The art galleries of the Barnes Foundation are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the foundation marks both Father’s Day and the Black Lives Matter movement by projecting giant images of Black fathers and their children onto the side of its building.
After dark on Saturday and Sunday, from 8 to 11 p.m., a rotation of two dozen images by West Philadelphia photographer Ken McFarlane will light up the building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The pieces are called “From the Root to the Fruit: Black Fathers and Their Children” and feature formally posed and staged photographs McFarlane made in collaboration with the subjects. It is an ongoing photography project he started about five years ago.
The project began spontaneously, when McFarlane was driving to pick up his son from after-school care. He was rushing — the center was soon closing — but suddenly braked when he saw something he felt he had to photograph.
“I saw a young man named Marco holding his daughter in a way that literally stopped me in my tracks,” McFarlane remembered. “He was holding precious cargo. His daughter was maybe 3 or 4 months. He was strong but also gentle.”
McFarlane got out of his car and called out to the stranger. The man immediately became defensive.
“He turned his body, he shielded his daughter with his body,” McFarlane said.
He didn’t have his camera equipment on hand, but explained that he’s a photographer and wanted to take a portrait with his iPhone.
“I met his no. I watched him fix his mouth to say, ‘No,’ and I stopped him before it could get it past his lips,” McFarlane said. “I told him: ‘If you listen to the stories they tell about us, you don’t exist. You as a Black father don’t exist.’
“For a stranger to walk up to you to ask for a portrait, why would you say yes? He was defensive,” he said. “But what I said rang true to him.”
Marco relented. That image, and the experience of taking it, started McFarlane on a project to document the stories of Black fathers. Other than that first subject, he personally knows everyone with whom he makes a photograph. Most are from West Philadelphia. Many of the pictures are accompanied by text drawn from interviews McFarland conducted.
“All the men you see are men I have witnessed as fathers,” he said. “It was very important that I could vouch for the authenticity of the subjects.”
The photography series was initially installed a year ago in the bricked-up windows of the Traction Building, a former trolley factory-turned-artist studios in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philadelphia. It was supposed to last six months, but they are still there now.
Due to rising development in Mantua, the future of the old Traction building is in question. A group of men in the neighborhood were so struck by McFarlane’s images and the stories behind them, they collectively began to lobby for more exposure.
They contacted the local community services organization — the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) for assistance. The PEC has a partnership with the Barnes Foundation. The Barnes offers art-based programming out of the former bank building on Lancaster Avenue — and the idea to project the images along the Parkway was hatched.
“I’m more proud of that than anything else,” McFarlane said. “The greatest thing was that these men from the community didn’t want it to be temporary. They wanted it to be permanent.”
From the Barnes’ perspective, “From the Root to the Fruit” addresses many things simultaneously. By projecting the images on the exterior walls viewers are able to stay outside and remain socially distanced from one another during the pandemic. The photos recognize and honor the caring and dignity of Black men during a time of global upheaval sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. And this also is a special exhibit for Father’s Day.
“Those pictures will hopefully break those negative narratives that are prevalent around black fatherhood,” said Valerie Gay, the deputy director of audience engagement at the Barnes.
For Gay, the project is not just about the current moment: it’s timeless. The stories of these men speak to a reality that is widely felt but not often enough expressed.
“For many in our community, it’s an everyday issue. It’s one’s living existence,” she said. “As a Black woman who has an amazing Black dad, I’m happy people are starting to break these negative narratives. It’s not the narrative I grew up with.”
The images will be projected on the Barnes this weekend only, but McFarlane is not nearly done. He wants to take the photography project wider, documenting Black fathers across the country and, pending funding, around the world.