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.