Portraiture on the rise

iMPeRFeCT Gallery presents Terrell Halsey's Ascend: Beyond the Veil

3 minute read
Black and white portrait photos are lined up in two rows on a white wall in an exhibit hall
Portraits featured in Halsey's exhibit at iMPeRFeCT Gallery. (Photo courtesy of Terrell Halsey.)

Walking into the opening reception of photographer Terrell Halsey’s exhibition Ascend: Beyond the Veil, on view at Germantown's iMPeRFeCT Gallery, felt like a family reunion. I was immediately greeted and welcomed by the artist’s parents, wife, son, and friends. The air of familiarity was palpable.

A similar sentiment is reflected in his art, a sense that it's been seen before, but in a way that is more comforting than cliché. While admittedly the thought of another series of black-and-white street portraits in urban settings may initially induce an eyeroll, in this case, keeping an open mind and eyes is required. Instead of the expected gritty and raw effect common in the genre, Halsey achieves a subtle level of softness and sincerity in each digital image.

A boy to a man

Set in Center City Philly between 2015-2020, the featured pieces in Ascend represent a retrospective and progression of Halsey’s portfolio. An underlying journey embedded in the exhibit is his own growth from a boy to a man in the city. Earlier images capture an innocence and earnestness in its subjects: primarily young, Black boys. Standout examples include Black Boy Joy, in which a young boy joyously frolics in the Logan Circle fountains splashing water about, and Wings, in which another boy rides on the back wheels of his bike in the middle of the street with his hands outstretched like a superhero—a dangerously blissful feat. Both are from 2017, and at 24x36 inches, each are two of the largest images of the exhibit.

A greater sense of internal and external conflict becomes more visually apparent in later work, as in 2018’s Leviticus 25:10, which features a darkly ambiguous image of a seated figure cloaked in a big swath of fabric. Is he houseless? Sleeping? Praying? Waiting for a bus? Given the Biblical title, there is an implied spirituality, but the corresponding verse offers little clarification:

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.

Film on hold

Similarly, images from the 2020 uprisings like Untitled and Starin at the World through My Rearview both hint at a general malaise, although the subjects of each, respectively a young boy on the Art Museum steps and a man sitting on his bike as a bystander to a nearby protest, maintain a detached hopefulness from their surroundings. Unfortunately, this is where the story ends, as these are the last images chronologically and within the exhibit space, leaving the audience with an incomplete story arch.

In the almost three years since the last of these images were taken, so much of the world has changed. It is therefore inevitable that the scope of Halsey's worldview, during this time in which he’s become a husband and father, has also evolved. Having at least one more recent image as a contrast to the other work would have been a benefit to understanding his more fully realized and current point of view, one that includes shooting on film versus exclusively digitally. In the absence of that, the exhibit feels more like one of an emerging artist than one who is already established and awarded. (Halsey recently received a Keystone Award Honorable Mention for the Silver Eye Center for Photography 2023 Fellowship.)

In a time where there is still a dearth of nuanced representation of Black life in visual mediums, Halsey’s greatest contribution could be in helping to build that catalog, especially of images of Black boyhood and masculinity. Ascend is a good start, but is far from finished.

What, When, Where

Ascend: Beyond the Veil. By Terrell Halsey. Through February 25, 2023, at iMPeRFeCT Gallery, 5539 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 869-1001 or imperfectgallery.squarespace.com.


The gallery is free to the public and wheelchair-accessible.

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