Katherine TurczanAnya and Carolina from Brezhnev’s Daughters series (201X)

In the indispensable Ways of Seeing, John Berger shows us the same painting–specifically, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows–twice.

With the first instance he presents it much as it would be encountered in a gallery, with the title and artist. However, the second time he merely labels it something to the effect of the last painting Van Gogh made before killing himself.

Criticism has been leveled against this scene. Chronologically, Wheatfield with Crows is only known to be one of the final paintings.

In my mind the criticism misses the point and by doing so goes a great distance towards proving the contention: context of presentation shapes the way a work is approached and subsequently understood.

Katherine Turczan’s work–to coin a phrase–really cultivates my pearl by representing both why fine art photography matters as well as why it’s–in the same breath–an intolerable, insufferably pretentious circle jerk.

Consider the ’essay’ which accompanies Brezhnev’s Daughters:

Brezhnev’s Daughters, the title of this project refers to what women call themselves in Dneprodzerzhinsk, Ukraine, the birthplace of Leonid Brezhnev and the industrial heartland of Ukraine.  The women say that they are Brezhnev’s children because they have inherited the future of the failing land and their father has abandoned them.

Dneprodzerzhinsk, Ukraine is about 8 hours from Kiev along the Dnepro River the heart of Ukraine’s mining and manufacturing production.  This area is like many cities in the east, an industrial wasteland with factory stacks ablaze filling the skyline.  The landscape takes on the quality of a bad Hollywood movie about the apocalypse. The industry in these towns is a double edge sword; one that contaminates and sickens yet employs most of its people.  This is where Ukraine’s working poor live.

In these parts of Ukraine it is very prestigious to work in the sex industry.  The industry offers economic opportunity to many women other than what the factories can provide. Their sexuality is their strength and they use it as a form of emancipation to support their families.  They are very proud of this.  Many young women work as welders during the day for pay that is not sufficient to feed their families, while at night they pole dance. Brezhnev’s Daughters is a portrait of these and other women in the industrial south who are faced with these complex choices. 

These photographs are made with an 8×10 camera and printed on Gelatin Silver Paper.

As far as such things go, it’s all but flawless. And without a doubt it enlivens/amplifies the resonance of the photographs. The trouble is: it also muddles them.

That which is distinct in Turczan’s work is not what makes the work’good’.

Katja, Mariya and Liana resemble thousands of other candid model shots produced by the internet hordes. (Admittedly, these were shot with a large format 8×10 analog camera.)

Karolina could very well be a reclaimed Jock Sturges’ discard; Yulia is a straight-up Atget heist.

What is distinct about Turczan’s work is where it doesn’t bother to sweep it’s shoddiness under the rug. Sasha is #skinnyframebullshit; Oksana avoids the same mistake (the difference for anyone who cares, is mentally reconsidering the shot given the opposite orientation and comparing and contrasting) but as with the previous image just isn’t an especially technically astute image even if both are alive in a way few of the other images are.

I do like the photograph I’ve posted here. It one of maybe three in keeping with the explanatory essay. But not only is it in keeping with the essay, there’s a dialogue between the contextualization and the work that sharpens both.

And it occurs to me that academnified fine art photography operates from the premise of creating work that clearly indicates both what it is and what it is not. Popular image making on the other hand starts and more often than not ends with the assertion this is interesting. Such taxonomical considerations are vital to my own process, but I think at a certain point you have to focus on what is instead of what isn’t. Too much work tries to be everything to everyone and ends up nothing to no one. But it’s interesting that the work which insisted clearly in its own specificity somehow manages to transcend that specificity more often than not.

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