In what they call “a love letter to brothers everywhere,” Renfroe, Curtis and a team of emerging Black artists are expanding the work into a short film, “What Flying Feels Like,” coming this November.
Reclaiming the Black subject in photography
Since then, generations of photographers have employed different creative methods to showcase their community as they see it. When Renfroe was first conceptualizing “Black Boy Fly” in 2018 he knew that he wanted to re-examine Black masculinity and boyhood. At the time he was only in his second year of photography, practicing on digital and film in his spare time while balancing a full time job.
The resulting 240-pages of photographs walk the line between documentary and surrealism; some of the images are of organic scenes captured in the moment, whereas others are staged. Part of the beauty of the project is that you cannot always tell which is which.
Joshua Renfroe wanted to create a work that present Black male experience in a variety of ways outside of stereotypical norms. Credit: Courtesy Joshua Renfroe
“This was a deeper visual investigation of Black maleness,” said Taylor. “The work that ‘Black Boy Fly’ was doing outside of the book was just as important as the work inside of it.” Taylor, who earned his masters in education policy with research on Black masculinity in visual culture, knew he wanted to work with Renfroe to create scenes where Black boys and men represented happiness instead of trauma.
“For us, it was sort of about building this world for Black males to get lost in. Like being able to say that we are not just one thing, but we have the ability to have joy; we have the ability to rest; we have the ability to just show up in the world as our full selves,” he said.
Taylor and Renfroe both said they wanted to create a work that could exist accessibly, not just in art spheres. Between this year’s reissue of the book and the ongoing production of the film, their goal was to make room for what Taylor called, “an elevated discourse around what Black maleness is, whether it be sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or any of the things that fall under the umbrella.”
Co-directing the film allowed them the room to merge their tones, aesthetics and voices to depict “even a fraction of what it feels like to exist in a Black male body,” said Renfroe.
Creating during the pandemic
Joshua Renfroe and Curtis Taylor Jr. continued production of their short film during quarantine by collecting footage through digital submissions. Credit: Courtesy James Jeter
When the pandemic no longer allowed them to continue shooting outside or in-studio, the co-directors turned to experimental, user-generated footage from models and friends around the country. As a result, they were actually able to showcase more than they anticipated. Instead of only including shoots in the major urban hubs of America, they were able to collect footage from lesser-represented regions, such as Renfroe’s native Midwest.
From book to film
The upcoming short film, will exhibit themes of dimensionality — reflecting the spectrum of Black maleness — and also performance, specifically addressing how Black men are sometimes pressured to perform either for themselves or for the validation of others.
Overall, this is a project that has turned creative collaborators into brothers. Through this endeavor in what they call “world-making,” they are eagerly creating a space where boys and men who look like them can feel seen and validated.
“As a Black body we have always been filled with this sense of pride that is almost mythical,” reads a line from their film treatment. “‘Black Boy Fly’ is that space that Peter Pan talked about where you get to live in your innocence. It’s where you get to undo yourself and be free.”
“It was never just a photobook,” Taylor said. “What we built was a world. What we gave people is a living breathing organism. This photobook, in real time, built a brotherhood.”