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.

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