Profile: Todd Gray (1954-)

Todd Gray works in photography, performance and sculpture as a contemporary artist who lives and works in Los Angeles, California and Akwidaa, Ghana.

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Writing in the catalog for the exhibition Black is, Black, Ain’t at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, Amy M. Mooney writes “critics have noted that Gray’s work is “fluent in cultural iconography, driven by introspection, and steeped in issues of corporate politics and racial identity” and that his self-portraits thwart a traditional read of the exterior likeness”. Gray describes himself as an artist and activist who primarily focuses on issues of race, class, gender, and colonialism, and uses these lenses to challenge binaries in the past and present. In general, his work aims to challenge the viewer both by what he is including and what he is leaving out.

Early life and education

Gray was born in 1954 in Los Angeles, California. He got his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Valencia, California in 1979 and his Master of Fine Arts from CalArts in 1989.

Early career

Gray first turned onto photography in high school, when he took a class in it. Beginning in the early 1970s while still in high school, Gray worked as a commercial photographer in the music industry, photographing rock and R&B acts such as the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. Gray shot his first album cover at age 17. He continued to do so throughout the 1970s, allowing him to pay for college and then art school. To date, Gray has shot over 100 album covers.

Later/Current career

After graduating with his BFA from CalArts, Gray was asked by Michael Jackson to become his personal photographer, which he did in the period 1979–1983, during the time of Jackson’s landmark albums Off the Wall and ThrillerWhen Gray asked Michael’s manager Ron Weisner why Michael wanted him specifically, Ron responded that Michael said “I like Todd because he doesn’t talk much.” Gray described Jackson as being “very sensitive to the overt racism of the American press, well aware that a caption can completely alter the context of a photograph, perpetuating negative stereotypes. He scrutinized every photograph I made and only the images he approved were released to the press.” Gray’s work became greatly influenced by Michael Jackson’s exploration of race and gender, and to this day uses photographs of Jackson in his art. His work is often consisted of multilayered frames with photographs of only parts of Jackson shown, such as a hand or his jacket, adding to the notion of Jackson as a superior metaphysical being. These images are accompanied by more recent photographs of nature or interiors, many of which he shoots in Ghana.

Other works

On October 21, 2009, Gray published a book of rare photos titled Michael Jackson: Before He Was King.

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