In one of photographer Devin Allen’s images of his Baltimore, a young boy kicks his feet up in the air on a swing set, and the shadow he casts on the grass is precise and hard-edged enough to cut glass.
In another photo, plywood covers the windows and doors of a vacant rowhouse. Each sheet has a different grain that swirls and contrasts with one another, as well as with the horizontal flow of the surrounding bricks.
In a third shot, an older man and a younger one wearing black T-shirts and baseball caps lean against a doorway, gazing in opposite directions. Three of the pair’s four arms are covered with an intricate pattern of tattoos, but the youth’s left arm is strikingly smooth and bare.
The cumulative effect of Allen’s photographs is of a city that’s lively, arresting and — against the odds — undeniably gorgeous.
“A Beautiful Ghetto,” a collection of 100 black-and-white photographs of Allen’s hometown, will debut June 17 at a book release party at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. It’s the latest accomplishment for the self-taught photographer who gained acclaim for his images of the Baltimore unrest following the death of Freddie Gray.
“You never hear those two words ‘beautiful’ and ‘ghetto’ spoken together,” Allen said over the phone. “But that’s what the city is to me. Usually ‘ghetto’ is a negative, associated with some kind of blight. But I see so much joy and positivity on a regular basis.”
Not that Allen is blind to the rest. His photos also show drug paraphernalia, poverty and a sidewalk memorial commemorating a premature death.
Roughly half of his photos in the book document everyday life, but the remainders chronicle the 2015 unrest, including Allen’s iconic image of a young man, his face partly covered by a bandana, running down the street in front of a line of baton-wielding police officers. That’s the photo that ran on the cover of that year’s May 11 issue of Time — making Allen just the third amateur in the magazine’s history to win the coveted cover spot.
“A Beautiful Ghetto” also contains poetry by the Baltimore verse-maker Tariq Toure, an introduction by the Baltimore author and college professor D. Watkins, and essays by such figures as the author Wes Moore; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor at Princeton University; Aaron Bryant, the photography curator at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington; and, endearingly, Allen’s mother, Gail Allen-Kearney, who writes about the Baltimore she knew in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
Bryant praises Allen’s formal skills, which include a natural gift for composing an image, and describes him as an heir of the pioneering African-American photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks. (The national African American museum owns 18 of Allen's photos, and several are currently on view.)
“Parks saw photography as a weapon against social inequities,” Bryant writes. “It becomes easy, therefore, to see how Devin Allen might be considered a Gordon Parks for a twenty-first-century generation.”
Earlier this year, Allen and the New York photographer Harriet Dedman received the inaugural Gordon Parks Foundation fellowships. The $10,000 prize is given to artists working to advance social justice.
The hardcover book, which will be available at the Lewis Museum event before being published July 18, carries a list price of $24.95. Allen remembers craving similar books that were out of reach financially because they cost $50 to $100. “I wanted to keep my book as cheap as I could so people in my community can buy it,” he said.
In the two years since Allen’s images became famous, the 29-year-old photographer has received the kind of opportunities that can make careers.
A few months after the unrest, Allen began to work under contract for Under Armour, which sent him and his camera to such Asian capitals as Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
He had a solo show in Philadelphia in the winter of 2016 that received a glowing review by Philip Kennicott, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for The Washington Post. Last summer, a small exhibit of 10 images ran for about three weeks in Venice, Italy, a capital of the international art world. Shortly after returning from that trip, Allen was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s “SuperSoul Sunday” television program.
Allen relished his travels, which provided him with the chance to grow artistically.
But he keeps returning to West Baltimore, and not just because that’s where his mother and daughter live. For Allen, the scenes he sees every day at home are characterized by an elegance, generosity and complexity that rivals some of the world’s most exotic locales.
“Even before the uprising I had been roaming around different neighborhoods and taking photos that document the way I see the city,” he says.
“This book isn’t so much the story of Freddie Gray, but of how I see Baltimore. There’s this sweetness here. I was looking for a way to describe my experience, and the phrase I came up with before ‘a beautiful ghetto’ was ‘the heart of the city.’ ”
Besides, Baltimore is where Allen has become involved in getting cameras into the hands of as many at-risk youth as possible. He says often that photography saved his life, and he is determined that his won’t be the last. So far, his Through Their Eyes project has put 128 cameras into the hands of local boys and girls — a number he hopes to double by the end of this summer.
In the near future, he’ll be doing some work with a youth photography program in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. He and Watkins also are kicking around the idea of team-teaching a youth photo essay workshop, possibly at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center.
“I love working with kids,” Allen says. “It’s always promise. A lot of kids don’t know what’s going on in the world, so their days are full of joy. The future for them is still bright.”
If you go
Devin Allen will discuss and sign copies of “A Beautiful Ghetto” at a book release party at 2 p.m. June 17 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. Included with museum admission ($6-$8). 443-263-1800 or lewismuseum.org.
A second book-signing and discussion will take place at noon July 22 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Pennsylvania Avenue Branch, 1531 W. North Ave. Free. 410-396-0399 or prattlibrary.org.
About the book
“A Beautiful Ghetto” by Devin Allen will be released July 18 in hardcover ($24.95) by Haymarket Books. 128 pages.