East Baltimore poet and photographer t.p. Luce’s 2004 thaBloc book is sort of like Baltimore’s version of the 2002 movie City of God: photos of kids in their early teens or younger showing off their guns and sexiest poses (Arts & Entertainment, Dec. 22, 2004). The images are shocking because the kids are growing up too fast, too violent, and too poor, but made more complex, if not more palatable, by Luce’s accompanying Gil Scott-Heron-style poetry.
Now Luce—the pen name of Ellis Marsalis III, brother to Wynton and Branford, son of Ellis Jr.—has selected a handful of the images from thaBloc to display at spoken-word poetry ingénue Jacqui Cummings’s soul café, Notre Maison. The exhibition focuses on portraiture, not street politics, and showcases Luce’s talent for spotting captivating faces and making delicate, intimate images out of them.
In his Belair-Edison neighborhood he saw faces like the ones in “Horsing Around on the Deck” (1997), which shows a shirtless boy of about 4 or 5 years, showing off for the camera on his front porch with one of his buddies. The laughter in both faces is unmistakable, but what gives the shot weight is that both boys are wearing shabby old-fashioned leather roller skates that the boys have clearly made a day of fun out of.
“The Wakers” (1994) is a family portrait, with each child posed as if in a studio, taken in front of a graffiti-scarred wall and a plywood-boarded door. Another image shows off Luce’s discerning eye for beautiful, intense faces: “fishedboy” is a child with penetrating eyes emerging chiaroscuro from a black and white brick-wall background.
The only socially charged images are “In the Shade of the Trees” (2000), which shows a teenage boy holding a firearm at his waist, and “Mylar: 4 tha brutha’s who ain’t here,” a series of five photos of telephone-pole memorials with mylar balloons, teddy bears, and T-shirts lashed to them. The accompanying poem is a critique on the media’s coverage of street violence, but it also recasts these urban memorials as totem poles erected in response to the lifestyles that cut short young black men’s lives.
The best image in the whole show is “The Door” (1997), a large geometric image dominated by a white front door in front of which sits a pretty toddler-aged girl on the stoop. The grainy image gives the girl’s face a sallow, wistful look as she gazes to one side. She appears bored, waiting to be let in, as if she, even at her young age, understands the futility of expecting to be granted entrance into the white-door metaphor behind her. The subtlety is entirely in this girl’s face, and in this single moment Luce captures everything— promise, poverty, personality, and growing up too fast—he wants to discuss.