Monday, December 15, 2008

great subjects: bettie page

it would feel remiss not to post a wee tribute to one of the great subjects of photographic history: Bettie Page.

when i first read Page's New York Times obituary, i thought something was not quite right. it lauds her "trademark" "killer curves" and defines her as "the most famous pinup girl of the post-World War II era." both of these statements strike me as false. i think the easy label of "most famous pinup" actively erases the fact that most of her work was fairly underground and part of a sexual counterculture (if anything, she was the dark, trussed-up sister to the popular 1950s beauty queen ideal). and i don't think her (average) curves defined her photographic fate.

Bettie Page's trademark as a subject was her electric connection with the camera and, ultimately, the viewer. and by that criteria, she can't be beat.

my puzzling over the false notes of the obituary were assuaged a bit, but not completely, by Manohla Dargis' more thoughtful appraisal a few days later. her lede was the John Berger quotation: "To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself." but Dargis doubts that Berger's skeptical quote could apply to Page's natural, inviting, comfort and "ease" in her own skin.

Dargis is certainly responding here to Page's ready smile, her apparently-naked abandon, her winking knowingness... but is the viewer really recognizing her for her true self? i wouldn't guess so. (i mean, this was an abuse survivor who shot up to bondage-y fame before becoming a born-again Christian and having a nervous breakdown and a spate of mental health problems. i don't mean to pathologize, but i don't think i could know what was going on in her head.) perhaps the key to what made her so compelling on camera is a bit more complicated than easy analysis allows.

nude, naked, or otherwise, i'm comfortable with—and thankful for—the mystery.

Monday, December 8, 2008


some folks probably saw the New York Times feature this weekend on muxes in Oaxaca, Mexico. muxe is a Zapotec word for that region's transgender women. Katie Orlinsky's slideshow of images from the community was pretty great—and for those who wanted to check out even more, it turns out her website has a more extensive collection. a few that weren't in the Times' edit are above.

thanks Joe for the link!

Thursday, December 4, 2008


looking through all the photos in Hee Seung Chung's project "Persona" made me a bit sad. which in a way, is a testament to the subjects, because they are all actors. by examining the gray area where an actor's fictional persona becomes their temporary reality, Chung is exploring the line between "staged" and "authentic" emotional states.

Chung says: "This project also explores the issue of observing the grief of others in the photograph....we know it is a mere fabrication; the expression of grief certainly generates a psychological exchange between the actor, the persona and the beholder. They have a special quality as they break down our own emotional barriers. It is as if they bring about our own inherent feelings of grief and sorrow, which we conceal in everyday life or we project our own emotion or experience onto these melancholic faces."

given the blankness upon which Chung sets the scene, i thought the above subject worked particularly well. her flat affect and colorlessness matches the background, and makes her dark eyes all the more compelling.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Älterwerdens der Ausgangspunkt

here's a project featuring older subjects that i saw just recently on Conscientious. it's Espen Eichhöfer's series "Die Alteren," which he translates as "The Elderly."

Eichhöfer writes: "They originated from questions regarding the phenomenon of aging. The protagonists of this staged production are my parents. The idea that everyone carries all of the previous stages of age within themselves inspired me."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

the indiscriminate urge to engage everyone

continuing on this week's theme of portraits of older subjects...

like Michelle Sank's yesterday, Sarah Small's photographs also do not have the aesthetic that i usually go for (which is, oh, you know, mopey, self-important, naturally-lit, brooding, that sort of thing). but i just love the scenarios she presents in her images. the wild colors, the harsh studio lighting, and the juxtapositions are lively and fun and actually surprising. (which sometimes feels a bit rare in this looking-at-photos-online game that we play.)

one theme i noticed in her work is a mix of elders and youngsters in interesting tableaux. little girls spaz out in front of crashed-out grandpas; naked teens and fashion models cavort with relatives, dolls, and animals; different generations pose together in frozen, constructed moments. i'm not sure what it all means, but Sarah Small's vision is consistent and consistently thought-provoking. also, her shoots look like they are a lot of fun.

a few of my intergenerational picks are above.

Small says: 
"My constant curiosity, indiscriminate urge to engage everyone, and fascination with entangling myself in human drama guided me through boundless adventures...I‘ve engaged in an ongoing pursuit to find and photograph enchanting characters, animals, and bold color within all my projectspersonal, fashion, editorial, and commercial."

Monday, December 1, 2008

theme week: older subjects

the photo i posted last week of a proud-looking woman with beautiful white hair falling down her back reminded me that i have seen several portrait projects lately featuring older subjects. i'll check some of them out this week.

the first is by Michelle Sank, who was born in South Africa and now lives in England. her project "Wondrous" explores "femininity in older women."

Sank says she wants to look at "the ageing skin as something beautiful in itself, where body awareness and sensuality can still be enjoyed. I am also interested in the vulnerability of my subjects as well as their internal reflections and wisdom."

this is not the sort of project i am drawn to; it has a bit too much of an agenda, a woman-centered (and pink and silky) earnestness for my usual taste.

that said, it is true that the photographs themselves are not images you see every day. there is something quite valuable about that.

Monday, November 24, 2008


reader Jake Stangel sent me his work a while back: his new project "Transamerica" was shot while he biked across the country--with a 4x5 field camera in tow. impressive.

two of my favorite portraits from the body of work are above. you can check out more on his site, including a new project about surfers.

he says of the journey:
"I wanted to know what life was like between New York City and LA. Between here and there exists an entirely different world I knew nothing about, but very earnestly wanted to understand and experience. And what I found was an interconnected network of communities big and small, full of compassionate, authentic, different-minded people, each representing a divergent way of living life as an American. I aimed to capture a cross-section of these individuals and societies in an unadulterated and compassionate fashion."
his take on traveling through America reminds me a bit of the book Travels with Charley, which i read recently. (if only Steinbeck had photographed his trip in 1960!)

Friday, November 21, 2008

bratislava (from slovenia to slovakia)

i was looking through the portfolio of Slovakian photographer Andrej Balco, and i was struck by his "Suburbs" project from a few years back.  these are a bit more documentary than my usual taste, but i especially liked his eye for color.

Balco points out that more than 2 million Slovaks live in giant apartment complexes, many in the suburbs of Bratislava. 

he says: "I have many times come across an opinion that living in block of flats is characterised by plaster...and grey colour. I was trying to avoid this straight off simplified view. Instead I was trying to point out the colourfulness, variety and vividity of life in the blocks of flats."

bonus subject echo:
Balco's photo of a prone man with water and a mural reminded me of Miranda Lehman's artsy, fairy-tale-like take on the same basic scene:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

september (in slovenia)

i've had a crush on Slovenia for a while (since i saw the film Varuh Meje a few years ago), so i enjoyed checking out the work of Slovenian photographer Nataša Kosmerl.

i like the way the two subjects in these photos cling to each other, and the way that they are held in place by their environment.

Kosmerl says: "I only photograph when I feel that the situation is emotionally strong." the series above is called "September" and you can see a few more photos from it here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

subject echo: books as camouflage

when i saw the photo below by Helsinki-based artist Maija Luutonen on iheartphotograph, i thought of the above image by Dutch photographer Desiree Palmen.  

i definitely see their respective projects (called "Please let's pretend" and "Camouflage") as being in dialogue with each other; a real subject echo.

(i've been known to hide behind a book before, myself.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

wassenaar, and the almost-forced disregard for the viewer

i'm intrigued by the proliferation of new art photography magazines.  i just checked out Noel Rodo-Vankeulen's online magazine Wassenaar.  i was taken with Johanna Reed's thoughtful interview with Lina Scheynius, whose work i had not seen before.  there is a casual, messy raunchiness to her work (including her fashion work) that manages to feel more present and unique than it at first seems it should (especially after Goldin and McGinley and other snapshot confessionals).

of her more personal, confessional work, Lina Scheynius says:
"My favorite pictures are the ones I have taken completely without having a viewer in mind. When I work on my personal pictures the viewer doesn't enter my mind until I start the selection process for my website. And even then I try to not think about him or her. If I did, I think a larger section of my work would remain unseen, as a lot of it is extremely personal to me and not initially captured to be viewed by others, but more as you mentioned, to document. Or experiment. I guess that it is my almost forced disregard of the viewer that gives you the impression that I am fearless."

what do you think?  do you buy this explanation?  it's true that it is the apparently-offhanded freedom, the spontaneous grain of the images that feels refreshing.  but from my perspective, i would poke and question the idea of being able to disregard the viewer.  these images seem to me to beg for the viewer's participation.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

things are strange!

last Thursday, i had the pleasure of attending the opening of Humble Arts Foundation's new group show, "Things Are Strange," at New Century Artists gallery in Chelsea.

as always, Humble puts on a fun party and a thought-provoking show.  sometimes what i enjoy most about the process of group exhibition is reading the curatorial statement and the selected images together as a text.  in this case, curator and gallant man-about-internet Jon Feinstein writes that the eighteen photographers in the show "explore the peculiar, idiosyncratic and often absurd elements of the contemporary world, using them as a metaphor for the current state of social and political affairs."

with this framework, i enjoyed the puzzle presented: to piece together the collected mix of landscapes (found and arranged), portraits (found and arranged) and more conceptual pieces through a lens of metaphor for our allegedly strange days.  the piece that spoke to me the loudest was not one i expected: Ofer Wolberger's "Garbage Circle, Austin Texas, 2001" (below, jpeg doesn't do much justice).  the print was prominently placed and Chelsea-big.  

with its pointed juxtaposition of neo-pagan eco-worship and literal low-culture trash, it not only cast a circle, but i think you could even say that a spectre of new mysticism haunted the show.

the images in the show declare that symptoms of our strange cultural moment manifest when: we entomb ourselves in soulless office buildings, we search earnestly for signs of the paranormal, we feel stranded instead of freed by our American car-traveling culture, we angle for fascination through interventions into mundane urban landscapes, we fantasize about the line between raw nature and the remove of human conceptualism, we question the compulsion (and perhaps typologize the instruments used) to carve away at our bodies.  

Feinstein posits that each artist "alludes to a world that is gradually falling apart at the seams." so what do these cries of Koyaanisqatsi add up to?  are things strange?  sure.  oddly enough, what the show did not do is convince me that there is a particular nowness, a freshness, or a specificity to this strangeness.  (or a politics of strangeness.)  but it did make me hope (perhaps perversely) that we'll keep trying to unravel the seams a bit harder.

to that end, i'll leave you with a photograph from Emiliano Granado's "Ghostbusters" series, which i saw both as a portrait and as a continuation of photography's longtime fascination with capturing the spirit world...and also as one more piece of the puzzle. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

happy ugly

i know we were talking about the mashup of beauty and ugly this week, but here is something related: the potential for ugliness in happiness. if i find intrinsic beauty in the ecstasy and emotion in images like these, i have to also questionor troublethat impulse when i look at the pure happiness on the faces above. context is all.

these are the folks who helped pass Prop 8 in California, the ballot measure with the title "Eliminates Right of Same–Sex Couples to Marry." they're happily celebrating their apparent victory, and all the gains it will bring them. the L.A. Times reports their names as "Bob Knoke, of Mission Viejo, Amanda Stanfield, of Monrovia, Jim Domen, of Yorba Linda, and J.D. Gaddis, of Yorba Linda," in case you'd like to write them a letter (Amanda looks a little conflicted to me, so maybe you can still make her feel bad).

despite being an empathetic person, and one susceptible to the emotional content of images, the expressions of joy and victory in the above image do nothing but make me angry. and my brain actually interprets their faces as violent and smug—how subjective.

today i offer you my happy face for the country for the presidential election results, and a sad face for us queers (and the foster kids of Arkansas who won't get homes now). both faces are a bit tear-streaky.

p.s. also, Queerty's take on the same image is here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

subject echo: magnum contest (and the terror of beauty)

Alec Soth, blogging again over at the Magnum Photos blog, proposed a contest this week: match an image from the Magnum archive with a famous painting from art history.

it's a good game to play in between hitting refresh on all the news sites today...  and the commenters have some pretty great suggestions already.

above, fun with Steve McCurry and Caravaggio.   

i suppose these two images of Medusa continue this week's ugly/beauty theme.  after all, Melville (and many other poets and writers) have celebrated Medusa's "beauty strange with horror allied," while Structuralist mythologist Jean-Pierre Vernant describes Medusa as a symbol of where "the strange beauty of the feminine countenance, brilliant with seduction, and the horrible fascination of death, meet and cross."  my classicist friend points out that the Greeks were always crazy for terrible beauty.  and so am ihot stuff.

Monday, November 3, 2008

subject echo: "nothing is more fascinating, complex, ugly and beautiful than human beings"

i was struck by Michele Abeles' creepy, artificial, and awesome portraits, which i saw on iheartphotograph.

Yale MFA grad Abeles says: "I am drawn to portraiture because nothing is more fascinating, complex, ugly and beautiful than human beings."

the subject and approach (and sheer blondness) conjured up references for me to Katy Grannan's subject Nicole from her project "Another Woman Who Died in Her Sleep." (discussed previously here, and shown below.) it is interesting how both subjects convey blank despondence and abjection with a similar, limited set of symbols (studios, skinnyness, fake-glamour, wigs, whiteness, beach, etc.).

Sunday, November 2, 2008

lucy consumptive

i just checked out the blog " art photography and the uncanny" for the first time. i love it.

photo above is "lucy" by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. more on it here at consumptive.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


though British photographer Alys Tomlinson is mainly commercial photog, i like her personal work. continuing on my recent interest in utopian themes, this project is called "Communities."

Tomlinson says:

"This is an ongoing series documenting intentional, alternative communities in the UK, with a particular emphasis on youth. The images attached were taken at a Quaker community in Derbyshire and an eco-community in Sussex. These communities are often quite hidden, but after spending several days with each community, I began to unearth and understand the social, political or spiritual vision that drives them."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

lay flat (and think of utopia)

i just made a donation to issue 1 of new photography journal Lay Flat for one reason:

it's going to have a feature called Castaways vs. Utopians!! 
some of you know that the utopalypse (and post-apocalyptic visions in photography) is a theme near and dear to my heart.  (also, Lay Flat will be printed on paper, and paper will be hip again after the apocalypse.)

okay, maybe there are a few other reaons.  get more info from creator Shane Lavalette here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


i was looking through Jody Rogac's portfolio and was arrested by this one image, "Ben."  very striking stuff.  i think it would be cool to see a whole project of similar portraits.

Rogac also does a lot of editorial work.  on her site, the portrait of Ben was paired with one of Miki, which i also enjoyed, but felt that it's prettiness was just sort of too pretty.  what do you think?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

subject echo: in inky dark water

today i was struck by the subject echoes in some of Esther Teichmann's and Yann Orhan's work:

two images by Teichmann, from her project "Viscosity:"

and two from Orhan's project "Nos Vies Invisibles:"

Monday, October 20, 2008

like every day

i was looking at some work by contemporary Iranian photographers and came across the project "Like Every Day," by Shadi Ghadirian. i really love these photographs. i think they balance political commentary with visual interest well, with a dash of surrealism and without being cloying. tall order.

and as a bonus, i really enjoy the reflection of Ghadirian in the top image's teapot as an additional mirror on muslim women and the subject in photography.

i also find her project statements refreshing. she says of her work:
"I am a woman and I live in Iran. I am a photographer and this is the only thing I know how to do. It does not make a difference to me what place the Iranian woman has in the world because I am sure no one knows much about it...

It was very natural that after marriage, vacuum cleaners and pots and pans find their way into my photographs; a woman with a different look, a woman who no matter in what part of the world she is living, still has these kinds of apprehensions. "
you can see more work by Shadi Ghadirian and other artists on the website of Houston's DeSantos Gallery.