“I see the beauty of people that maybe they don’t recognize, or maybe the society that we live in discriminates against, because the beauty standards of the world are leaning towards white people,” Eaton said. “Black people, our communities don’t feel that they are as beautiful as they truly are, because of our culture. I think that’s what I like about portraiture — I can make people feel beautiful.”
His work has gained the attention and respect of other local photographers and art patrons alike, and has earned him collaborations with organizations such as Geva Theatre (for an audioplay festival) and a solo show in the studio of prominent photographer Richard Margolis.
But Eaton wants to share the spotlight with other creatives of color, and he’s using his connections to gather resources and opportunities for those who don’t have access to either.
“Many of my artist friends were letting me know how difficult it was to be an artist in Rochester, a full-time working artist,” Eaton said. “And in the past few years, I’ve learned that artists need connections to opportunities or resources to be able to be successful.”
While there are opportunities, he said, many artists of color aren’t in the circles of people who are offering them or even discussing them.
That’s why he founded the Rochester Artist Collaborative in 2019. In addition to Eaton, who is the director, RAC is run by studio assistants Rajae Barnes-Wright and Zayan Garba, as well as Christopher Harris, who handles the accounting. The group provides hundreds of local artists with information about artist opportunities such as grants, residencies, and job postings through a regular newsletter, and access to donated art supplies like canvases, paint, and drawing materials. Members who are photographers or videographers can access a shared workspace in the Anderson Arts Building in the Neighborhood of the Arts.
The space, called the Creators Lab Photo Studio, is about 800 square feet with both good natural light and photo studio lighting, soft boxes, stools, props, and backdrops. Photographers need only bring their clients and their cameras.
The Creators Lab also has a program for artists to receive one-to-one tutorials on lighting with local experts in studio photography, including photographer Luke LaPorta.
“My job as director is to be able to find people who are interested in supporting local artists and also funding these opportunities,” Eaton said. “That’s a big part of what I do with my personal art — it seems like the community connects with me as a photographer. So I use whatever influence I can garner from that to be able to help other artists in the community.”
Eaton said a private donor has pledged to give $200,000 to the Creators Lab, which he said will pay employee salaries and fund equipment, scholarships, and micro grants for local artists.
By Eaton’s count, there are currently 20 Rochester Art Collaborative members that use the studio, most of whom pay $250 a month for the privilege. Five artists are supported through a scholarship provided by local advertising agency Helen & Gertrude, which has donated nearly $15,000 to the collaborative in the past year specifically to boost women artists of color.
“We’re working on getting fully funded so that all the artists that want to use this space can use it for free, or for an even more reduced cost,” Eaton said.
Photographer Jackie McGriff, 33, is a portrait photographer who received a scholarship.
“Having access to that studio has allowed me to do work that I’m not able to do anywhere else,” she said, citing the problems with Rochester’s unpredictable weather, and the benefit of having a professional space to bring clients.
She said that on-site resources like equipment and books on posing models, and opportunities for grants and classes are also benefits of the space.
McGriff feels that efforts like Eaton’s to assuage racial inequity are necessary.
“As far as the photography industry goes, I’ll just say it plainly, there’s a lot of white faces, there’s not a whole lot of diversity in terms of who we shine lights on,” she said, adding that disparity ranges from hiring practices and pay rates for professionals of different races to access to space, resources, exposure, and connections to opportunities.
Eaton is nothing if not driven. He talks of one day opening an art center with multiple studios for all types of artists.
Looking over his portfolio of work, which includes a 2021 set of portraits titled “Black is Beautiful,” it’s hard to believe that the 29-year-old artist began creating photographs just three years ago.
Eaton grew up on Lenox Street, off Genesee Street, and attended high school in Penfield through the Urban-Suburban program.
“My mom thought that would be a big priority because of the disarray at the Rochester City School District,” he said. “And I really believe that did help me — Penfield had a great art program.”
He attended Monroe Community College and studied the liberal arts, but withdrew short of a degree due to anxiety and depression.
“I never necessarily wanted to become an artist,” he said. “But for years, I dealt with this depression, and anxiety, and just feeling hopelessness, some suicidal ideas. Because for a long time, I really felt that Rochester was really small. I think because of the racism and discrimination in the community, you feel kind of isolated, like the city is not for you.”
He found motivation in his despair. He said he began to think seriously in 2019 about how good making art made him feel, and decided to start something with the tools available to him. He began creating photos of his friends with his iPhone and posting them to social media.
“People started telling me how much they liked what I was creating,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, he received a professional camera from a supporter as a gift, and photographer Scott Hamilton taught Eaton about studio lighting and how to control light.
“It’s been great to be on that journey with the community and be connecting with different people,” Eaton said. “Without the community and the connection it would not have been possible for me to be an artist.”
Eaton is gentle and thoughtful in his demeanor, but he is also frank about the problems he is doing his best to offset.
“Rochester has been notoriously. . . just racist,” he said.
He added that it’s what he sees as casual racism that impacts people the most, like Black artists and young creatives in underserved neighborhoods being overlooked for jobs and other opportunities.
But he has also seen and experienced the good in people, and takes that just as seriously. An unflappable hope is a prominent part of Eaton’s character.
“Lots of people are connecting with us,” he said. “And we’re just trying to grow the awareness to give all artists of all scopes and all mediums the opportunity to be able to have access to those resources.”
Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s life editor. She can be reached at [email protected].