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Meet Marilyn Nance: Photographer/Psychic?

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A few weeks ago, I had a long, meandering conversation with Marilyn Nance at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. That's where her photos are part of an exhibit, now nearing its end, surveying African-American art. Although I was initially unfamiliar with her work, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

Apparently, Nance isn't just a photographer.

"I'm half psychic, but not enough to win the lotto," she says with a big smile. "It's like a gift of vision."

Obviously a photographer would have a gift of vision. But Nance, aka "Soulsista," says it's more of a sixth sense — a feeling for when things are going to happen — and so she often finds herself in the right place at the right time. Case in point: We were barely scratching the surface when I had to end our conversation. But several hours later, I ran into her completely coincidentally. She didn't seem too surprised.

Nance was born in New York City in 1953. Her mother worked in a factory, and her father manned an elevator at the post office. She was the first in her family to go to art school — Pratt Institute — although that decision was met with reluctance from her mother. "If I declare that I'm an artist," Nance says, "that doesn't sound like I'm gonna have a job."

But she's had work her whole life. Nance has been published by the likes of Life and The New York Times. And yet, according to the Library of Congress, "her photography is incidental to her central purpose: the exploration of human connections."

Nance has twice been a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith award in humanistic photography, her website biography reads, "for her body of work on African American spiritual culture in America ... [including the] Black Indians of New Orleans, an African village in South Carolina, churches in Brooklyn, and the first Black church in America."

In her photos of family gatherings, religious ceremonies and daily life, she captures an unguarded, tender beauty observable only to an insider.

"I have this cloak of invisibility that I put on," she says, explaining her other superpower.

Like many artists, Nance is first an observer, a people-person, a humanist. For her, the camera is just one way of processing life's experiences.

"We're all endowed with these powers, and I think we just need to acknowledge that," she says. "We're all really special; we all have stuff. But it's up to us to find out what our stuff is."

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