openness as a common theme in my projects.

In what ways has your upbringing in Philly been rooted in your work and the practice that you've developed over time through your photography?

I think Philly instills a certain sense of humility that I don't think will ever leave me. I feel like it's just the one place where no one cares how I identify and people are just happy for me to be alive and able to support myself. Those are things that run in my family and also within everyone in my city because you just don't really get to see that often. Being from the neighborhood I grew up in, I have such an appreciation for the bigger things that I do because I know that this wasn't promised. Growing up there, the median income of the city was under $30,000 and having access financially to do half of what I do on a day-to-day basis is such a rarity. At 26, I don't take it lightly and it grounds me. It grants me a full perspective of life. 

How have the aforementioned sentiments contrasted or aligned with your choosing to name this new show Quiladelphia?

Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love, which is a principle that like everybody in the city really takes to heart. There's such a kinship growing up in that space, and every person from Philly has such strong Philadelphia pride. I can't escape my upbringing, and I'm never really trying to, as it's such a special place. I think that is where I can always attribute my drive and ambition to. At the same time, it's a city where people really like to "put that sh*t on" and wear dope things but that's because they work really hard for the things that they do have.

But I wouldn't be Quil if I hadn't lived in Philly. Living here has informed my masculinity from a young age, and how I wanted to disrupt that. I feel like I've done that throughout my entire career with different things but this show is just a bigger statement. Quiladelphia is literally my viewpoint that also offers intimacy and love in the same way that I feel like my city has offered me.

How did you approach the curation of pieces that you decided to include in Quiladelphia, which is your first solo show?

I think that I wanted to outwardly explore how implanted the ideas of being "he/him" have been onto my body because of my genitalia. But also, how my masculinity was always in response to the fact that I grew up with all really strong women; it was far more nuanced. I saw them have a sense of masculinity in ways that men were lacking when it came to stability, maturity and intelligence. I watched women balancing and navigating having both [feminine and masculine] energies in a way that was really interesting, and I think that anyone in Philadelphia will tell you that the women from our city are very strong.  When I visit other places, I see women play into more of a stereotypical role, whereas I feel like the women of Philadelphia play all roles. In observing that, I felt like my understanding of masculinity was completely different from that of everyone around me and that I wasn't limiting my exploration of that. For me, masculinity has always felt like more of a question versus something that has been strictly defined.

In my approach to making this work, there are a lot of things that went on. It was a lot of introspection and just figuring out who I was in this current moment, and what that meant for Black queer consciousness. What does queerness mean as a figure but then as a Quil Lemons photograph? What does mean to other people? Then I thought about how the word "gay" has become a blanket statement from slurs to queerbaiting as a sense to reclaim the term. A lot of these things aren't really gay. In certain circles, it's cool to be gay, but not actually gay. I'm fully about it, though. However, in Philadelphia, that word is so freely used and has been integral to how I speak even. I didn't like seeing the co-opting of a queer experience through art and media through all of these things. I'm actually gay, and I wanted to incorporate these things into what this work is trying to say. At the same time, I wanted to make things that were so unique and niche about my Black gay experience with themes were a lot deeper, like the desire of intimacy or sensuality. I went into unpacking images that I don't think I've ever been given the space to curate and questioning why that was. As someone who's been successful with my work in the past, I didn't want to bring limits to the work regarding the way that we name ourselves because I don't think they need to influence it. That's what outside society is for. I wanted to enter the world of making something new.

Below are several images from Quil Lemons' show that are now on view.