It’s a late September afternoon and the air is hazy with humidity ― just an occasional faint breeze stirs the leaves of one or two trees. I hurry out of an Uber and make my way into an old-school Cantonese restaurant by the name of Wo Hop in Chinatown.
As I entered, I’m greeted front and center by the Harlem-born photographer and visual artist Chuck Marcus. With a warm grin, he quickly jumps to his feet and extends his hand out for a firm handshake.
Outgoing, driven, and personable, Marcus sits down to chat with me at his favorite restaurant.
Inspired by his love of dancing and New York City, he shares with me his running love affair with photography.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this sentiment rings true for Marcus’ work. The young artist loves to capture personality, light, and honest beauty in all forms with authenticity and a fresh vision.
With a definitive eye for culture, Marcus has worked for numerous brands including Sirius XM, KITH NYC, David Z, Play Cloths, and much more.
His upcoming exhibit “Awkward Spaces” is yet another testament of his talent and dedication to his craft.
“Awkward Spaces” focuses on capturing professional dancers in places you wouldn’t normally expect. Creating a playful juxtaposition, his images teach us that you cannot stop life or movement, and that beauty, grace and happiness can continue in the most peculiar places.
As we continue to feast on our delicious meals, I learn about Marcus’ creative process, his dislike for Instagram, and his aim to capture the essence of a subject in order to tell a story.
Astrid Sarmiento: Let's start with your personal journey. Tell me about your work. What inspired you to get into photography?
Chuck Marcus: I’m definitely inspired by my dad - he’s done a lot of street photography and the way that he works sparked my interest in photography.
Once I got my feet wet in the art form and started developing my own style, I started to draw myself towards products, campaigns and minimalistic photos.
I like things with vibrant colors, not too many things in the background, just very minimalistic. Recently I’ve seen myself more drawn to woods, black, whites just plain backgrounds and having objects that are there sitting idly.
What inspires me to create mostly is storytelling, but storytelling from my point of view, and not generic; focusing on the details and leaving the story open-ended so that the consumer has the ability to create their own ending.
AS: How long have you been doing photography?
CM: Professionally, I’ve been working for five years. But if you ask me, I’ve been around a camera since the age of ten.
AS: How has living and being from Harlem influenced your work?
CM: My environment has definitely molded and shaped my work, but access to the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture has greatly influenced me because I have access to any Black photographer that I've ever wanted to study, like James Van Der Zee, Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks.
AS: That’s amazing and what is your current state of mind before we continue with the interview? Besides being hungry of course.
CM: [Laughs] Word! Well, lately I’ve been very preoccupied with work, just starting a new position in a different aspect of my passion, teaching kids photography. Working with them and being a witness to their eagerness, makes me even more antsy to create more content.
Besides that, I’m ecstatic, very excited to release this content to people and very eager to see how people will process it and very eager to receive their feedback.
I view the world as a painting, but a painting with a blank canvas and the people you meet on a day-to-day basis help paint and conceptualize that canvas. Encountering energy from others and fusing it with mine creates the color needed to produce this image.
AS: As a photographer, what are some things you do to keep that spark alive between you and the camera?
CM: My shooting style is really centered around details and moments. It’s a necessity for me to make sure that each detail and moment is captured with every subject.
AS: What is your creative process like?
CM: It takes me about two and a half weeks to produce a photoshoot. The first step is the initial concept meeting. From the concept meeting, we exchange references and from there we finalize the concept. Following that, we create a moodboard that brings the ideas to life and we also use this to help us choose a location, mood, tones and colors that will be referenced in the shoot. After this is completed, we proceed to create art.
AS: What type of challenges do you come across during this process?
CM: Being with the subject or client, understanding their style and ideas, and figuring out how to insert my own personal style into this vision.
AS: What do you think are your artistic strong points and what are the things you think you should work on?
CM: I believe I have an ability to connect personally with my subjects and in that, I feel it brings the best moments out of them in my work. Capturing color and tones is another strong point for me that I constantly focus on. At times I feel like I over-photograph, trying to make sure that I capture the perfect lighting, and I’m learning how to do that with every image.
AS: I like that though; it’s because you’re a perfectionist, you care about your work. Being that you pay attention to detail, what do you think about before taking the photo?
CM: [Laughs] Thanks and I think about the sun and framing if it’s outdoors and if indoors, I think about the tone and color. I also look into the subject’s eyes and just try to capture that feeling.
AS: Yes, I believe that a camera serves as a way to look into people's souls. So how important is it to have some chemistry between you and your subject?
CM: It’s very important and that is why the process takes so long before we create art, because I feel like we have to connect on a personal level and I need to get a feel of their energy; the way they think and the way they view the world. Like the late, great Gordon Parks said, “The subject is more important than the photographer,” and that is one thing that I’ve lived by since the beginning of my journey.
AS: Tell me, what is your craziest experience from shooting and interacting with people?
CM: I’ve been fortunate to not have crazy experiences, but one of my favorite experiences was photographing a close friend of mine for her engagement shoot. Also, shooting Pusha T for a series of concerts; he is very interactive and has a lot of character that is shown through his expressions and his knowing that the camera is around.
AS: What series of work are you most proud of?
CM: My work with up-and-coming influencers, including Tastemaker and Creative Director for Craft Perfecters, Lamont Howard, is some of my favorite work. Everything that I’m passionate about including, color and tones are present in this series of images and I’m extremely proud of them.
Like the late, great Gordon Parks said, “The subject is more important than the photographer,” and that is one thing that I’ve lived by since the beginning of my journey.
AS: What do you think of the photography industry at the moment?
CM: It's very, very saturated. I think it's about finding your lane and being true to that; it's not about the cool factor, but about finding your style and inspiration and remaining true to that as a person who photographs images.
AS: So what are your opinions on social network sites like Instagram and Tumblr, do you think they are a benefit to the art world or a hindrance?
CM: I dislike Instagram because the validation of likes and comments keeps the people going, but on the other hand love Tumblr, because even though it is just notes, you're able to give more content to the world. If I had a favorite, it'd be VSCO, reason being, you can't see who's following you or who loves your images; it's all about releasing your content to the world freely. If it inspires you, it inspires you. If it doesn't, it's just an image.
AS: That’s so true and if you had the opportunity to photograph something or someone that you haven’t already, what or who would it be?
CM: If I had the opportunity, I'd love to photograph a campaign for Under Armour, be it still life, on model, in studio or outdoors. I feel like through their recent work and influencer/celebrity partnerships, they're up next.
AS: Speaking of what’s up next, you have an upcoming show called “Awkward Spaces.” What inspired you to go out and captured dancers performing in unassuming spaces around NYC?
CM: The idea came from a conversation, nothing more, nothing less. I had a conversation with a friend who's a dancer and she brought up this concept about doing a shoot featuring her in a supermarket and that really grew into this series from that moment. From there, I reached out to more dancers, expanding the range of the phrase, "awkward spaces," shooting them in varied locations around the city.
AS: Oh that’s pretty neat! So what are you seeking to achieve with “Awkward Spaces” ?
CM: My goal is to have people understand there is no designated setting to dancing. I don't feel like I have a specific goal, it's more so about changing the landscape and forcing people to ask, "Why?"
AS: Is photography your only artistic medium?
CM: No, I also enjoy dancing. I've danced nearly my entire life actually, from the age of 5 to 19 and I also write poetry. My passion for this show and this moment stems from my personal life experience.
It's all about releasing your content to the world freely. If it inspires you, it inspires you. If it doesn't, it's just an image.
AS: Cool! So what is something that you are still learning?
CM: I'm still learning and growing when it comes to my art. The learning never stops as a photographer and I'm constantly aiming to connect and grow and push the culture as best as I can.
AS: Do you find yourself always looking at the world wondering how it would look as a photograph? What is your perspective of the world and on life?
CM: I view the world as a painting, but a painting with a blank canvas and the people you meet on a day-to-day basis help paint and conceptualize that canvas. Encountering energy from others and fusing it with mine creates the color needed to produce this image.
AS: At the end of the day, how do you want your viewers to remember you and your art?
CM: I want people to identify an image and know immediately that I photographed it. I'm working to be the Gordon Parks of our current time.