At the onset of 2020, New York-based photographer Joshua Renfroe, graphic designer Fred Sands IV, and multi-hyphenate creative Curtis Taylor Jr. never imagined they’d be working on projects spearheaded by creative genius and music savant, Pharrell Williams.
Fresh off the heels of Renfroe publishing his first photography book, Black Boy Fly, designed by Atlanta native Sands, the two joined artistic forces with Taylor Jr. to create a limited-edition reissue of Black Boy Fly and the short film, What Flying Feels Like. That's when Renfroe and Sands were tapped to contribute to two different Pharrell-led projects. Renfroe created campaign imagery for Pharrell’s new nonprofit initiative, Black Ambition, which seeks to help Black and Latinx entrepreneurs gain access to capital and resource. Sands designed artwork for Pharrell’s Netflix docuseries, Voices of Fire. As for Black Boy Fly creative collaborator Taylor Jr., he assisted Renfroe on the Black Ambition set, changing lenses, setting up backdrops, and ensuring the shoot went smoothly. Taylor Jr.'s actions, alone, illuminate the spirit and nature of the creative partnership shared between the trio.
Black Boy Fly set out to explore the spectrum that is Black masculinity. But it blossomed into a much larger concept, inspiring countless extension ideas and, most tangibly, a brotherhood shared by Renfroe, Sands, and Taylor Jr. Respecting and understanding each other is fundamental to their work. Though united mentally, they each offer something different and unique in their creative outputs.
I caught up with them, virtually, of course, to talk about dream projects, future collaborations, and all things Black Boy Fly.
Christa: How did the three of you come together?
Renfroe: I knew Fred [Sands] through Instagram. His work is so dope, unique, and intricate. It was important to find a Black person in New York to design the book. On Fred’s Instagram was the book, Oh Hell Yes, that caught my attention and I knew he had to be the one. I set up a meeting with him, and I remember the first thing he said, voluntarily, was that he knew Boys Don’t Cry like the back of his hand. I was like, 'Wait, you love Boys Don’t Cry, too?' As far as aesthetics, that [film] was one of the main inspirations for my book. At that moment, I knew we'd be a great match.
Curtis [Taylor Jr.] and I got connected through the first edition of Black Boy Fly. I found Curtis’s shop, The Greens, a concept shop in Missouri, and it was really dope. So I started following Curtis and saw the similarities in our work. We met in person at CultureCon, then Curtis called one day and told me how much he appreciated me as an artist. When I decided to do a second edition, I knew I didn't want to do it without Curtis’s creative input. Through him coming on to do social strategy and asset creation for the reissue, we ended up birthing the concept of What Flying Feels Like.
Black Boy Fly feels immensely personal. Was that intentional?
Renfroe: That was one of the goals of the book, to enact a certain feeling in people, a sense of pride, and happiness. That’s something I really sought out to do because that’s what art did for me growing up. No matter what was going on in my life, when I saw beautiful art, it served as escapism. If I can make people feel that way through my artistry, that’s a job well done. The one thing that helped me get through a lot of the challenging moments of executing Black Boy Fly was thinking about this book existing when I was 11 or 12.
What are your favorite photographs from the book?
Renfroe: I love them all for so many reasons. But if I had to choose, I'd say the portraits of my nephew, Levi. I needed to include him in such a powerful project. This will be such a sentimental moment for him once he grows older. I love the tones and energy in the 'Durags' section. It was the first shoot for the book. I remember being so anxious yet prepared. There’s this one spread in the ‘Obama Forever’ section featuring portraits of the model, Montez. He’s staring directly into the camera with sweat dripping along his face. I love the tones and expression. And, of course, there’s the crowd favorite, 'Nike v. Adidas.' The images possess a timeless nature, which really excites me. Fred’s [Sands] design expertise really complemented the images.
Sands: My favorite photographs from the book change depending on where I’m at mentally, but right now they’re the photos in the ‘Brother’s Keeper’ section. Specifically, the ones where Ahmad and Tevin are in the red sweaters. You can feel ‘em. Josh [Renfroe] killed those.
Taylor Jr.: The photo session I sit with most often is the fraternity homage imagery. It reminds me of the regalness that our bloodline comes from. It reminds me of what moved me to become a man of Alpha Phi Alpha.
What do you want Black Boy Fly readers to take away from the collection of photographs? Renfroe: Art is open for interpretation, but I want readers to take away the beauty and diversity of Black maleness. This book humanizes Black men by showcasing them in natural and fantastical spaces. I want everyone to be reminded that Black men are the blueprint—the most emulated male on the planet.
Sands: As the designer, I just want readers to feel the intention and freedom in every page, layout, and detail. I want people to feel how passionate Josh and I were about this collaboration turned brotherhood. We’re so proud of it.
Did your perceptions of Black masculinity evolve while creating Black Boy Fly? Sands: Looking at all the different shoots and concepts, they emphasized that Black manhood isn’t a monolith. We exist in so many different spaces. They reminded me of all the experiences that I’ve had as a Black man and even as a Black boy. To then put it all together and tell that story, I had to be very intentional. It was interesting to see Josh capture all of these Black men, even his nephew, intentionally. Everyone was so important to the storytelling, and all of the different settings showed me that there’s pride to be had in being a Black boy.
What does Black Boy Fly mean for your individual artistic and creative legacies?
Renfroe: I began to think about my legacy as a photographer and wanted to pour my heart into something I could be proud of for the rest of my life. I wanted to create a timeless body of work, bringing intentionality to my artistry. The best art that’s created is the art that comes from a genuine and intimate place. I’m grateful to have done that with my work.
Sands: It’s every designer's dream to be aligned with something or someone who puts work out into the world that grows legs of its own and becomes legendary. I think that Black Boy Fly is something that will be referenced for years. *Black Boy Fly *is the template for how I want to tell stories as an artist. I want to be this connected to every project I do.
Taylor Jr.: An artist’s truest job is to inspire, and that’s what Josh did. He created a body of work that’s moved other artists to want to lend their gifts to illuminate what he already created. I think that’s something we can never really give him back, but we’re so much better for it. The work is happening in real-time, and the brotherhood among us three is because of this work.
If Black Boy Fly is a call to action, how would you best describe What Flying Feels Like?
Taylor Jr.: Black Boy Fly is still a living, breathing organism. Through this process, we learned that it’s still very much in its infancy. Josh and Fred created the foundation, and now other pieces are stemming from it. One part of that discourse is What Flying Feels Like. Finally, there's the conversation around what the Black man is today and how we function and perform within our bodies. Wherever Josh would like to take this thing, it has legs to do it. I think there is a world in which [Black Boy Fly] lives in college classrooms. I think it has the ability to be a syllabus of how we navigate, challenge, critique, and function.
What are your creative dreams for 2021? Any dream collaborators on your bucket list?
Renfroe: I would love to work with both Curtis and Fred on Black Girl Fly. I don’t know if that was a formal announcement, but Black women have held me down my entire life. My dream collaborators consist of Beyoncé, Brandy, Pharrell, Frank Ocean, and Barry Jenkins. I have a sincere emotional attachment to each artist, which I think makes for impactful art.
Sands: I want to work in film—creative directing, art directing, and possibly stage. I want to go from graphic design to designing spaces, sets, etc. I’m trying to expand upon everything I’ve already gotten to do. Instead of designing key art for movies and television, I want to be in the meetings coming up with the complete aesthetic for the film. It’s also a supreme dream of mine to create with Melina Matsoukas.
Taylor Jr.: I want to make films and shows that look like the alternative version of Harry Potter but with Black people. I want to push the narrative and see Blackness in fiction. That’s the type of work I want to create and gift to the world. I think that Black kids need the ability to imagine. I think our innocence is stripped from us too soon, and we need to be able to relive that again. For dream collaborators, Pharrell, Sean Brown, Diana Gordon, Mowalola, and Aminé.