Tuesday, March 3, 2009

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."


Chris said...

I would argue that we see "successful" art with young, skinny, nude women because the art industry is largely run by dirty old men. Like most industries.

subjectify said...

i agree re: why these projects might gain success in the art industry. but i hope that we don't have to reify these privileges online or in blogs, etc.

Peter Zimmerman said...

I think we should leave behind the type of people who perhaps condition the responses of a culture, as Chris seems to do, but rather attack the ways in which we attempt to engage our cultural milieu. You're seeing Megan Cump as a reiteration of a chain of white, skinny female photographers based on the self. But, I just don't think we're looking hard enough-- what about people like Jen Davis? (http://www.jendavisphoto.com/) or Francesca Woodman if we're going to go further back? There are tons of women who either defy the skinny side or attack the beauty element. And quite frankly, I think many of them are much more compelling.

subjectify said...

thanks peter. i was just writing about jen davis this morning -- i'll post it up. she's a great suggestion. francesca woodman is such an important reference point. but i think her beauty and naked-beauty-as-tragedy has also been really romanticized. she might have been attacking notions of proper feminine behavior and beauty, but her legacy is also defined by her beautiful tragedy, no? when we look at her work now, i think she is often regarded as a sylvia plath of confessional photography?

Peter Zimmerman said...

You're right about that-- the Sylvia Plath connection is incredibly tight and concise. But, the fact is that Francesca Woodman really worked to expand our view of the body as bodymap, as space in and of itself, of an index and also as blurring the lines between space and index.

I love her work, and find it challenging, vicious, and perhaps even feral! But I have to say-- I think Megan Cump got a lot right with these photographs-- it's just that a lot of it also seems slightly self-congratulatory and self-aware of its potency through its visual codes of blood, environment, nudity, etc.

I just prefer things like Jen Davis' photograph of her eating while looking out the window. There is such space for analyzing the photograph, but it also then turns us into the self-analyzing machine that photography so often wants us to do, though only very few ever achieve this motion.

One last thing I would urge against is employing Roland Barthes' rhetoric too much to work by female photographers. I think many of these women strive to break the
"male gaze" and instead reinstitute/recuperate a voice for themselves, so we just have to be careful with our language.

subjectify said...

suggestion taken, peter. although i don't think i think of questions of 'the gaze' as being necessarily Barthesian? (maybe only because i read Mulvey, others, first, in non-photography theory?)

Peter Zimmerman said...

No, you're right-- gaze is definitely Mulvey, at least in the contemporary sense as influenced by film studies/women's studies/gender studies, but for example your uses of the "punctum" in the original post is wholly Barthesian. I'm all for Mulvey, Krauss, Solomon-Godeau, Butler, etc. because they really critique and attack the prominent rhetoric of their time, which is and was undeniably marked by men.

But, I'm glad to see you post about Megan Cump's work-- I'd never seen it before. A nice new find!

Anonymous said...

Catherine Opie also springs to mind as someone who may also be one of the exceptions. I saw her show in New York at Christmas and it was one of the best things I have seen in a very long time.


Robert Phillips

Flak Photo said...

Hi Lexi - thanks for the shout!

I met Megan at Review L.A. this winter and was immediately drawn to the work she was doing, so was pleased when she agreed to let me show it on flakphoto.com.

Looks like folks are drawing comparisons to Jen Davis' investigation into the female form, which is smart - I'm showing a picture from her Self-Portraits series on the site today.

Jen just launched her own website, so do make some time to check out more of her picture when you've got the time.

cinemascapist said...

I disagree with the detailed crops accompanying the images (meant to be viewed at 28" x 38"). I found it impossible to view the images and all the details on my monitor. I never would have noticed the fox or the bones, etc... The internet fails certain photographers in that regard.

I have yet to have a show and not have at least 2-3 people come up to me and say "whoah, there are so many details in these shots that I didn't see on your website". I respond, "yeah, I know, the web sucks in that regard. now you can enjoy them as they're meant to be seen."

Those details unseen online can possibly lose a lot of viewers interest. I personally wouldn't want to choose a specific area to crop as Megan has, but perhaps develop a google earth like feature where the viewer can zoom in and drag the screen around the image?

db said...

You probably do see a predominance of young white skinny and female in the nude self portrait genre.

Not because they are the bravest photographers- quite the reverse. It's easy to have a positive body image and good self esteem when you know that what you are doing is largely approved of and preferred by society.

It's the minority who use the ''shortcomings'' of their weight, age or body type to say something meaningful.

Which brings me back to feral- I don't mind them. At least they attempt a story that is more than simply ''I'm white, skinny and nude.'' They don't interest me greatly, but I think her method is valid.

Thanks for an interesting post..

eda said...


Wendy said...

I'm really enjoying your review of some of these projects. Thanks for bringing them to our attention!

Anonymous said...

okay, I am going out on a limb here, I agree with you about the 'young, white skinny women" but I also felt that Jen was exploiting on the opposite end of the spectrum. Are we intrigued because we don't usually see images like those? Truthfully, I have not studied either artist extensively, though I have seen both of their images. It is just my first reaction.

I N D I A H O B S O N said...

I don't think that should be detrimental to those that do produce such self-portraiture, after all, the body is what it is and I for one have little control over my figure, yet do like to use it to help communicate an idea... I think to a certain extent artists such as Jen Davis and Jenny Saville too have been romanticised, and what we are used to seeing are one extreme or the other - and its the in-betweens that don't seem to have a voice. I don't think that we should discount or judge someone's work on their physicalities if that isn't the focus or their message - the fact that Cump is slender is purely coincidental to her work and nakedness is a form of expression. Love this blog - recently discovered it in research for my dissertation and its very well written and has highlighted some beautiful work. Thank you. (http://www.indiahobsonphotography.co.uk)