Still only 20 years old Eric Hart Jr. is fast becoming a name that you need to know in the photography world. Following a series of viral images of his grandparents that received widespread acclaim, the NYU student has turned his attention to work that focuses on raising awareness of topics from race to climate change to self image through his own creative journey. In this series, created in collaboration with the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G, we explore Eric’s creative process as he reflects on what it means to be a Black creative in 2020, using himself and his friends as his subjects.
At the start of the lock-down period in the United States, 20-year-old New York University photography student Eric Hart Jr. found himself in quarantine in his hometown of Macon, Georgia.
Like many others, Eric felt at a loss — unable to find creative solace, and nervous about the future of his studies, economic prospects, craft, and industry. He wanted to continue shooting portraits, but no longer had access to people… nor the sets, clothes, collaborators and more that had previously shaped the ambitious new multimedia brand Love Hart that he’d just launched. One restless afternoon, Eric turned to the two individuals he was sharing lockdown with for inspiration. He snapped a number of impossibly chic photographs of his grandparents Vickie and Junior, poised in their living room in sweatsuits and then uploaded the photographs online. They became an instant hit and went viral; unexpectedly, as is often the case, reaching thousands as they spun across screens around the world.
“I’d never been in a position where I’ve not been able to shoot,” says Eric. “Having that void really opened my eyes to how much I love what it is that I do. And through that experience with my grandparents, I also realised for the first time that I don’t have to look far to take photos.” These pictures have become his most beloved works. “I really cherish them,” he says.
For Eric’s most recent series, produced in collaboration with WePresent and Samsung, the photographer has continued to shoot close to home and with less overt planning and gear than he’s been used to in previous years. Having just travelled back to New York City for the (mostly remote) NYU semester, he found himself in quarantine again for two-weeks, shut away in his student dorm off Washington Square. Using only what was close at hand — in this case, a Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G phone, his roommates, and a few personal belongings — his newest series muses on the timely theme of “Reflection.” “Half of my new series was also shot in quarantine,” says Eric. “That was the major challenge; trying to figure out what resources I could use, and attempting to set something up in my dorm to actually shoot. It was complicated, but again like with my grandparents, fulfilling to accomplish.”
Eric approached the theme of “Reflection” by starting with the idea of a mirror, considering how people express themselves to the external world through signifiers like clothes and jewellery. “Sometimes I feel positive and handsome when I look in the mirror — like, I’m that guy. Other times I’m not as skinny as the media tells me I should be,” says Eric. “I wanted to create photographs that encapsulate internal and external ideas of ourselves. With everything that’s happening with the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m also reflecting on what it means to be a Black person and a Black creative — that’s influenced a lot of my art lately.”
Eric’s series is split into two halves: The first External, and the second Internal. His first External shoot took place in the confines of his dorm room, and features a model of color to represent Eric’s own identity and culture. A series of personal items — a do-rag, jewellery, nail polish — form the focus of the photographs; together, the images consider notions of self-expression. One of the black-and-white stills, for example, depicts a close crop of a Black man’s hand with carefully manicured nails and rings — a crop that Eric was able to snap using the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G phone’s “very precise” zoom-in capabilities. “I feel like my father’s hand would never look like this,” says Eric. “It’s a more ideally feminine look, and I’m someone who enjoys that. When I wear something like this, externally, I’m showing people that I don’t have to be a specific idea of what a man is. I can wear my rings and paint my fingernails.”
These closely-cropped, object-based images were a challenge to shoot — mostly because they were taken between beds in a tiny NYU dorm. “I was lucky that my roommate was here and that we were friends prior, because if he wasn’t, I don’t know what I would’ve done,” says the photographer. Eric was able to tweak and manipulate objects and how they hung on his model once he’d set up the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G phone, using the phone’s S Pen as if it were a shutter trigger to take photos. “I’ve been using it to shoot almost as I would with a tripod and entire set up,” he says, noting the ease with which the phone allowed him to create even in challenging circumstances.
For the second part of Eric’s “Reflection” series, which focuses on the internal world, the photographer shot a model in Washington Square (after he’d finished his two weeks in quarantine). In one photo, a model is surrounded by a cloudy sky while facing the camera; his eyes are closed as he reaches towards the camera. “For me, it’s almost like he’s in that battle of trying to work out who he should be or what he should be,” says Eric. “I think we constantly take in all these ideas about who we should be, what we should be, and it becomes an internal conflict between those questions and what you think about who you are yourself. So this picture is trying to capture that open dialogue: What is he reaching towards? Is he reaching towards himself? Or is he reaching towards what people expect him to be?” For this internal part of the series, Eric leant towards a more reminiscent, abstract tone — considering the feeling of the image, as opposed to what’s depicted in it, as with the more object-based counterparts to the series.
The photographer also notes that he’d never shot on a mobile device prior to this collaboration. “Being able to see the image constantly while you're shooting has been very helpful, especially for the outdoor images” he says, observing how the large, vibrant screen of the Samsung Galaxy Note20 Ultra 5G phone helped him feel immersed in the frames themselves as he was working. This feeling of envelopment was crucial to the atmosphere Eric was hoping to create with his Internal shots: Seeing the full image clearly on the screen from the get-go allowed him to find his ideal framings with quick and intuitive ease.
Ultimately, shooting at home this year, and with less gear, has provided space of inward reflection for Eric, and it's affected how he thinks about photography. He notes that there should be no pressure on people to feel creative right now, given that it's a time of rife anxiety and new economic challenges, and people deal with a crisis in such different ways. But for Eric personally — as a student honing his craft and eager to explore his preferred processes as a photographer — being resourceful and realising how much he missed portraiture when he wasn’t able to do it has reframed his own understanding of himself as a maker.
“I used to be such a planner,” he says. “But I feel like I’m starting to move into a space where I understand I can shoot anything, any time, and it’s not really about how much goes into it. I feel like I’m getting to a place where I understand photography as so much more than the way I was previously thinking about it.”