Tuesday, September 8, 2009


as has been obvious to any regular Subjectify readers, i've decided to take a long-term hiatus from posting (regularly). i've been doing a bit more planning and thinking on my own work, which seems to be moving away from straight portraiture. i think struggling with portraiture has really been what this whole blog was about, so it seems appropriate.

anyway, thanks for reading, folks, and i'll post more news when i have it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

portraiture and 'controversies'

i thought that Michael Kimmelman's great review of the Controversies exhibit in Paris was especially thought-provoking in light of my last post and issues i've been thinking about lately in portraiture and subjecthood.  an excerpt below, from the New York Times.

"By virtue of its economy and proliferation, photography has been one of the most convenient weapons of the powerless even while it serves the powers that be. During the early 1960s, when French authorities required Algerians to have identity cards, a conscript in the French Army, Marc Garanger, was ordered to shoot their portraits. He photographed some 2,000 Algerian women, many of whom had been, until they uncovered themselves for his camera, veiled throughout their adult lives.

This was a profound violation for these women. Making the pictures turned Mr. Garanger entirely against French rule. He registered his opposition in these official portraits, through the humanity of his subjects, whose anger, which the pictures make perfectly obvious, conveyed both their oppression and resistance.

“For 24 months I never stopped, sure that one day I would be able to testify with these images,” Mr. Garanger recalled two decades later. “All of this I did with more force than the dominant military ideology of the era that surrounded me with hatred and violence.”

With more enduring effect anyway. A particularly beautiful portrait of a woman named Cherid Barkaoun, mournful but proud, large eyes kohl-rimmed, hair braided, absently clutching a scarf to her chest as if to keep hold of some sliver of privacy, reaches across half a century."     --Michael Kimmelman

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

subject echo: the power of images

i recently re-read Regarding the Pain of Others and Regarding the Torture of Others by Susan Sontag.  with the news lately, i have been thinking a lot about the cultural and political discourse around images of torture and war, and the way that our reactions to the images take on a life separate even from the referent (the act of torture) depicted within them.

much has been written about the ways in which war photography often echoes iconic religious imagery.  but i have been wondering how, in turn, the iconography of the new war and torture photography is also influencing fine art photographers today?  

no matter where you come down on the questions surrounding whether these photographs should be released (though i imagine most photographers believe that the images should be released and talked about), they inarguably seep into our individual psyches and ultimately have a profound affect on our cultural consciousness.

one example: today i was looking at photographs from a personal self-portrait project in which none of the images are explicitly politically-motivated, and saw in one of them traces of the Abu Ghraib torture photos.  perhaps i just have this on the brain, or perhaps the connections are there in a larger or sub-conscious sense.  as always, i'd love to hear your thoughts and see other connections.

above top, 2004 image of a prisoner being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, capture from a news video.

below, "Origin," from the series Bend So Not to Break by Jessica Somers.  more images, and a project statement, available at f-stop magazine.   Somers says that her self-portrait work "explores the struggle and balance between the choices one makes and the uncontrollable circumstances that intervene with these choices."  the images attached to the subject above appear to be old family photographs, but it is interesting to think of how we might interpret the final image differently if the photos depicted within it were diferent.

Monday, May 11, 2009


i have seen Sam Falls' work lately on different blogs and discussions, most notably on ihp, the Hey, Hot Shot blog and This is That. i agree that there is something fantastic in the (dis)connections between his images and the way he assembles them into a narrative, but that something is not easily articulable.

his latest work, Monocarpic, is a series of still life observances with portraits mixed in, and i picked out a few portraits to feature here. overall, his assemblage of work is fairly diverse and colorful. the three photos above pop up at intervals and stuck out for me. together, they are elusive, creepy, and curly.

i think Subjectify readers will find that a lot of the questions he is tackling are ones we have been butting our heads up against in looking at portraits together in the art-photo context. his interview with Johanna Reed on This is That is a great read. on his approach to portraiture, Sam Falls says:
When it comes to critical theory and influential texts, I was reading and thinking a lot about object-hood and the alienating Other found in photography, especially in portraiture....my photos of the backs of heads...are sort of "anybody portraits," where the viewer is not an Other but left to their own imagination of the central idea of a portrait, which is “What does the face look like?”
in fact, Falls does have several other anti-portraits of the backs of heads (including an entire blurb book of them), but i think the ones above offer a little more in setting a narrative tone than the straight back-of-head images.

the other questions that are primary in his work are ones that i think are at the crux of the relationship between photographers and viewers--and crucial for us to ask each other. why is the artist offering me these images? (and why in this narrative order?) what do i see when i see them? (and what does it all mean?) to find the answers, we have to grapple with the sticky question of the 'author' and authorial intention. does the perspective or identity of the author trump the interpretation of the viewer? or, does the viewer's ultimate interpretation of the 'text' make the photographer's original intent irrelevant? no matter where your feelings fall on this spectrum, these questions come up again and again in visual art, as in literature.

Sam Falls' response seems to be to reject ironic abstraction in his aproach and try to make work that is as personally meaningful as possible. (emphasis on the 'personally.') i'll end with his take on these questions:
I think art is really valuable when the viewer gets to know the artist and where they are coming from. This is where a photographer must relate their subjectivity to the viewer through content and composition. This is perhaps why I've really begun leaning toward photographing the people, places, and things that hold lasting personal value to me. I used to think this was something reserved for amateur photography and photo albums, but now perhaps it needs to be reinstated in a fine art context in today’s image-based world where meaningless images are omnipresent. I mean any advertisement created by a nameless photographer of a model casting a blank stare away from the camera just tells the viewer "I don't care," and I think just saying, "This is what I care about, and you have things you care about," is now a very interesting concept to me.

Friday, May 1, 2009

subject echo: that distinctive sprawl

nice, Ms. Hutchinson!

top image: "Nude, 1936" by Edward Weston, bottom image: "Inspired by Edward Weston 1," from the Model Husband Series by Kate Hutchinson.

here's what Kate Hutchinson has to say about her Model Husband series:
Looking at the intimacy and trust that must exist between two people in order for one to photograph the other throughout their relationship, I take as models these men who used their wives as subjects. I examine their methods and approach through mimicry. How did these artists balance the need to create with the need to preserve something so dear? The relationship between artist and muse is at stake but so is that between husband and wife. How did they, and how do I, resign the two? Futhermore looking at a potential shift in gender roles over the past century I also wonder: are we telling the same story now but in reverse?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

all i want

Sarah McKemie's project All I Want has me transfixed. sometimes, when viewing photography projects, i have a hard time taking in a range of portraits that might seem a bit unconnected and don't have a project statement--it can be hard to find a way in. not with these; they clicked for me immediately.

i meant to post about them some months ago, but instead, started bugging Sarah to talk to me about them.  she was incredibly gracious to this pestering stranger, and so i'm happy to share her thoughts on "All I Want" with you.  i think they're thought-provoking and worth the wait:

In my current and on-going body of work, All I Want, I explore the push and pull of intimacy and the awkwardness of desire. Through my series of portraits I play with and examine the fantasies, obsessions, myths, and stereotypes about longing.

I am drawn to the way our bodies tell stories of confidence, self-consciousness, or humility. Through photography I look at rituals of adornment and gesture—the way we create and display ourselves for others, and how we define ourselves based on how desirable we think others find us.

The images I capture in All I Want recreate and document the innocence and complexity of my subjects, questioning the intricacies of sexuality that are undefined, and even celebrate this ambiguity.  -Sarah McKemie

some of my favorite images from the series are above.  i chose them before reading the statement, but now i like thinking about what this slice of images has to say about the myths we carry about intimacy, longing, and desire.

enjoy the rest of the project here.

p.s. greetings Blogs of Note visitors!  i hope you like photographerie!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

book week: to ettlingerize

Bookslut just posted today:

"I never understood why so many writers use Marion Ettinger [sic] for their author photo, since they all end up looking like those 19th century corpse photos. All of em."

thoughts, readers?  chime in in the comments.

personally, i have a bit of a soft spot for Marion Ettlinger precisely because her style is so stubborn, iconic, and recognizable.  high-contrast, pretentiously serious, black and white portraiture is not exactly a rare or unique style in the history of photography.  and yet her photographs can be spotted on site, from 20 paces across the Barnes & Noble.  whether you like her look--ye olde dodge and burn--or not, you have to admit she's made the most of it. 

there seems to be an uptick of discussion of her online lately, in the blogs, and in the news.  

for more, here is a comprehensive 2004 New York Times piece on the "Age of Ettlinger:"
"If you didn't know any better, you would think that Ettlinger's pictures were deliberate antitheses to earlier book-jacket photographs, something like the 19th-century French realists reacting to their romantic predecessors--only in reverse."

(and, more provocatively: 
"A portrait's function is to have no function except the representation of the subject.")

here, too, are Alec Soth's thoughts on Ettlinger and author photos, from his old blog:
"Ettllinger [sic] is a good photographer. But there is something off-putting about her relentless effort to make authors look like, well, Authors."

finally, i also think that Conscientious' recent comments on schtick have something to bear here as well:
"A well known photographer once told me that an extremely well known and influential gallerist had told him that the road to success was to find one's niche and then to simply produce work that way (think babies in "cute" dresses or Weimaraners or overly Photoshoped celebrities or whatever else you can think of). I suppose that works nicely if seen with the eyes of someone who knows how to sell work--after all, what appeals to people (and thus sells nicely) today should do so tomorrow, right?

But as someone interested in art as somebody's personal expression, it strikes me as listening to music where the record is stuck on the player..." 

so, my answer to Bookslut?  i agree with Soth's sentiment.  writers (or their publishers) choose Marion Ettlinger for their photographs because they want to look not like writers, or even authors, but Authors.  an imprimatur is a rather powerful thing.

your comments?

p.s. authors clockwise from top left: Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, David Foster Wallace.

Friday, April 3, 2009


continuing this week's book theme, i wanted to note Jenny Mathias' new project Circulation, in which the contents of illustrated books are photographed as the pages flip in long exposure.  her project statement says: 
"The long exposure compresses image and text, selectively highlighting certain aspects of the information conveyed by the book while obsuring other information the same way that the human mind selectively remembers or forgets certain images or ideas.  Mathias' images reveal an internal existence of books which cannot be viewed in real time, but only expressed through photography's ability to compres time into one static image."

it's a cool idea, and i like the results.  i enjoy the way the images are identical in composition while different books offer different ideas or nod toward disparate genres.  the top image conjures up thoughts of spirit photography, whereas the bottom one makes me think of the use of collage in fashion design.

Jenny's show opens Monday, April 6th at the Pratt Institute Media Arts Gallery, 200 Willoughby Ave., Steuben Hall, in Brooklyn, NY.

p.s. i can personally attest to Jenny's longtime interest in libraries and oversized books.  i took this photo of her several years ago when we met in a class at Cooper Union:

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

reader, i subjectified him

i enjoyed the almost-silhouettes from Katherine Wolkoff's series Nocturne when i first saw them (top). and i love this one as an actual silhouette on the cover of the new Vintage Classics edition of Jane Eyre coming out next week.

i'm fascinated by the practice of using fine art photography on book covers in general (is it wrong that i think it's sweet when art photos have a 'practical' 'use' too?), and this is a fantastic example, gleaned from the awesome Book Cover Archive.

Jane Eyre was published only eight years after the first daguerreotype portrait was taken in 1839.

as for the potential meanings of this particular cover photograph selection for this novel, it made me think of the book Fiction in the Age of Photography by (my former professor, the fabulous) Nancy Armstrong:

"The allurements of the fully exposed body necessarily canceled out both its maternity and its feminity, since these were private functions of the woman...While the respectable woman could be said 'to have' a female body, her relation to that body resembles what D.A. Miller calls 'the open secret.' Her identity as a feminine and maternal woman indicated that she had an erotic life which she had scrupulously withheld from public view. To grasp the extent to which this open secret shaped Victorian fiction, one need only recall how any one of Charlotte Brontë's heroines shrinks into corners and niches or fades into the background behind her more flamboyant rivals and companions. Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe, and Caroline Helstone will do anything to avoid the limelight, and Brontë consequently allows us to see them only as they watch men watching other women make spectacles of themselves.

The two halves of the popular body--the feminine and the female--were indeed two halves of a single cultural formation. That construct was organized by a contradiction between the body which contained and concealed a woman's sexuality, on the one hand, and the body as manifestation of that sexuality, on the other. The feminine and the female could not coexist within a single photograph, since they ostensibly addressed entirely different audiences who looked at the body in entirely different ways."

and we'll give the last word to Ms. Brontë herself:

"Listen, then, Jane Eyre, to your sentence: to-morrow, place the glass before you, and draw in chalk your own picture faithfully; without softening one defect; omit no harsh line, smooth away no displeasing irregularity; write under it, 'Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain.'"

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

the eyes of anne collier

i've been having a hard time with portraits lately.  i've taken a bit of time off from really looking at them (or taking them).

Anne Collier's approach to capturing the subject is very appealing to me right now.  her images raise a lot of questions, ones that i enjoy--about appropriation, looking, documenting, nostalgia, and about why we take photographs.

the top image is from her "Woman With A Camera" series; it's a photograph of a promotional photo for "Eyes of Laura Mars" (the 1978 film in which Faye Dunaway sees--and photographs--through the eyes of a male serial killer).  the second image is "8 x 10 (Left Eye #1)," from a recent series of photographs of 8 x 10 prints in photo paper boxes.

Collier has said of photographing other photographs and album covers: "It's got something to do with self-portraiture, but I'm not really in any of the photographs."

(listen to more at the 2006 Whitney Biennial site.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Amy Stein's blog offered an answer to my recent questions about female self-portrait projects that explore nudity and questions about the subject while featuring diverse body sizes and perspectives.  

i really enjoyed looking through Jen Davis' portfolio and her self-portrait series.  there are so many images that i enjoyed (though, at 44 photos, it could be edited down and focused a bit more for the web--that said, i think the breadth helped me understand the project more fully).  the project does include several photos that directly address body image and self-esteem, which was at first a turnoff for me--i'd like to see one that doesn't some day--but they are also honest and fit in well with the overall piece.

also check out Jen Davis' project "I Ask in Exchange," featuring some pretty intense portraits of different men.  Amy Stein comments: "You can definitely sense a strong female gaze in the images."

please keep sending more links my way.

feral bodies, tame bodies

i am both compelled and troubled by Megan Cump's project Feral, which i saw on Flak Photo. in the project, Cump goes on solo hiking and kayaking trips and photographs herself going back to nature in some surprising tableaux. the images themselves are compelling enough: beautiful landscapes; contemplations of nature and man's role; a naked, young photographer interested in her ability to lose her humanity and have a feral immersion.

her website is organized so that you can see not only each photo, but a detail zoom of each image's selected punctum (see the above detail images: "bloodbath detail" and "siren detail"). i think the troubling part about the project for me is not the content, but two other things. the first one is desire to explain the importance of the images using the grainy details, instead of letting the viewer find its own meaning in the photograph. in this way, the details are offered as trophies, which i think undercuts the photos themselves. (this approach also reminds me a bit of the hide-and-seek product-placement ads playfully included in Alec Soth's Fashion Magazine.)

secondly, i am troubled a bit by something else, which is not Cump's fault, nor is it limited to her: self-portrait projects from a visually-privileged position of young, white, nude beauty. i have been thinking about the "trouble" with beauty in art photography for some time. i can see an alternate world in which i would earnestly feel that female photographers' naked self-portraits were brave, theoretically rigorous, challenging, honest, etc...etc... except i rarely do feel that way, because lately i notice that mainly thin, beautiful women engage in these projects in the first place. or at least, their projects are the ones that gain recognition in the art world (which is why i see them?). of course, such projects might have something thought-provoking and honest to offer, but overall, it still troubles me.

this uneasiness has kept me from embracing other work that i otherwise enjoy and find interesting, from Elinor Carucci's early work to Janice Guy. i'd love to hear from anyone else who has been thinking along the same lines lately. (and i don't mean to lump these photographers together with Flickr's Female Self-Portrait Artists' Support Group or anything, but it's been on my mind, and i would love to see some antidotes--feel free to email them to me.  see also some more discussion of this here.)

back to Feral--some images from the project are below (non-detail views). Megan Cump's project statement is here, and is worth checking out too. she says:

"Important influences also include Freud’s concepts of the uncanny, turn-of-the-century “spirit photography,” and acts of sudden transformation found in myths."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

catblogging van der zee

the other day i had a wow moment, when i came across one of Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee's last portraits. i'd seen it before but never given serious thought to it. but it is hard to wrap my head around the fact that Van Der Zee took the top photograph during the Great Depression, and the bottom one, of Jean-Michel Basquiat, in 1982 at the age of 96. what an amazing life's work.

(there's an interesting article about this period in Van Der Zee's life here, in a 1981 issue of Ebony.)

and Basquiat's portrait of Van Der Zee (VNDRZ) is below.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

subject echo: ectoplasm!

i saw Helga Härenstam's work on Conscientious, and enjoyed checking out her project "House of the Extraordinary." i especially liked reading the images in this series as contemporary, color explorations of the way technology and light can manifest as creepy and miraculous.

this reminded me of a book a friend recently gave me: Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible 1840 - 1900 (from the SFMoMA exhibition). the book explores the early use of photography to capture "the realm beyond our everyday vision," from space photography to microscopic particles, X-rays, and even spirit photography.

Helga Härenstam's image (top) instantly reminded me of this 1912 photograph of a medium (and her viewer) from Brought to Light.

whether photography is attempting to capture ectoplasm, the human spirit, or the connection that happens the moment the shutter clicks, i think the best of it is still searching for that realm beyond our everyday vision.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


French photographer Catherine Larré recently sent over her website. some of her work is a bit more gothic and romantic than my usual taste, but i enjoyed the above photographs of bodies and skin from an untitled project.

interestingly enough, she has several statements about her work on her site, all written by other people, in French, and available in translation. here's a quote from one that i enjoyed for being both random and ambiguous enough to offer a lens for thinking about any of her images. (and to think of folds of skin as drapery--fantastic.)
"Drapery," Roger de Piles wrote in 1699, “should not be arranged like dress as used in society; let pleats find their own place around limbs by chance, making them appear as they are and yet stand out through the diligent device of stroking, somehow emphasizing them, with softness and tender winding." --José Puig

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


on sunday, i went to the International Center of Photography to see Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now. i am not an adept viewer of fashion photography, but i was drawn to an editorial menswear feature called Princeton--that turned out to be photographed by artist Collier Schorr. i really enjoy Schorr's work and was interested to see that that spark translated to fashion layouts as well. just like in her fine art endeavors, she is great at drawing something special out of the idea of men-as-subjects (and as objects of desire).

downstairs at ICP, there was a small exhibit on Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi, which included this image (installation view from my phone):

which in turn reminded me of Schorr's project The Wrestlers:

here's what she has to say about it:
"There never seems to be a wide range of emotional definitions of men. And I think in wrestling you really see so many different emotions, so many different reactions and interactions... A theme of twinship has always run through my work, of people that look alike. And that was another reason I was drawn to wrestling because I feel like wrestlers look a certain way... I can just tell a wrestler. And I’ve grown to love that face. And so I’m looking for guys that fit that pattern. I’m looking for this tribe of people."

p.s. in a stroke of kismet, Molly Landreth just blogged about "the lines of tribe" and relating it to Collier Schorr's take on capturing tribes, from Schorr's interview with the great PBS series Art21. view the synchronicity here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve?

"that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself"

President Obama's inaugural speech had a small, jangly note for me: his invocation for the lines of tribe to dissolve. in context, he is calling for an end to violence that uses tribal loyalty as an excuse for discord and exclusion.  to see the common humanity that transcends tribal allegiance is an ideal and surely a necessary one. but taken in a much broader context, his statement also makes me consider when the melting pot is not enuf.

could the concept of unity exist without tribes?  (and would we want it to?) tribes are enormously important to us and i think there is no chance of that importance lessening--if anything, new media's power to connect disparate people with similar interests will continue to propagate an increase in new tribes. and today's contemporary tribes, many affinity-based in nature, have shifted the traditional boundaries of our identity politics.

in photography, it is by now a time-honored (or time-worn) tradition to visually document a "tribe." many readers will recognize that this is not my favorite kind of project; especially one that chases at strangeness and specificity with a sort of butterfly-catcher's net.  often these projects, from the POV of the photographer as sociologist, point toward a common humanity as well. (in that way some are universalizing in their otherwise minoritizing lens.)

but although i usually shy away from projects that earnestly attempt to capture and document an actual community, there are many instances where i really enjoy the photographer's particular take on how to group people together into a tribe and how to present them visually.

today, i would like to honor tribes in photography. below are some of the "tribal" projects that i've noticed or been thinking about lately. some i respond to more strongly than others. but all of them, as a category of photographic production, both trouble and delight me.

("this is the price, and the promise, of citizenship.")

Rewilding, Lucas Foglia
(Off-the-grid homesteaders)

Nollywood, Pieter Hugo
(Actors in the Nigerian film industry)

Still Lovers, Elena Dorfman
(Men and their real dolls)

Parameters, Corinne May Botz
(Agoraphobics and their environments)

Aicuna, Paola de Grenet
("The mysterious village of the albinos")

Perfectible Worlds, Sage Sohier
(Obsessive collectors and hobbyists)

Embodiment, Molly Landreth
("A portrait of queer life in America")