The photographer Steven CW Taylor has learned to see bigger things.
He hopes his acutely observed, deeply felt images of landscapes, wildlife, buildings, and people will help others expand their visions, too.
“I make them big so they’re immersive,” Taylor said as he welcomed a visitor inside Ubuntu Fine Art, the gallery he opened in September on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia. Ubuntu, pronounced ooh-boon-too, embodies a traditional South African concept often expressed as I am, because we are.
“You can disappear into my pictures,” the photographer-proprietor said. “You can lose yourself in them. I like to think they’re portals to transport people to a different space, a different place, so they can leave behind whatever they’re facing on the other side of the door.”
Taylor wants Ubuntu to be an eye-opening experience for everyone, but especially for young people from Germantown, the neighborhood where he grew up and has come back to live and work. The father of a 5-year-old daughter named Parker, he wants to inspire the next generation.
“Too often we criticize the choices of people who come from places like Germantown,” he said. “But people only know what they know.
“Access to places like Ubuntu is access to experiences, and experiences have helped me to grow. So I knew that Germantown was where I wanted my gallery to be.”
Ubuntu stands at 5423 Germantown Ave., in a handsome building that once housed the Cunningham Piano Company showroom. Just down the block is Uncle Bobbie’s, the bookstore, coffee shop, and cafe that is among a number of networking hubs for young Black entrepreneurs, artists, and other creatives in the neighborhood.
Taylor’s gallery showcases large-format color photographs, available in limited editions and made during his travels to spectacular places in Africa and the American West. Homegrown images of the Broad Street subway and Chew Avenue also are on display. Ubuntu unabashedly celebrates the beauty and power of the physical photograph during a cultural moment when too many people think a photo is something that exists on social media and is best appreciated by scrolling a pocket-sized screen.
“Viewing art in its physical space allows the viewer to create a tangible relationship to it, while not having to compete with the overstimulation that comes with viewing art in places like Instagram,” said Taylor.
Now 39, he grew up in the ‘80s as the youngest of three brothers. He played with Construx and K’nex toys and liked to figure out how to take things apart and put them together. In 2000, he graduated from Roman Catholic High School, going on to earn a degree in criminal justice at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J.
On the advice of a supervisor who recognized that the young man’s ambitions would inevitably lead him elsewhere, Taylor quit his job as a corrections officer in a Washington juvenile program after less than a year. The mother of a young woman Taylor met at a fast-food restaurant worked at the international consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, where he landed a data entry job, became a systems and then a senior software engineer, and had a successful 13-year career.
Along the way, Taylor got interested in photography while shooting photos on his smartphone. He began using GoPro cameras to shoot food-related videos, which he posted on Instagram, eventually shifting to DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras because “videos took too long.”
Taylor is generous with praise for family, friends, mentors, and associates who have helped him discover who he is and what he wants to do. He named his mother, Margaret Taylor, and his brothers Kenneth and Julian; photographer Ricky Codio; and entrepreneurs/philanthropists Nehemiah Davis and Rashaad Lambert.
“I don’t like to take a lot of credit for stuff,” Taylor said. “I’ve learned from what other people have given me. I listened. I read the instructions.”
Taylor said he was inspired to focus on large-format landscape photography and establish a gallery to promote his work after a trip to Las Vegas in 2017. He went to a gallery devoted to the photography of Peter Lik and couldn’t believe what he saw.
“The whole thing was new to me. I had never seen face-mounted acrylic prints before,” said Taylor. “I was in awe. I thought, ‘How do you even?’ Then I thought, ‘It’s a file, in a camera. And my camera has the same file.’ From 2017 on, I shot everything for the potential of print.”
Once he began planning Ubuntu in earnest, Taylor, said, David Rose, the curator of the Sally Blagg urban design firm in Germantown, and Kristen Clark, a music and marketing professional who has helped establish Ubuntu and two other Germantown enterprises, were invaluable.
“Everything just kind of leads to something else, and I happened to be at the right place at the right time,” said Clark, 26. After several years of working on cultural and community projects in the neighborhood — including at Sally Blagg — she’s Taylor’s chief of staff.
“We all want to build relationships in Germantown and do good stuff in Germantown,” she said. “Steven said he wanted to open a fine art photography gallery and it was going to be the first of its kind. I had some background in construction and business. But he dreamed this place up.”
A large number of cultural organizations and resources, including traditional institutions like the Germantown Historical Society and newer, more diverse organizations, such as the Black Writers Museum, and now, Ubuntu, are generating fresh energy in the neighborhood, said Rose, of Sally Blagg.
An institution devoted to photography is particularly welcome, given the cultural and historical impact of documentaries and other works by Black photographers like Gordon Parks. “It’s beautiful to have another institution [involved in] storytelling,” Rose said, adding that his favorite image at Ubuntu is “the piece called ‘Black Girl Magic,’ in which a young woman is gesturing toward the outside of the frame” and at the viewer.
What Taylor called the “centerpiece” of the gallery is a photo called “The Isaac,” which captures a silky cascade of whitewater rushing through a rugged gorge.
Even in a gallery full of fierce competition for the eyes, the image commands attention. It holds a story, too; Taylor said he was hiking alone in Montana’s Glacier National Park in September 2018 when he crossed paths with a hiker named Isaac, who suggested they climb a challenging part of the trail together.
“Six miles up, we really bonded, and we still talk to each other,” said Taylor. “I saw this amazing scene, and stuck my tripod head over the waterfall and took about 10 long exposures. Part of being a photographer is the patience that’s required to get what you want.”
Sometimes the photographer is in the right place at the right time, as with “Subway Surfer,” which captures a boy’s airborne dance inside a Broad Street subway car. At Ubuntu, Taylor pairs the photo with “The Jetty Boys” — another spontaneous, spectacular image, this one of Kenyan youngsters leaping into the Indian Ocean at Lamu, a port town. Young Black males on opposite sides of the planet share not only youthful exuberance, Taylor said, but the need to develop skills they’ll need to survive.
He points out a single black-and-white photo, called “The Ave,” and shows the intersection of Chew and Chelten Avenues on a winter morning. “I walk with my camera, and I was walking after 7 a.m. on the day before Christmas,” Taylor said. “I saw how the sun was creating these heavy shadows of this guy walking across the street, and I liked the shadows.
“The city is rough. But there’s beauty. It’s hard not to see this beauty.”