2016 Lange–Taylor Prize: Steven M. Cozart, "The Pass/Fail Series"

Steven M. Cozart

Honorable Mentions Awarded to Carlotta Cardana and Danielle SeeWalker

And to Phyllis Dooney and Jardine Libaire

The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University has awarded the twenty-fourth Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize to American artist, illustrator, and documentarian Steven M. Cozart. His winning proposal, The Pass/Fail Series, primarily explores colorism within the African American community. The $10,000 prize is given to encourage documentary work in the tradition of acclaimed photographer Dorothea Lange and writer and social scientist Paul Taylor and supports documentary artists—working alone or in teams—whose extended fieldwork projects rely on the interplay of words and images.

The inspiration for Cozart’s project came from a piece he created in 2013, a self-portrait in which he argued with himself. “The portrait was intended to be a representation of the internal turmoil that takes place within many African Americans who struggle with their own acceptance or rejection of their identity within the confines of the African American community,” he writes.

The Durham, North Carolina, native began an ongoing body of work meant to spark introspective dialogue about issues of “classism and stereotyping by African Americans toward other African Americans based on several factors, including skin tone, hair texture, gender roles, and other myths and fallacies prevalent in the community.” Cozart started The Pass/Fail Series in Durham, interviewing his parents. He then interviewed, filmed, and photographed family, friends, colleagues, and students—African Americans of various backgrounds and ages—who were “able to engage in conversations about color and social acceptance within their families, social circles, and larger community.”

For The Pass/Fail Series, Cozart makes paintings, drawings, mixed-media collages, and short videos about each subject and “uses the photographs, video stills, and audio excerpts from these conversations to create combinations of imagery and text. The individuals’ portraits and words are drawn on the surfaces of paper bags; the portraits on the side, the words on the bottom. The portraits take on a life of their own when matched with the subjects’ words. My intent is that the viewer imagines they can hear the voices of the individuals speaking.

“The work evokes the ‘brown paper bag test,’ a discriminatory act that was used in some social circles within the African American community to determine whether an individual could have privileges of access. Being lighter than the paper bag was desirable, though colorism cuts both ways, and being of a light complexion has also been used as a means to impugn one’s ‘blackness.’

“My mother, who was of a much lighter complexion than her sisters, is quoted as she speaks about the experiences of my grandmother having to explain her [daughter’s] complexion. Conversely, in my sessions with Officer Watkins, she talked about condescending, passive, and sometimes aggressive commentary she has received throughout her life related to her dark complexion.

“When I began talking to people about a caste system based upon skin tone, I thought that darker folk would have negative stories and lighter ones would have more success stories, but I was only half right. I did hear tales of woe from darker­skinned folk, but was surprised to hear the same woes from lighter­skinned folk as well, including my mother. At this point in my journey, I have realized that while I wanted to open the eyes of the public, I have succeeded in opening my own eyes to my own preconceived notions.”

The Pass/Fail Series, Cozart believes, will create dialogues “that promote sensitivity, understanding, self-awareness, and self-love. It is a project with no perceived end, as it involves conversations that must continue to take place in the African American community as we move forward into the future. My ultimate goal is to spark conversations both inside and outside of the community as a means to create understanding and hopefully minimize, or even eradicate, fallacies and preconceptions.”

Steven M. Cozart, who lives and works in Greensboro, North Carolina, received his BFA in art education, with a concentration in printmaking and drawing, from East Carolina University in 1995. Cozart’s work has been exhibited at North Carolina’s Greenville Museum of Art, Center for Visual Arts in Greensboro, Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art, the African American Atelier, and the Randolph Artist Guild, and he has received grants and awards from the Central Piedmont Regional Artists Hub and the Fine Artists League of Cary, among others. Cozart teaches at Weaver Academy for Performing & Visual Arts and Advanced Technology in Guilford County and has been a visiting lecturer at East Carolina University, North Carolina A&T State University, and Guilford College.

Honorable Mention to photographer Carlotta Cardana and writer Danielle SeeWalker for The Red Road Project, a collection of photographs and stories exploring the “relationship between Native American peoples and their identities today. . . . Photographs can be powerful tools for engaging an audience and telling a story, but it is only through words that one can learn a fuller story.”

Honorable Mention to photographer and filmmaker Phyllis Dooney and writer Jardine Libaire for Gravity Is Stronger Here about an “archetypal American family in Greenville, Mississippi, who—together with their openly gay daughter, Halea—dream out loud while fighting recurrent domestic narratives.” The transmedia project combines video, audio, photography, and poetry “to hold space for multiple truths.”

The other finalists for the 2016 Lange-Taylor Prize were Nina Berman, Sahara Borja, Ian Brown, Patricia Corbett and Leslie Cunningham, Jess Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre, Jennifer Karady, Justin Maxon, Pamela Pakker-Kozicki and Sharon Grainger, Brittany Powell, Eugene Richards, Sydelle Willow Smith and Olivia Rose Walton, and Katja Torres and Gabriela Ros.