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In Good Company

Years of collaborative relationships converge in Photography faculty member Cecil McDonald Jr.’s debut monograph.

Candor Arts creator, alum Matt Austin ’09, has been busy publishing In the Company of Black, a 144-page debut monograph by Photography faculty member Cecil McDonald Jr. Austin’s studio is littered with cloth and book board, but it’s not just the independent publisher shaping the book. The relationships among a community of artists and writers push the book’s photographs out into the world.

Austin first met McDonald at Columbia ten years ago as his Photo I teaching assistant. Since then, Candor Arts has gone through various iterations. Founded in 2015 as a business to help support makers through generous consignment terms, it then changed to include online retail, but recently the retail element was removed to focus more on publishing.

Candor Arts, In the Company of BlackAustin assembles a cover of In the Company of Black in his studio. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08.

There is a narrative quality in each Candor creation–one told through the layout, fonts, and the carefully chosen materials–that grows out of the relationships between Austin and the artists and writers he works with.

Candor Arts, In the Company of BlackAustin and McDonald review the layout. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08.

McDonald has been working on In the Company of Black for seven years, capturing everyday life that doesn’t fit into current representations of Black life as either victims or heroes. The artist used questions to move beyond that binary, asking: “Where are the people who make up the space in between?”

Candor Arts, In the Company of BlackInside In the Company of Black. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08.

“I turned over all the design to [Austin],” says McDonald. “You find someone who is good at what they do, and then you let them do it.” Austin’s first layout of In the Company of Black ended up being the one the photographer went with.

Candor Arts, In the Company of BlackMcDonald and Austin review the layout in Austin's studio. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08.

Austin asked McDonald to make him a playlist to serve as background music while he curated the book’s materials and overall look. “It’s like a soundtrack. If I didn’t have that soundtrack, I wouldn’t have heard this upbeat funk he was thinking about when considering the book. If I was just looking at these sometimes somber pictures, I would have wondered if it was a sad book. That’s why the colors are vibrant and light.”

Candor Arts, In the Company of BlackThe book inside a limited edition clamshell box. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08.

“[Austin] brought swatches for me to choose from, in regards to color, fabric choices,” says McDonald. “He picked those based on the palette I used in the photographs.”

Candor Arts, In the Company of BlackMcDonald Jr. and Austin review book cloth sample swatches. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08.

McDonald's photographs anchor the book, but an essay from Art and Art History alum Tempestt Hazel ’10 and poetry from multi-disciplinary artist Avery R. Young create an ensemble of voice and texture. “They don’t simply speak to the pictures,” says McDonald. “Their work stands alone with a peripheral reference to the imagery.” Hazel is a former student of McDonald's, and both she and Young have collaborated with him in the past. “Some of these poems came out of conversations that happened four or five years ago.”

Candor Arts, In the Company of BlackWriting and photography work together in McDonald's book. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08.

McDonald is also an alum of Columbia’s Photography program, earning his MFA in 2008. Both he and Austin studied under photographer and Associate Professor Dawoud Bey, and the chain of student-teacher-mentor continues on April 29 when McDonald and Bey present at the Chicago Humanities Festival. “We’ll look at [the work’s] arc,” says McDonald. “Dawoud was my advisor during grad school, and I started this work then, so he’s seen it develop.”

Candor Arts, In the Company of BlackPhoto: Phil Dembinski '08.

In the Company of Black Book Launch and Signing
Friday, April 28
6–9 p.m.
Filter Photo
1821 W. Hubbard St.

Photographing Black Life - Chicago Humanities Festival
Cecil McDonald Jr. and Dawoud Bey
Saturday, April 29
12–1 p.m.
Fullerton Hall, Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Ave.

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