Austin photographer awakens beauty

Hannah Heckman

As a photographer and businesswoman, Riley Blanks uses her camera to bridge gaps and build community.

In 2018, Blanks, 29, founded Woke Beauty, a photography brand and business based in Austin that celebrates women’s inherent beauty.

Her most recent exhibition was at the Miranda Bennett Studio in East Austin and featured her latest collection, “Manifest,” where Blanks spoke about her relationship with photography.

“I am mostly fascinated with the sociological aspect of photography, how it can connect people,” Blanks said.

In her artist’s statement, Blanks defines her newest collection as “a template for American cities whose marginalized individuals are being displaced, as a call to action for justice, equity and reform.”

“Manifest” features vibrant self-portraits of Blanks in various places around Austin. For each of these, Blanks said a great amount of consideration went into the location, clothing, color and texture of the portrait.

Blanks, who said she is used to being on the other side of the camera, stepped out of her comfort zone to capture these narrative portraits.

“I used to judge self-portraiture. I thought it was vain,” Blanks said. “But for me, the actual process of taking these images involved a lot of conversation with myself.”

As a biracial woman in Austin, Blanks said she is painstakingly aware of the color and dynamic of every room she enters. This is a significant theme in the “Manifest” collection. To Blanks, the verb “manifest” means to claim space, which she said can be hard in a city where many people of color feel a sense of isolation.

“I’ve had a lot of women of color approach me and ask me how I enjoy my life here and how I’ve found community,” Blanks said. “‘Manifest’ is really meant to show that black and brown people can exist here and enjoy it. I wanted to show that we can have freedom in this metropolis.”

For this project, Blanks said she wanted to act as a vessel for the movement and a catalyst for change rather than solely a photographer and model.

“Despite the progressiveness and liberalization of Austin, it’s actually the only major city in the country with a steadily decreasing African American population,” Blanks wrote in her artist’s statement. “I have heard a calling and felt a sense of duty to express my passion for equity.”

Virginia Cumberbatch is a close friend of Blanks as well as a co-founder of Rosa Rebellion and recipient of the Austin Anti-Defamation League’s Social Justice Award. She said she has been by Blanks’ side since the concept of “Manifest” was born.

“She shared with me the first iterations of the project. She so vulnerably and transparently shared the complexities of her maturation, some of her confusions growing up in this world and finding her place in it,” Cumberbatch said.

“Manifest” tells the story of a woman of color claiming space in modern America. Vulnerability played a big role in the creation of this series and is clearly seen in the images. In her introduction of Blanks, studio owner Miranda Bennet described Blanks as a “communication artist.”

“At her core, Riley is an activist in every sense of the word,” Bennett said.

Blanks said she doesn’t see a clear end to “Manifest” but rather a collection that will continue to grow, evolve and expand as she does.

“I don’t think it will ever be complete; I don’t ever want it to be complete,” Blanks said.  “We are all constantly changing and evolving. To me, that’s the only constant.”