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The Life and Photography of Eli Reed

Chronicling the human experience has been a driving force for photography as long as the medium has existed. For Eli Reed, the task goes much further than just the experience, but into the inner lives of the people in front of the lense. Born in New Jersey, Eli Reed began his artistic journey at the Newark School of Fine Art studying illustration. Shortly after his graduation in 1969, he began work as a freelance photographer. His work in Guatemala, El Salvador, and other Central American countries earned him recognition with Magnum in 1982, and he would eventually become a full-time member six years later. It was around this time that he would begin his extensive work in the film industry as a stills and specials photographer for major films including

The Five Heartbeats (1991), Poetic Justice (1992), and 8 Mile (2002). Still, Reed remained true to his photojournalistic roots with the publication of his books on Beirut (1983-1987), the US in Panama (1989), and, most notably, Black in America. This book, over 20 years in the making (1970s-late 1990s), details both some of the most dramatic events in civil rights history and the everyday lives of America’s black population. It is from this collection that I have chosen the image for this presentation. This photograph is particularly striking for a number of reasons. The bleakness surrounding the children makes for a striking contrast; juxtaposing youthful innocence against destruction in an environment devoid of hope. The kids treat the abandoned car as a toy, speaking to the blissful ignorance of their situation. Despite this they proudly stand tall, mirroring the buildings around them.

Compositionally, the way the silhouette of the car reflects the shape of the skyline across the street is almost like a mirror, which helps to guide the eye to the children on top of the car, then down toward the open window and then to the trunk. Eli Reed has always been fascinated with the lives of African-Americans, with a focus on racial equality and the hardships of inner-city life. With no particular fascination with the grandeur of an event, the focus of the images in Black in America spans from the minutiae of everyday life to the small details of major civil rights events.

For Reed, the allure of his work is the lives of the people he’s photographing, and as he puts it: “The main thing for me is that I’m happy that I’ve been able to work as a professional photographer. What is at the core of my work is, in essence, a meditation on being a human being.” The emphasis on humanity is clear in his work, enraptured by the vibrancy of Harlem’s population and culture. Even outside of this series, Reed has made it his life’s goal of capturing the tribulations of humanity all across the world. There is a universality to his work that allows anyone from around the world to see into the essence of what makes humanity what it is. Reed’s eye for composition and detail add to the narrative and emotional qualities of his work, allowing him to find the perfect balance of being socially conscious and visually striking

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