Framing a shot is about more than just basic symmetry in the mind of Milton Washington. More complex than choosing a certain camera lens, Washington wants to tell a visual story. The unifying thread in his work is that we are all artists. To express that message, he looks for the unspoken truth behind every shot.
“I am first and foremost a storyteller. Life experiences are the emotional backbone of images,” he says. “My perspective on life and images is that everything’s rooted in emotion.” This translated into his expertise in visual development.
Telling stories on the streets of New York
Milton Washington, owner of Slickyboy Studios, is a rising star in the world of New York street photography. Captured with bold and stunning clarity, pristine lines and sharp color contrasts set Washington’s work apart. His images are poetic, dramatic, light, yet balanced, all at once. Almost more incredibly — he shoots exclusively on his smartphone. While he isn’t one for filmmaking shop talk, Washington’s use of shadow calls to mind of one of his favorite films—the 1983 hit, Scarface, directed by Brian De Palma.
Another of Washington’s favorites is The Triplets of Belville (2003), directed by Sylvain Chomet. A silent film with a story eerily similar to his own — the separation of family and the search for reunion.
He characterizes art into four categories: “good, indifferent, bad, and evil.” Yet, perhaps this rote characterization reflects Washington’s humility. Some images are so powerful that they can evoke a controversial condition called Stendhal Syndrome, which occurs when a person is confronted with an object or image of great beauty. At the least, his art is a subversive form of activism — it’s a movement. Similarly, many people have expressed that Washington’s work has truly changed their lives.
“Right now I’m working on a project that reenacts those really traumatic images of slavery. Yet, all of the people I’m featuring are white.” He shares. “People have an image of what an artist is supposed to look like,” Washington notes. “I don’t fit that. I look like a football player,” he laughs.
While controlled, there is certainly an element of catharsis in Washington’s work. “I know the emotions around rejection and isolation. Yet, one of my guiding philosophies is whether the image is fair or not,” he sighs.
A personal perspective
Perhaps the symmetry of his work reflects an attempt to respond to an early life filled with chaos and turmoil. Washington began his life in South Korea. As the son of a Korean mother and an African American father, adults treated him with contempt and often spat on his feet as he passed. His only friends were a gaggle of street children. Whispers followed Washington and his mother; it was often communicated to him that he was less-than.
“I knew what they were saying about me wasn’t right,” He explains. Even at six-years-old he intuitively knew that he was someone. He was right.
Washington was adopted by an American family at age eight, after which he left life in South Korea behind. Yet, new barriers arose. First, Washington had to learn English. His struggle to keep up with his peers, after years without any schooling at all inspired Washington to lead a variety of literacy campaigns in adulthood. The importance of education—and the way that classroom experiences can impact self-esteem is something that Washington lived.
“The ceiling for art should be high,” he notes. Art was in many ways the anecdote for an educational system that only seemed interested in Washington’s academic performance. In short, the system didn’t regard Washington as a whole person.
Thus, alongside his advocacy for education, he also stresses the importance of learning a craft through constant practice.
“One of the reasons so many people don’t consider themselves artists is because lack of money and lack of proficiency can be barriers. I just want people to express themselves and enjoy expressing themselves. Now that everyone has a smartphone, there’s no reason you can’t start expressing yourself as an artist.”
If Milton Washington is making no excuses, neither should you.
Keep up with Milton Washington at slickyboystudios.com.