Close Encounters: Reframing Family Photography

Close Encounters: Reframing Family Photography

Posted by on Mar 29, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

This is my last guest blog post and it’s been an honor to share my thoughts about contemporary photography with the Baxter St/CCNY audience. I wanted to end my guest blogging stint with a post about an upcoming continuing education course I will be teaching at the School at the International Center of Photography.

Titled Close Encounters: Reframing Family Photography, this course focuses on historical and contemporary representations of family. It is intended to expose students to the range of artists and photographers who have used their cameras to define their concept of family. Though weekly critiques, in this class students will also begin or continue to develop their own body of family work.

Below you’ll find more of the course description plus select images that played like a slideshow in my head when I was thinking about the photographers whose work I wanted to discuss in this course:

Capturing the immediate family as subject matter has almost always been considered a form of vernacular photography, and yet some photographers have made it a part of their life’s work—thus confirming or contesting official discourses of race, gender, and sexuality.

Moving beyond simple snapshots of domestic scenes and the heteronormative, “nuclear” family, this course reexamines the genre of family photography and investigates its cultural politics and new importance, as it is being redefined by historical events such as migration/immigration and queer visibility.

Throughout the term, we will look at and address the family work of a diverse selection of historical and contemporary photographers, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Elinor Carucci, Emmet Gowin, Catherine Opie, Carrie Mae Weems, and other artists, such as LaToya Ruby Frazier, Zanele Muholi, and many more.

Top Image: Renee Cox. Olympia’s Boyz, 2001.

Julia Margaret Cameron. Prayer and Praise, 1865.

Julia Margaret Cameron. Prayer and Praise, 1865.

Lyle Ashton Harris. The Child, 1994.

Lyle Ashton Harris. The Child, 1994.

Catherine Opie. Self portrait / Nursing, 2004.

Catherine Opie. Self portrait / Nursing, 2004.

Emmet Gowin. Edith and Elijah, Newtown (Pennsylvania), 1974.

Emmet Gowin. Edith and Elijah, Newtown (Pennsylvania), 1974.

LaToya Ruby Frazier. Grandma Ruby and Me. From the

LaToya Ruby Frazier. Grandma Ruby and Me. From the “Notion of Family” series, 2001 – 2014.

For more information or to register, visit the Close Encounters: Reframing Family Photography course page on the ICP School website. This is a 5-week, course that will run on Mondays from 6:30-9:30pm from May 22 through June 26, 2017. 

Also note, in June of this year I will also be teaching a one-weekend course titled Layered Narratives: Visualizing Stories Through Photocollage.


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures.

Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog:

Photography at the 2017 Whitney Houston Biennial
Conversation with Marco Scozzaro on Digital Deli
Five Visual Motifs in the Photographs of Ren Hang
Photography and the Black Panther Party
The Black Female Self in Landscape
In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes
Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers
New Image Library Specializes in Race and Cultural Diversity

Five Visual Motifs In the Photographs of Ren Hang

Five Visual Motifs In the Photographs of Ren Hang

Posted by on Feb 27, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

On February 24th after suffering from a deep depression, Chinese photographer Ren Hang took his own life just weeks before his 30th birthday. Despite his young age, Hang leaves behind a large body of photographic work. Known for his “racy”, erotic images, Hang’s photographs visualized a provocative and constructed world that simultaneously referenced a uniquely Chinese aesthetic and contemporary youth culture.

When I look at Hang’s work, I am less interested in his exposure of genitalia and the titillating effect of his images. As a photographer, I’m drawn to his storytelling techniques, specifically the aesthetic patterns that emerge when seeing the work as a whole. In memoriam I’d like to highlight five visual motifs that Hang repeatedly employed to thus create his signature style. 

 

The Color Red
Considered the most popular color in China as evident by the red field featured in the country’s flag, Hang used this symbolic color in a variety of ways. In traditional Chinese culture, red is associated with celebration and creativity, good fortune and joy. In its most political meaning, red is associated with communism or socialism which in this case may relate to the form of government Hang was always in conflict with.

In Hang’s images you’ll often see red painted on the lips and/or nails of his female models and also as a backdrop color. Whether a face is immersed in crimson-colored bathwater, or as in this image where both model and snake are laying on red bedsheets, Hang uses the same blood-red shade to highlight an idea or frame his subjects.

 

Polycephaly
Popularized in literature by Greek mythological creatures, polycephaly is a condition of having more than one head that can also realistically occur in animals and humans. In several images, Hang has played with the concept of a double-headed being, focusing less on the condition itself and more on the idea of two that share a body. In other images, he’s posed his models to resemble a multi-limbed being, an act that comes across as pure play, fitting bodies together in an exploration of the fantastical human form.


Hair

Sporting medium to long, black hair, Hang’s female models uphold stereotypical and historical visions of Asian femininity. Draped over faces and limbs, jet black hair shines in the glare of Hang’s almost-violent flash lighting. In the art of dream interpretation, hair is recognized as a symbol of sensuality, seduction and vanity – all descriptors commonly used to interpret Hang’s work.  


Flora

Hang often staged his images in nature and in his studio shots, cut flowers and various types of exotic flora also appear, sometimes competing with the model(s) for the viewer’s attention. In the above image, the cherry blossom tree obscures the model as its intricate branches and blossoms dominate the frame. A historical symbol of desire and sexuality, Hang has used various species of flora ranging from the innocuous tulip to the Anthurium with its sexy, patent-leather like red leaves and erect pistil.


Birds

Lastly, one can’t help but notice the winged creatures in Hang’s images. Although domesticated animals (like reptiles and cats) mingle amongst naked bodies, the birds are limp, tamed, as if to be prepared for consumption. Not knowing for sure I insist they are dead or at least taxidermy, as I can’t fathom any bird would cooperate in such foreign, artificial conditions. Hang’s repeat use of birds seems obsessive. He even poses his own mother in the series My Mum with an excess of doves, ducks, peacocks and swans.

In his most complex compositions, Hang arranged several of these motifs together to make a single, confounding image. And though there are bodies, except in the case of his mother, there are no characters. Alive or not, Hang arranges his subjects like objects. It is because of this that I’ve come to appreciate Hang’s work as still life photography. RIP Ren Hang.


 

Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures.

Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog:
Photography and the Black Panther Party
The Black Female Self in Landscape
In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes
Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers
New Image Library Specializes in Race and Cultural Diversity

In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes

In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes

Posted by on Jan 25, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich, Uncategorized | No Comments

Earlier this month, noted art critic John Berger passed away. His death immediately sparked ripples of mentions throughout photography and art communities online. Though his writings may have been eclipsed by the more-celebrated musings of Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Berger’s observations on the propagation of the photographic medium are nonetheless as crucial and still relevant today.

When I heard of his passing, I immediately looked for my copy of About Looking (Pantheon Books, 1980) which I happened to find years ago amongst a pile of books left on the street. The book is a collection of essays by Berger written over ten years which were all previously published in New Society magazine and The Guardian UK newspaper. About Looking not only discusses the act of looking at photographs, it is “a fascinating record of the search for meaning within and behind what’s looked at.”

Berger’s most direct critique of our lens-based medium is an essay titled Uses of Photography, in which he writes down “some of my responses to Sontag’s 1977 book On Photography.” Without publishing the entire essay, below I’ve highlighted select quotes that introduce and elaborate on Berger’s idea of “an alternative photography” to counteract the medium’s nefarious functions and realize it’s altruistic possibilities.

WARNING: The following quotes contain radical (or what could be considered socialist) views on photography’s historical role in modern, Western society. Proceed with a decolonized mind.

“The speed with which the possible uses of photography were seized upon is surely an indication of photography’s profound, central applicability to capitalism. Marx came of age the year of the camera’s invention.”

“Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearances.”

“A mechanical device, the camera has been used as an instrument to contribute to a living memory. The photograph is a memento from a life being lived.”

“Has the camera replaced the eye of God? The decline of religion corresponds with the rise of the photograph.”

“The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.”

Upon (re)reading this quote I immediately recalled photographer/ethnologist Edward Curtis who made it his mission to document the North American native population because of his imperialist belief that they were “a vanishing race.”

Edward Curtis. “The Vanishing Race – Navaho”, 1904, volume 1, portfolio plate 1, photogravure, 46 x 31 cm., Special Collection, Honnold Library, Claremont.

Edward Curtis. “The Vanishing Race – Navaho”, 1904, volume 1, portfolio plate 1, photogravure, 46 x 31 cm., Special Collection, Honnold Library, Claremont.

“… the current systematic public use of photography needs to be challenged, not simply by turning round like a cannon and aiming it at different targets, but by changing its practice. How?”

“The truth is that most photographs taken of people are about suffering, and most of that suffering is man-made.”

Certainly this quote speaks to the historical and systematic utilization of ethnographic photography of native and indigenous populations around the world. In our globalized era, suffering is injected into (public and private) visual culture through images of war and illicit pornography which is a byproduct of modern slavery or human trafficking.

“It is possible that photography is the prophecy of a human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved.“

“The task of an alternative photography is to incorporate photography into social and political memory, instead of using it as a substitute which encourages the atrophy of any such memory.”

“The aim must be to construct a context for a photograph, to construct it with words, to construct it with other photographs, to construct it by its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.”  

Next Berger argues that photographs are typically used in a “unilinear way… to illustrate an argument, or to demonstrate a thought…” Consider the way a forensic photographer records the initial appearance of a crime scene as the first encounter and experience it through their subjective perspective. Berger also cites a photograph’s more common, tautological use so that it only “repeats what is being said in words.”

Although Berger argues that memory is not linear and works radially, with an “enormous number of associations all leading to the same event.” This radial pattern of memory is compared by Berger as being like the spoke of a wheel, which is a bit simplistic with just a single radiating plane. In my opinion, memory’s radial pattern has multiple (perhaps intersecting) planes and instead mimics the fractal-like, radiating pattern of a dandelion seed head.

Diagram of a radial pattern.

Diagram of a radial pattern.

Radial pattern of a dandelion seed head. By Avenue (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Radial pattern of a dandelion seed head. By Avenue (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“If we want to put a photograph back into the context of experience, social experience, social memory, we have to respect the laws of memory. We have to situate the printed photograph so that it acquires something of the surprising conclusiveness of that which was and is.”

“A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.” 

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this profound “radial system” and ways in which it can be used in storytelling and to display photographs in physical locations (galleries, public sites, etc.) More importantly I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps Berger was signaling our use of the #hashtag as a descriptor and curator of images on social media.  


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther Party and The Black Female Self in Landscape.

HISTORY IS NOT THE PAST

Posted by on Jun 29, 2013 in Jorge Alberto Perez | No Comments

By Jorge Alberto Perez

For Nona Faustine the restitution of her sense of wholeness as an African American woman and artist manifests in the guise of a restoration of the past, emphasis on guise.  Although we see her marching up the steps of City Hall in Manhattan with nothing on but her white Sunday shoes and a pair of shackles in her left hand…she is not really trying to restore anything. It took me a while to realize it.

Samsonella1KH_130127_0472

Her on-going photography and installation project Reconstructions is precisely that – reconstructions that attempt to replace something that was lost in the history of Blacks in America.  This should not be confused with an attempt to relive the past through reenactment. Faustine’s images are more like markers that indicate a place, an institution, an event or a person so that with her presence on that spot she does not merely remember them for the sake of remembering, she rewrites a new history for them. There on the steps of City Hall’s Renaissance Revival facade that abuts a slave burial ground or standing on her soap box at the intersection of Water and Wall Streets where a market once trafficked in humans, she is the fearless daughter of them all, the new Venus of Willendorf reborn to reconstruct a history, the ultimate act of fecundity.

Wall1KH_130310_0959 copy

Faustine easily acknowledges the impossibility of getting at what is essential with this task she has set for herself, because to reconstruct a history is an altogether different action than to restore one. Hers is not an attempt to historicize the present but to re-write the past. She did the research, discovered who bought and sold black slaves in colonial New York, and where, and how they were transported in and out of the city. But there is no Aushwitz or Treblinka for the victims of slavery in America despite the common knowledge that an estimated 10-12 million Africans died in the Middle Passage alone, and countless others succumbed to starvation, physical abuse and disease once on these shores. In a way the images function as memorials that she makes herself, one at a time, with her body, the naked truth of its blackness braced against a cold city, reconstructing a narrative where the enslaved has dignity and is not afraid.

http://nonafaustine.virb.com

http://jorgealbertoperez.wordpress.com

www.jorgealbertoperez.com 

 

 

 

TABLEAU VIVANT, PETIT MORT

By Jorge Alberto Perez

SONY DSC

Ali Van enters first, slides her shoes off and glides onto the carpet.  She sits like a geisha, legs to the side crossed at the ankles, back perfectly erect.  There is something utterly feminine in her body language, beguiling in both senses of the word and though she may appear demure, she is in total control.  This is her orgasm after all.  Hers to do with as she pleases.

Three men appear from different directions and also approach the large square of gray carpet that dominates the 3rd floor space at the Fisher-Landau Center for Art where Van has positioned herself. She holds an i-something in her hand from which a splitter dangles with three bobbing receptors. The men also remove their shoes and sit as if in a dojo, seiza style. Despite the strong sense of ceremony, and the fact that we the spectators are here to experience a performance, nothing feels overt.  The lights do not dim, but they feel as though they did, no more or less noise permeates the space as the foursome sit to face each other, but the present silence becomes more distinct. These are the elusive factors that matter to Van, a 2013 MFA candidate at Columbia University, near-invisible markers of time that she, with her subtle curating of objects, and now performance, weaves into highly dispassionate deeply personal work.

The men unravel earphones and each in turn inserts the male prong into one of the female receptacles.  They close their eyes and she looks intently at each of them, her acolytes who have dutifully come for her today.  Van presses play and manipulates the volume on her device and the men are seen to listen, wrinkles between closed eyes. A long and narrow groove in one, a short deeper trench in another, a gentle pulling inward of the eyes in the third.  Though we can assume they are listening to the same sounds, each man appears to respond differently to what he hears by his outward expressions.  It happens slowly, and builds on itself.  They are climbing the same ladder, they help each other, though they don’t seem aware of it.  One man is all breath, shallow and superficial. The next is a low moan, a growl that rumbles in the chest.  The third is higher pitched ecstatic releases. Together this chorus performs a unique rendition of what can only be the complex aural orchestrations of the female orgasm.  But not just any, it is hers, the action, the reaction and the reenactment. Possibly her most personal experience repackaged as a product for consumption.

From one vantage point Van has an open computer on a mid-century desk playing a clearly dated video of a brain surgery.  When I  first saw the video the week before this performance I thought it was a document of a wartime operating theater.  It seemed so improvised and shoddy.  Later I learned it was her father’s footage, who, wanting to see the operation for himself was only able to experience it when mediated by the camera.  Today it waxed sexual. The wet, bloody sulci of the brain being probed gently by anonymous hands whilst in the room a trio of breathy moans burst like smoke-filled bubbles.  As in most of Van’s art, the tidy compartmentalization of individual elements create untidy relationships in her tableau, discordant notes that when experienced together somehow create an unforeseeable 3rd thing.

This reenactment of her onanistic behavior slowly becomes unhinged somewhere between a science experiment and a defiant stance against male domination as the pitch slouches toward release.  It is a petit mort syncopated both in duration and stress to better understand what it is not rather than what it is. Likewise, the fragments of other objects mostly in the periphery of the rug speak to the partiality of any experience, whether intentionally mediated or not. What tooth is this?  Is it a human incisor or that of a wild animal?  It bothers me to not know. The bag of what I think are desiccated figs, might be tangerines. A mound of lint from a dryer with a streak of pink in it begs to reveal something.  A framed image of a foggy field is the 25-year-old blotter from her father’s desk.  Every object asks a question, a single compulsive question.  There are many objects, and if you let them they will haunt you.  For a moment, however, they are held at bay, as most mundane matters are when we succumb to corporeal needs.

After reaching a pitch, a height, a precarious angle from which one can only fall, the breaths, growls and moans come together again in silence.  The men emerge from behind shutters, looking guilty despite their best efforts; is that a self-congratulatory grin?  We all smile, there is relief in the air. Almost in ostensible synchrony the men unplug and wind their now flaccid wires back into tidy little squares.  Van stands and proceeds to the edge of the carpet where she puts her shoes back on and walks away.  The men follow her example.  We are left to our own devices.

http://www.alexandravan.com/AliVanStudio/Ali_Van.html

http://jorgealbertoperez.wordpress.com

www.jorgealbertoperez.com 

BEING AND TIME

By Jorge Alberto Perez

Without the help of a plot but with the rhythmic coaxing of a 12-string guitar, the one hour and one minute film “Street” by James Nares is absolutely hypnotic. Like Christian Marclay’s art-world sensation last year, (“The Clock”) “Street” has an addictive quality about it that makes you question the notion of time at a fundamental experiential level. With the former, one felt the anticipation of moving forward in time while engaged in the present moment’s deciphering of the rapid succession of filmic and cultural references of the past. In the latter, however, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 27, one is mesmerized by the uncanny qualities of New York City’s street life when suspended somewhere between still and moving images  where being and time collide to disrupt the present. In “Street” the minute details of life in the public sphere are able to take center stage as impressive open-ended arias in an epic opera of expressions, movement and vibrations. What normally escapes us unnoticed suddenly acquires magical qualities that seduce us with ease into a world that is at once familiar and alien. The ostensible simplicity of the premise (recording street scenes from a slowly moving car) produces a disproportionate amount of poetic results. It does what language cannot – allowing us a sensation of floating, the suspension of both time and the laws that govern the motion of objects in space, while making us witness to unexpected beauty.

The tradition of documenting street life has a long history in both photography and film and the deployment of a new technology for an artistic endeavor often yields an off-spring of surprising uncanniness. It has long been the task of the artist to reveal what is not known or unknowable in general, but more so when the subject matter is of quotidian life on the streets of the metropolis. Chantal Akerman’s “D’Est” and Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Moving Camera” especially come to mind. In Nares’ hands, however, the final result of a high-definition slow-motion camera (so slow that at times the only movement appears to be from the apparatus itself) turns the pedestrian world of pedestrians into a meditation on humanity suspended in fragments of time that can only be described as sublime. But the work also speaks to the illusory quality of time itself, for although we might feel freed from its constraints momentarily, it is an invisible vise that tightens around us. With more time to see what might otherwise be missed we have even more information to sort through, most of which can no longer be easily categorized as we are untethered from meaning. Time dutifully slips through our fingers with same same ease as always but with the added effect of revealing some of its secrets. The film, like a mirroring mise-en-abyme, tunnels ever deeper away from the present the longer we look, and thus our own sense of “real time” is displaced. Moments that unfold with such graceful care are layered with multiple meanings and though we may search for their origin or terminus where we think we might understand what we are seeing, it usually eludes us as we are distracted with the rarefied truth of actuality. An expression that starts off like a grimace ends up in a smile, a cigarette flying through the air is less a moment about littering and more a meditation on gravity. The crumpled posture of a woman elicits sympathy until we notice she is trying to take a picture and is merely holding the camera in an awkward position. Rain drops harden into diamonds before bouncing off umbrellas, bejeweling headlights. An ordinary pigeon endowed with the majesty of an eagle maneuvers in order to land. Lights everywhere pulsate with the universal Qi.

Everything is authentic in this state of expanding time. Even when the camera is acknowledged by the subject, the fourth wall does not crumble. On the contrary, it is a revelation of authenticity when a vibration of strength penetrates us with eye-contact. A direct look is all-at-once dangerous, playful, unnerving and spiritual. We are privy to a coded conversation at a level we forget we are capable of understanding. If for no other reason I would sit through the film again to experience those moments of contact with these strangers, not to mention the elegant upward floating sparrows next to a sign that reads “play here” or the seemingly improbable physics of bipedal locomotion or the elegant ripples of the breeze on a young woman’s dress. To sense the joy that can be derived from the smallest expression, the tiniest gesture, the subtlest vibration in a democracy of meaning is a special achievement in a work of art. We are reminded that everything arises in relation to everything else.

In “Street” people stand on corners like a Greek chorus – each face the unique mask of an individual describing a state of universal experience. Sadly I was forced to draw comparisons with the myriad street scenes of Boston we have recently also been exposed to. Whereas the notion of the interconnectedness of humanity was already present in this work, it became inescapable that the sinister and dangerous qualities of the social sphere are also embedded in Nares’ work. And to that I can only say that the revelatory moments feel all the more precious when reminded of the fragility of the fabric that binds it all together.

The only thing I knew about James Nares prior to seeing “Street” was his large-brush paintings, often achieved with a single stroke while he is suspended by a harness above the canvas cirque-du-soleil style. The sense of ease and floating translates directly from his method of marking the canvas to a dynamic suspension of pigment that is both cascading and frozen. The theme of a suspension of movement, and thus time, may or may not be an intentional thread between these disparate works, but it certainly appears so in this 61 minute film – 60 minutes plus one more, spilling over and out of the neat container of time.

http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/street

http://jorgealbertoperez.wordpress.com

www.jorgealbertoperez.com 

 

THE FEELING OF PRESENCE, MAYBE

By Jorge Alberto Perez

Okay. So we all know by now that images cannot be trusted. Since Plato, the image (mimesis), indeed representation itself, has been associated with deception. It is certainly true that images today cannot be trusted to be accurate versions of what is real or represented – ‘likeness’ opting for the approximation clause inherent in the definition of image-making. And once tampered with and altered, these representations are more than twice removed from what it represents. And though we are generally savvy enough to discern how far from real images are in the spectrum of truth, in the age of photoshop and digital reproducibility, our suspicions are subordinated to the vast volume of images, gifs and videos with which we are confronted daily. Today, whatever might still be considered an emphatic expression of fact re-presented in visual terms floats in our collective willing suspension of disbelief. We grow unaccustomed to believing our eyes – even in the presence of the real, in real time…

On Saturday March 23rd I encountered an art work entitled “The Maybe” at MoMA. What I encountered, actually, was the crowd that had encountered the art work. Second order observation. Immediately past the entrance where the ticket-takers scan you in, in the most transitional space in the building, an unmoving crowd had surrounded an object, a thing, a glass case on a metal stand. It was tall enough for viewers to easily peer into it. it contained a simple pallet, a pillow, a glass water decanter with a drinking glass top, a pair of eyeglasses and a presumably sleeping Tilda Swinton. The wall tag read: “The Maybe, 1995/2013, Living Artist, Glass, Steel, Mattress, Pillow, Linen, Water and Spectacles.”

Like most of those who had gathered to see the contents of the glass box, I did not expect to find a living person, much less the enigmatic, androgynous beauty that is Swinton. In fact, at first my brain did this thing, a kind of processing hiccup, a glitch between the eyes and the brain. I saw the form of a person to be sure, from the back at first, so still that I was convinced it was a very realistically rendered figure. From the front, however, where most people chose to stand, what I thought I was seeing and what I was in fact seeing were separated by a gap wide enough to make me feel light-headed. Why on earth would a sleeping person be inside a glass box that has no clear way to get in or out, and be on display in the most awkward location thinkable? I stood still, as one does at the scene of an accident, to see something horrible, the confirmation that your senses are in revolt. The murmurings of the crowd faded away as my reptilian brain scanned the body for signs of life. She was dressed gender-neutral, neither too cool, or dated or brand-specific – in a loose summer linen shirt of faded baby blue, sensible sneakers, and modestly proportioned jeans. From most angles you could not tell if it was a man or woman. I looked to her abdomen, shying away from her face which was so close (and too real?) that it made me feel uncomfortable, like a voyeur, or worse. Her breathing was so shallow, that I had to look elsewhere for proof, because I was still doubting what I was seeing, mistrusting my eyes to tell me some truth. Swinton was asking me to be present. To watch her ‘perform’ sleeping. To be accountable for my presence. To take stock of nuance despite the fog of doubt, despite the carnivalesque din. Finally with patience I saw her eyes move inside their hiding place. She was dreaming. Now I push the maybe aside and I see she is alive, not a waxen figure or an image of deceptive realness. Now I see something that is true and must take in the consequences of what I know. Contrived or not, this is a kind of intimacy.

A torrent of unanswerable questions inundates me. How, and why, but also really how? Seriously, and the glass, no way in or out… Why should I ever need to be so close to her luminescent pale face, lightly reflective with the oiliness of the unadorned, unattended visage of sleep? From the crowd I hear, “I saw her fingers move.” Indeed they did twitch. It was such a tiny gesture, so small and concise, easy to miss, and yet there we were, about fifty of us, slowing ourselves down long enough to notice it, to see it and to know what it means, but not to know what it means to see it.

I am the voyeur. I am a man and I am watching her sleep, at her most vulnerable. I feel implicated in the male gaze. She has deferred her power and it unsettles me, dislodging violent thoughts. The metal stand feels too tall to be stable, the glass too transparent to be unbreakable. I want to beat on the glass and break her out. There is an implied panic at looking at a constrained person, because despite the ostensible serenity I suddenly realize her tranquil expression is portentous of a disturbance. So much can go wrong. The sleeping beauty box becomes a prison cell. I notice she has no belt. I feel the crowd inching forward, muttering, sniggering, disdainful. I smell someone’s sour breath and awaken as if from the hypnosis of the maybe-maybe-not-pendulum that momentarily dispossessed me of myself. I am suddenly afraid of the crowd, afraid for her safety. I don’t want her to awaken afraid, confused, her own consciousness hiccuping its way into focus. I want her to open her eyes, look right at me to acknowledge that I am her hero and close them so quickly we may all doubt what we saw.

I am also thinking… I have trouble sleeping, falling asleep, staying asleep. Too much light, not enough air circulating, too hot too cold, too restrained, not cozy enough – all these things awaken me. So it is no wonder that I marvel at Swinton’s uninterrupted REM and wonder if ‘maybe’ she took a little something. Maybe not, but c’mon – MAYBE.

This change of tone reminds me of what most of the reactions to Swinton at MoMA were like out in the twittering, texting, internetting world. Jerry Saltz seemed to have a meltdown on vulture.com and joked that celebrity art is like a crystal meth addiction to the museum, and that when it is not too busy perpetuating the guru status of some (read Marina Abromovich) it was turning itself into a circus. Why “The Maybe” was the tipping point for his disdain, only Malcom Gladwell may know. Snoozefest-cum-spectacle pretty much sums up his response. But it is unfair to gloss over it with such nonchalance even from a self-described sourpuss. At least the work was an opportunity for him to frame his contempt for the direction museums are moving in; and so the performance suddenly became institutional critique, among other things. Most other reports used puns to summarize Swinton. Sleeping on the Job. The Art of Napping. Strangest Celeb Hobby. Etc. And a few mentions of Sleeping Beauty.

Interestingly, one of constraints for this performance is that it is not scheduled into MOMA’s ever-growing dance card. The element of surprise is inherent to the piece. If she is Sleeping Beauty, she is not waiting for the prince to appear unannounced. Like in Anne Sexton’s “Transformations” the fairytale is upended. This is no ordinary Briar Rose. And not only can one not plan to see the work, as one could for “The Artist is Present” – it migrates within the museum interacting with other artworks. These “rules” literally unplug the work from any predictability, even of meaning. Maybe the work is a reminder to look to see, to know, to think, to trust yourself to be the author of meaning in the present as you experience it. Maybe the work is not even about Tilda Swinton at all, it just happens to be by her. Barthes would be pleased.

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An early critique at the Camera Club of NY

Posted by on Oct 27, 2011 in harlan erskine | One Comment

Last weekend, I looked through the Camera Club of New York‘s historical archives. They are safely kept in 18 boxes under Bryant park at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, also known as New York Public Library’s main building. I will return over the next few months to dig around and choose a few pieces from the archive for this blog.

One of the first pieces I ran across was a clipped article by Theodore Dreiser on the Camera Club from Ainslee’s Magazine.

Ainslee’s Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 3, October 1899

One of this images in the article is this one by Camera Club of NY member and the Club’s Vice President, Alfred Stieglitz.

Alfred Stieglitz, The Letter Box 1894

The article describes an early account of a photography critique (circa 1899)—not dissimilar to those of today. I love the details and the phrasing:

Very few photos are perfect, and the critical zeal of the camera masters is exacting far beyond the pale of humble human accomplishment.

And yet it occasionally serves to make an humble student of a self-opinionated and self-exaggerated individuality. A case in point is a now distinguished member who came from Brooklyn.

“I was fine in Brooklyn,” he remarked one time. “My experience there gave me a good opinion of my work. I began to make lantern slides and exercised my individual taste, with the result that my work was admired. Gradually I began to exhibit it more and more. I joined a local club whose fad was lantern slides and became a star member. Finally I gained such repute that I decided to come to New York and astonish them. I decided that I would quietly enter my plates for exhibition, and, in the vernacular, ‘sweep ’em off their feet.'”

“Well?” I inquired as he mused reflectively.

“Oh, I exhibited. They walked on me. One of my pictures made them laugh, and it was intended to be sad. There were twenty-seven objections made to another. My best one came off easy with three criticisms, and all valid. Oh, lord! I thought I would never get out alive.”

“Were they fair?”

“Yes; that was the bitter thing. I could realize that it was all kindly said and meant, and was good for me. After it was all over, one gentleman, who noted my crest-fallen state, came up and told me that my work was not bad. It was only the high standard of the club that laid it open to so much criticism. This was too much, and I went home in despair.”

“And yet you profited by it.”

“It was the best thing that could have happened. I began studying in earnest after that, merely to blot out my terrible defeat. In another year I exhibited again, and the whole set passed the ‘test’ audience with only a few suggestions.”

Below is a photograph from this article and possibly the room that this critique took place.

An Exhibition At the Camera Club.

Here are some pictures from some more recent critiques:

Ansel Adams – Conducting A Critique Session, Courtesy the Ansel Adams Gallery.

 


A recent critique at the Yale School of Art’s Photography Department. The panel: John Pilson making a point on the left, Lisa Kereszi, Shirin Neshat and Richard Prince. Image from this post by Photographer Davin Ellicson.