Photographer Faith Couch '15 Examines Race, Gender, Sexuality & Nationality
Story by Kathy McPherson
When Faith Couch ’15 arrived in Baltimore to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art, she had no family living in the area and didn’t know anyone. Her plan was to make friends, to get involved in the community — and did she ever.
The friendships she forged in Baltimore’s thriving arts community led to her photography being seen in exhibitions around the country and abroad and contributed to her recognition in the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 list for art and style.
To put Couch’s 30 Under 30 honor in context, Forbes magazine evaluated more than 15,000 nominees to determine what the website called “600 revolutionaries in 20 industries changing the course — and the face — of business and society.”
Couch thought someone was playing a prank on her when she got an email saying she had been nominated for Forbes 30 Under 30. Being on the 30 Under 30 list was one of Couch’s dreams — a dream she actually had written down earlier in 2020 — so she made sure the email was really from Forbes, filled out a lengthy form and put it out of mind.
“If it happens it happens, if it doesn't it doesn't,” she recalled thinking. “And then I got the news that it happened. That was a big deal. I was like, wow, I'm the only Black woman photographer to ever be on Forbes 30 under 30. I was super honored and very humbled. I'm still on a high about that.”
Couch credits her friend Theresa Chromati, a painter, with taking her work to a book fair in Los Angeles, which led to being included in a show Chromati was curating there in 2017. “I think I was the youngest person in the show. … That was super huge and a pivotal moment for my career.”
And there was her selection for an internship in 2018 with Aperture magazine in New York, an internship awarded annually to a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She worked with Aperture’s summer exhibition, which included artists from Mexico City, South Africa, Europe and the United States.
“I thought it would be best just to make connections with them, to get coffee or talk and ask them how their practice is. That helped me make connections and be more well-versed about the art world.”
She volunteered to serve as the photographer for the show’s opening night, thinking “that way when all these famous artists come through, I actually get to take the picture and then I own the picture for my own archive and collection.”
To Couch, “the most important thing for me was putting myself out there and kind of taking that risk of I might not know exactly what I'm doing, but I can pretty much figure it out along the way.”
She credits her parents, Finesse and Therman Couch, with giving her that confidence.
“My parents play a big part of my identity as an artist,” she said. “I think I'm super privileged to be able to relax enough to choose it as a lifestyle, to be honest. They always just allowed me to paint when I was little and express myself. I never felt at any point there was something that I couldn't do or that something was unattainable, and I think that comes from their encouragement.”
She has moved from Baltimore back to Durham because of the pandemic, living with her parents and younger sister Raguell, a DA senior, and continuing her photography work from home. Older sister Jessica, a 2006 DA graduate, has also moved back and is living downtown.
“I'm very thankful for my parents investing in my education, and that is something that is invaluable, that really shaped my collegiate career,” Couch said. “I felt like after going to Durham Academy the whole first year of college was really so easy because so much of what we were learning, I had learned at Governor's School or I had learned at SDLC [Student Diversity Leadership Conference] or had learned at Durham Academy. I felt really privileged and blessed to be able to have such an awesome academic experience that made me well-rounded.”
It was a 10th grade art class at Durham Academy that first led Couch to photography. She was interested in painting and drawing, and was intrigued by old National Geographic magazines that art teacher Anne Gregory-Bepler kept in her classroom. The magazines predated digital printing, making their color photos very rich and vibrant, and Couch incorporated them in her collages.
“There was a level of precision you could get with photography that you could not get with drawing and painting,” she said. “When I was looking at photography, I think what also drew me to photographs is that they have an ability to confirm or reaffirm the truth or a type of truth, depending on how the photographer frames the work.”
Couch had a truth she wanted to tell: “It's not about telling a story that's projected onto me. It's about telling my own story, through my own eyes, how I see it.”
She felt she “had a very unique lifestyle and how I grew up. For a lot of Black people who may have gone to private school, their experience was different than what we would see on the media that were portrayed of Black youth, whether it be in gangs or teenage pregnancies or trauma. I couldn't really relate to any of those things. You know, I have a treehouse in the backyard, we've been horseback riding.
“So for me, photography was a way to confirm my truth and to share it with other people who have had similar experiences,” she continued. “I couldn't quite get to that in painting because with painting or drawing there is a fantastical element that has to do with imagination. Where in photography, the picture is real and is tangible, and it concretizes ideas and it's very different than other art forms.”
A photography class with Harrison Haynes during her junior year at DA was the first time Couch “experienced the technicality of the camera, learning about Photoshop and how to use a camera and how to use light and the light metering.” She began “making pictures at home, taking pictures of my little sister or my mom, when we would go on vacations, documenting time really. I thought about elements that related to art such as gesture and color, things that you would see in painting that attract you to paintings, and how to convey those elements in the photographs.”
She took another photography class with Haynes her senior year. “Harrison Haynes supported my work and my talent so much that he convinced my parents to allow me to go to art school,” Couch said. “Without him, my path would be vastly different. I am so appreciative to have had a teacher believe in me so much. Even now, I call him to talk with him and ask him for advice.”
Couch remembers a photograph she took on a beach trip to the Outer Banks after graduating from DA in 2015. “All the dunes are super beautiful. I took this picture of my friend Justin’s and Serena's arms. I just asked them to kind of put their arms up in this gesture against the sky. I think that was the first picture where it kind of clicked in my mind, like this is a good picture or I felt that this was like a beautiful picture. I think that image laid the groundwork for a lot of my work as it deals with anonymity but also focuses on gesture and simple color schemes, which I think about a lot now in my own work. That picture influenced my thought process.”
The evolution of Couch’s photography can be seen on her website, as can the Memory Landscape that has influenced her work. “A lot of it is rooted in modernism, it's rooted in theory, from different writers, from different films, from different dances, from jazz music, from Toni Morrison. Nothing is made inside of a bubble. Every event that has happened, that we are aware of, has informed who we are presently and it informs our work.”
Much of Couch’s work focuses on race, and she took a long pause when asked what that has been like looking back over all that has happened within the last year.
“Photography for me has always been an outlet and a way for me to kind of work through questions that I have in my mind, kind of like a math problem,” she said. “So in making my work, I'm thinking about the ways that an image can impact a person and give them space to escape from the mundane or escape from reality in a way, because what we see on the news all the time can be so disheartening. We just ingest so much negativity, so I think what I try to do in my work with color and with my landscape or the background is kind of help the viewer remove themselves from their current situation and think about how they could be in the photograph, how that very intimate or the still moment could be them possibly.
“That's what I want my work to do for the viewers, just for one moment allow them to rest their brain and think about their loved ones or love or an embrace of some sort or a moment where you're alone,” she continued. “Allowing the viewer to be in a very meditative space, even if they don't quite understand the work, that the colors could speak to them or these portraits could kind of remind them about themselves or their past or whatever comes to mind that soothes them.”