Thursday, July 31, 2008

subject echo: "who has the detonator?"

like several other Americans, i went to see Batman: The Dark Knight on opening night. a gray-area girl at heart, i admit that the theme of good vs. evil often elicits a bit of a yawn. so the Joker is a refreshing terrorist to me—preferring, as he does, chaos to evil.

the Dark Knight's refrain of "Who has the detonator?"—and especially the scene above, where the Joker holds a remote detonator in his right hand as he shuffles away from Gotham General hospital—reminded me very strongly of a few of Diane Arbus's most famous shades of gray: Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962).

forty-six years later the tensions on display in this photograph are just as relevant—between childhood and adulthood, playfulness and violence, tensing up and letting loose, even the city and nature. (and i love a photograph with its own Wikipedia page.)

so, who has the detonator?

a child, a joker? (a privileged portrayer of freaks and outsiders, a big Hollywood director trying to aim a lens at our anxieties and desires?) or perhaps it's me, you, or some other? maybe that is the fear.

Arbus wrote:
"I have this funny thing which is that I'm never afraid when I'm looking in the ground glass. This person could be approaching with a gun or something like that and I'd have my eyes glued to the finder and it wasn't like I was really vulnerable. It just seemed terrific what was happening. I mean I'm sure there are limits. God knows, when the troops start advancing on me, you do approach that stricken feeling where you perfectly well can get killed. But there's a kind of power thing about the camera. I mean everyone knows you've got some edge. You're carrying some slight magic which does something to them.

It fixes them in a way."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"i have to be conscious, if you like, of the impossibility of photography"

"I have a deep suspicion of photography, to the point where I do sometimes think it cannot accurately portray anything, really. And, I particularly distrust portrait photography. I mean, do you honestly think a portrait can tell you anything about the subject? And, even if it did, would you trust what it had to say?"

Pieter Hugo, in The Guardian

Monday, July 21, 2008


i first saw Swiss photographer Vanessa Puntener's work over on Mrs. Deane.

these images are from her project "alp."

the middle image draws me in the most—i want to be inside of it and feel how it feels (sucking hole!). as for the portraits, i have to admit that the children of these alpen villages seem a bit forbidding...

Friday, July 18, 2008


after Carmen Winant mentioned Gilda Davidian's work in our interview last week, i've gone back a few times to look through Davidian's portfolio.

i keep coming back to this one image: Nathan, 2006, Pasadena, California.

it's just beautiful, and perfectly composed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

subject echo: tiny bodies in the milky blue white sea

above: Sze Tsung Leong, from Horizons; Catherine Opie from Surfers, and Carlo Van Der Roer, from the series Orbs.

these are a bit like the float, but even more inscrutable.

got more to share?

p.s. update: read "A Picture You Already Know," by Sze Tsung Leong here, on Words Without Pictures. it's about repetition in photography (oddly enough).

Friday, July 11, 2008

three questions for carmen winant, part 3

part three of three questions for Carmen Winant. (thanks again, Carmen! come back and visit anytime.)

Subjectify: What are you looking for when you photograph a subject?

Carmen Winant: I think that contemporary photographers are inclined to posture their subjects as either completely aware or unknowing of the camera’s gaze. (I always think of how Hellen Van Meene’s young subjects rarely acknowledge the camera. Even when they do, their gaze seems hazily unfixed and unspecific.) But of course there is a liminal space—between the manufactured nature of Gregory Crewdson’s work and the sincerity of Robert Frank’s—and that is what I am continually striving to tap when taking pictures of the people in my life. Because the two poles can be quite seductive, it is easy to overlook the substantive and interesting ground between the performed and the unstaged. I think several interesting young photographers right now, like Gilda Davidian and Amy Elkins, are exploring that grey area of representing subjectivity without much distance or irony.

Richard Avedon said that he wished there could be no camera at all, that his eye could be his only mechanism of transferal. For me, however, the camera is a protagonist in producing strong portraits. I shoot film with a Hasselblad 501c, and it requires a deliberate set-up, a relatively long time to focus (which I sometimes consciously extend to increase the slight discomfort of my sitter), and an almost violent, gun-like release. I want a contrived and a sincere subject, and it doesn’t seem to me that the two have to deny each other.

Concerning the difference between a portrait and a biography, my friend, poet Geoffrey Hillsebeck wrote to me once:
A portrait doesn't make a claim while a biography does. That’s often the difference between visual art and the written word. Do portraits always present what is mysterious in the subject; do they always confront you with the impossibility of the enterprise? Can one know Madame X or Rembrandt better by standing in front of the paintings longer, the way one gets to know friends better by spending more time with them? Rembrandt said he wanted to get at the "deepest inward emotion" of his subjects. Biographies never try to do that. They are always supremely conventional, in structure, organization, approach. They are works of history usually, not imagination.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

three questions for carmen winant, part 2

part two of this week's conversation with emerging photographer Carmen Winant.

Subjectify: Your mother seems like a remarkably willing subject. Does she enjoy being photographed by you? Is she central to your project Close?

Carmen Winant: I have always admired photographers who photograph their own families in earnest – Sally Mann, Tina Barney, Larry Sultan, and Elinor Carucci, among many. They make it look so effortless. It is a classic motif, but in some ways it’s harder than photographing strangers. In my case, I am most interested in exploring the tension (and uncomfortable overlap) between familial and erotic intimacy.

My mom doesn’t always enjoy sitting for the camera, but she has been incredibly generous. I regard my mother lending her body to my work as a gift, and am really encouraged in her own belief in the power of picture-making. She is also really striking, which certainly doesn’t hurt in creating a compelling image.

I have taken lots of images of my family that I cherish but that they understandably find too personal to promote in the world. So, I really admire my mother not only for allowing me to take the images, but to show them.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

three questions for carmen winant, part 1

shortly after i first saw Carmen Winant's portraits featured on Conscientious, i got an email from her out of the blue. she had just started a new process of engagement, if you will, pledging to post a photo online every day for a year at daily afterthought--and she wanted to talk blogs.

although i liked many photos in the portfolio that Jörg had linked to, they didn't suck me in as complete projects. it was Carmen's written voice that compelled me, and the single, out-of-context images that she was posting up each day at daily afterthought that reeled me in. (i mean, how many people have a fresh and good new portrait every day? even dipping into their archives?) though she's still playing with different approaches and themes, Carmen has a pretty consistent vision. her best photographs, to my eye, are unexpectedly sensual and deeply emotionally engaged. consider me seduced.

i'm pleased this week to offer three brief questions / discussions with this emerging photographer about her work and her confrontation of the subject.

Subjectify: In many of your portraits I feel that your compositional eye has a way of closing in on, or immobilizing the body. As objects, the bodies are posed, perhaps, but particular, imperfect and unsentimental. Are there specific things you are trying to express in your work about bodies and their relation to spaces?

Carmen Winant: My photographs have always been concerned with the body. Before I began photographing, I was a very technical illustrator, and all my illustrations also took on the body exclusively. I was a competitive distance runner from age 15 – I ran track and cross-country for UCLA – which I think informed my fascination with the physicality of the body. And then, as I became a feminist and concerned with debates around identity politics, I became open to seeing the body’s potential in art to manifest critical gender issues.

I am of course always thinking about the body’s relationship to context and space. But beyond that, I am interested in the body’s relationship to the absence, or denial, of space. This is most overt in my ongoing series Dark Matters, in which the space becomes a reductive, recessed vacuum. I was attempting to make a series of pictures that were both classical and radical by oversaturating and overexposing to the point of total darkness. Usually I go too far, and the negatives are often way too thin to use.

In addition to removing referents, I tend to narrow in pretty tightly on the bodies of my subjects. In fact, I was repeatedly asked in UCLA critiques why I didn’t just back up already and give the viewer some space to breathe. I think this is really evident in the series Close. And thinking about it now, it’s telling that I chose to shoot environmental portraits (the At Home project) in cramped New York City apartments, that wouldn’t afford me the space if I wanted it. So, the spatial confinement is always a component. It can feel a little claustrophobic, so I try to be careful about not overloading my images with information. If an image is successful, the body will serve as the only punctum.

Finally, I tend to photograph my subjects’ backs quite a lot. My mom has a theory that my preoccupation is due to my own medical diagnosis at age 17 of severe osteopenia, which requires me to get my spine density tested and monitored with some regularity. I like to think that it is another (more deliberate) method of drawing in the viewer with an intimacy that is very carefully and tentatively measured. A turned back can represent several conflicted signals of bodily power. It clearly indicates a loss of control for the sitter, who is perhaps being looked upon without their knowledge. Yet a turned back is also a refusal; ultimately, the onlooker is the one being denied or powerless. Also, I am interested in the notion that the audience enters subjecthood through a turned back, as in, we can only be absorbed into the subject through the back of their head. I feel that all successful and complicated portraits have to have this element of emotional incongruity.

Monday, July 7, 2008

band camp

i love these portraits from Greg Miller's series Band Camp. it's a great idea for a project.
(plus, are these kids so bershon or what?)

The Year in Pictures tells me that Miller is currently working on a project about Nashville... which reminds me that i really have to finally go check out Nashville someday soon.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

the return of the amazons: asgarda

i am completely entranced by Guillaume Herbaut's project "Le Retour des Amazones," set in Ukraine.

it focuses on a group of 150 women, led by Katerina Tarnouska, who call themselves "Asgarda" and seek to bring back the Amazon tribal tradition. they have been training as a militia and as a community for four years. (i didn't realize that the Scythian Amazons referenced in Greek myth actually came from the area that is now south Ukraine—these women trace their mythological heritage back to those ancient countrywomen.)

there's more going on here spiritually, and politically, too—as you can see from the t-shirt in the top photo, these women also idolize Yulia Tymoshenko, the icon of the Orange Revolution and leader of the Ukrainian "Fatherland" party. (there also seems to be a bit of a Xena: Warrior Princess fetish going on too, if this photo is any indication.)

it's totally fascinating, and i wish i knew more (also, reminds me of a book i just read, as well as other utopalyptic thoughts i've been having lately.) but for right now, Asgarda's story seems relatively untold, except in these photos. more info here.

really great stuff! the photographer, Herbaut has been labeled a member of the "poetic documentary" movement in French photojournalism, which perhaps explains why his visual approach seems to blend photojournalistic and fine art styles.

(more selections from the project available on PhotoShelter.)

p.s. click on the top image to see it bigger because it is so rad! i want a sickle (or a scythe). the subject's name is Marianna Revenko and she's a 19 year-old student.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

photopoetics: nothing was ever what it claimed to be

last week i wrote a bit about photography's relationship (as an art form) to writing and literature. it often occurs to me that a photograph can be more kin to a poem than to a painting.

one photographer who calls this to my mind is Rinko Kawauchi. she's probably one of the more famous Japanese fine art photographers; i admire her work but sometimes find the images a bit impenetrable—in a good way.

for some reason, i thought of Kawauchi when i read this sonnet, from poet Karen Volkman's new book Nomina:

Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,
the earth, blue egg, in its seeping shell
dispensing damage like a hollow hell
inchling weeping for a minor sea

ticking its tidelets, x and y and z.
The blue beneficence we call and spell
and call blue heaven, the whiteblue well
of constant water, deepening a thee,

a thou and who, touching every what—
and in the or, a shudder in the cut—
and that you are, blue mirror, only stare

bluest blankness, whether in the where,
sheen that bleeds blue beauty we are taught
drowns and booms and vowels. I will not.

-Karen Volkman

Kawauchi's photos often have a cool, blurred, blue tone that i thought matched up well. not to mention a sense that they might not be what they claim to be.

(i think it would be fun to do more photo / literary pairings like this.)