The South Los Angeles photographer “pulls up” on locals for ten-minute photo sessions. She also shoots Black cultural events.
By Jason Lewis
Zay Monae was the guest presenter at the July Los Angeles Standard Newspaper Camera Club meeting, and she discussed the ins and outs of her 85mil series project.
“I drive to their house and I try to capture their essence in about five to ten minutes,” she said. “I’ll do like 15 people in one route. So far I’ve done five rounds, and I’ve taken about 85 portraits.”
The shots are simple but impactful at the same time. Monae fills the frame of her shot with her subject, and she uses a plain background, or she blurs the background so all of the attention is focused on the subject. There is nothing in the image that takes the viewer’s eyes away from the person being photographed, and Monae has a way of capturing certain emotions.
Through this project, Monae has gotten to know a lot of people from her community who she probably would not have crossed paths with, and she’s helping them tell their story.
“I came across this one individual who grows plants in her garden in South Central,” she said. “She teaches people how to grow their own garden. She calls herself the Plant Plug because she likes to connect people with plants and tell them how they can grow their own plants in their own backyard.”
Monae became interested in photography while she was a student at Gardena High School. She started off shooting small events like champagne parties and baby showers. She went on to attend Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she earned a degree in digital media. She learned a lot of her photography skills and techniques online by doing Google searches and watching YouTube videos.
The 85mil series is named after her go-to lens, which is 85 mm. She’s currently shooting with a Sony A7R3, and she shoots all of her portraits at f/1.4. She prefers to shoot on overcast days to avoid shadows, and on sunny days she typically uses open shade. Doing quick photoshoots has taught her to refine her skills and adjust quickly.
“It’s taught me how to use my camera very efficiently,” Monae said. “Learning to trouble shoot, and also to make do with whatever the conditions are. Because sometimes it will be a very gloomy day, which is what I prefer so that I’m not shooting with such hard lighting.”
Monae took a recent trip to Costa Rica, where she continued her 85mil series.
“I’m mainly focused on the Afro-Caribbean culture, so that people know that when you think Costa Rica, you should also be thinking about that Black folks here,” she said. “I think that’s something that’s overlooked, even with the amount of Black people who live out here. The last guy that I photographed is in his mid 60s. He was talking about how there’s a lot of gentrification happening in the Caribbean. He said that sometimes it’s good, but sometimes they’re racist, but it’s something that they have to kind of embrace as this point.”
Monae also shoots events, such as the Black Market Flea at the BeeHive, the Ebony Beach Club, and festivals in Leimert Park. She captures unique images by using a fish-eye lens.
“I shoot very wide, and that’s one of my styles when I shoot events,” she said. “I like to exaggerate the limbs, the arms, the movement, and the energy. I like to emphasize the sun because I think that there’s a connection with the sun. The sun symbolizes energy, and that’s something that is really what my art is about. How it makes me feel, and how it makes the person feel.”
Monae’s work can be viewed at www.zaymonae.com and follow her on social media.