Jason Flakes was a man on a mission. He wanted to photograph the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Flakes took early morning and late night walks around the building as it was under construction and studied the structure. To him it was a personal exploration in celebration of the museum’s highly symbolic architecture, designed and built by the renowned team of designer David Adjaye and architect Philip Freelon. This building, says the founding director Lonnie G. Bunch “will sing for us.”
Flakes was hearing those chords.
At 35, Flakes has been a photobug all of his life. His first camera was a Polaroid and he remembers helping his father Sherman Flakes, a Washington, D.C., photographer, in the family’s basement dark room. “I never thought it would be something I’d be doing as a professional.” Today, Flakes runs the D.C.-based, award-winning Nomoi Design, specializing in architectural photography, multimedia and industrial design.
The unique architecture of the new museum on the National Mall features a corona that recalls the three-tiered crowns used in West African Yoruban art. A bronze lattice covering all four sides pays homage to the South’s decorative ironwork created by the unknown and unnamed enslaved 18th and 19th century craftsmen working in Louisiana and South Carolina. “All of these things, I wanted to highlight,” says Flakes.
Flakes found us and we’re glad he did. We spoke with Flakes about what if felt like to accomplish his mission.
Your business is named Nomoi Design. What is the significance of that name?
It stems from the Greek root word of ergonomics. It means natural laws. For me, photography is about adhering to those natural laws and to take photos that are natural, that are pleasing to the eye and they feel in tune with the photo. There's always an artist side of it. You see a lot of architectural photography and they just focus on the artistic side, but it’s much more than that. When you're an architect or a general contractor, you're building a space. These spaces are products of design so there's a lot of thought that goes into these spaces. When you're trying to take a natural picture you want to focus more on the things that they put into the space, so it could be the lighting, it could be the finishes, the materials and processes. It could be something as simple as the ergonomics of the interior design of the space. You need to bring all this out, sometimes in just one shot, but it still has to look and feel natural.
What drew you to this building?
There's nothing really quite like this building in D.C. As an African-American photographer, I felt the need to photograph it and be a part of this construction process and this building process. I also wanted to highlight some of the features. As I started to do more research and find out some of the symbolism within the structure itself and how the corona symbolized the African King’s crown and all the panels—I think it’s 3,036 different panels, and how they refract off of the light. All these things I wanted to highlight and bring out because it represents much more than just a building.
Do you have any mentors? What photographer do you most appreciate?
Kirk Gittings, he's an American photographer and was very crucial when I first started out in architectural photography. He helped with a lot of questions I had, things about the business and he reviewed my portfolio a few times and really helped me. Then there's Vincent Laforet. His work was a catalyst for me.
Why is that?
Before I took photos and they were decent but after studying his work it caused me to push my limits and excel at a faster rate, to try to be better. I did study underneath him, took a couple classes with him a few years back. He's a famous American photographer these days but he helped me out a lot. Then there's Allan Chochinov, an American industrial designer. He just helped me with the design process. Photography really is a design process and what he taught me everything is a product of design. Everything goes through a design process.
Whether it’s service related or a system, experience or it’s a product, all these things go through some sort of process of design to be created. My photography it is very much a design process. It’s not just oh, this is a good angle, let’s take a good picture here. It’s really analyzing that space that someone else created and thinking about all the other entities involved, interior designers, furniture designers, the carpet layers, the electricians, lighting designers. All these other people come together to bring a space together. When you photograph that space are you capturing that space for all of those people? Because it represents everyone’s work. It’s not just one person. The architect may have been the one to do a lot of the designing but now you have these other crafts that are involved, so you want to be able to capture all of that.
What are you physically doing when you're trying to pull all of that into one photograph?
For me, I do a walk through. It sounds very artsy, but I really just walk through the space and feel it. Look around and see it from different angles. Once you see everything from a different viewpoint, from different angles, then you see how it came together. You might see a staircase and not realize it wasn’t there before. They had to actually cut a hole in the ceiling above and build the staircase, so that’s a key feature. It may not look like much but for them that’s very prominent so that’s something that needs to stand out in the photo, I need to bring that out so people take notice of it in the image. I think part of it is I went to school for design so for me it’s easy to just see it. It’s hard to put it into words.
When you were photographing the museum did you go there before dawn and study it?
I actually went there a couple of times. I've been there at night and walked around it. A couple days before I did a brief scout. I was thinking about doing a time lapse of it to catch the sun from different points of view so I scouted it out early in the morning. Another time it was around noon and I actually went back towards the evening, a little before sunset. It was near golden hour.
It sounds like you’ve developed a kind of obsession for this building.
I have. This is an amazing piece to put right here on the corner, not too far from the Washington Monument. There's no other building there. So it really stands out. I'm thinking, what are people going to think when they're driving by? I've heard some people get really excited about it but what do people think when they see it for the first time? Do they understand the meaning and the purpose of this building? With all the race relations and things going on in America right now, there are some people African-American or not, who disagree with this. They think it’s going to do a disservice and not really tell the story. For me, being quiet is more detrimental than not speaking at all. Aside from that, I was also wondering if the architect achieved his vision. Did he get the building to a place where he wanted it to be? What difficulties arose throughout this project? Are there things he wanted to do that he wasn’t allowed to do? These are some of the things I was thinking about as I was pacing around the building.
And when you were photographing it how were all of those complex feelings impacting the work you were doing?
When I'm photographing it I usually try to put all that aside. Any kind of vices or emotion that I have, I try to put those aside when I'm photographing anything because I want to try to create a non-biased piece. I don't want it to be something because I felt that it should be that way. I want to try to put myself in the shoes of the people that built it as much as possible. I am the one taking the picture, there is still a piece of me there but as much as I can I try to think about them. If they were me, what would they want to show if they had the ability to take the shot?
Did you see anything there you really want people to take special note of?
The façade. When you see a book, they say you can't judge a book by its cover but if it’s got a good cover you're going to want to open it. The façade, that is what really stood out to me because that is what's going to draw people in.