Nagib El DesoukyArtemis (2018)

Every time I’m cruising through my liked posts, I always pause over this photo.

It’s not just this picture, everything El Desouky posts is quality and every third post or so is freaking brilliant. However, there’s something about this photo in particular that I find captivating.

I think it’s mostly the spot on-ness of Artemis’ daydream-y expression. Still, there’s something weird about the composition.

One of the things you learn when you’re studying photography in academia is that one of the ways you can balance a composition is to use the subject’s gaze to draw attention to negative space.

Think of it this way: imagine a photo of someone standing near the rim of the Grand Canyon–given that the camera is set up so that the edge of the canyon runs more or less diagonally from the lower right frame edge to the middle left frame edge.

You take two pictures. In the first, the model–let’s call him Edwin–is standing just back from the edge of the canyon at the left edge of the frame. He’s looking out beyond the left frame edge.

For the second, keep Edwin’s pose the same only move him so that he’s positioned in the right third of the frame.

In Photo #1 you’re seeing Edwin but you can’t see what Edwin sees. You might wonder if he knows he’s missing the view. Or, conversely, maybe he’s got a better view than you, the viewer. (Also, the human eye is generally more immediately interested in people over landscapes–thus: there’s a tendency to focus on Edwin without fully grasping that Edwin is standing in the landscape, due to photographs predominantly scanning from left to right.)

In Photo #2, his positioning dictates that you aren’t seeing the same view but there is at least overlap. It’s possible to follow the angle of his gaze and infer something of what he sees.

In the photo of Artemis, you can somewhat follow her gaze–there’s a bright circle of light (presumably from a gap in the trees foliage about 1/5 of the way down the left most frame edge that is more or less where she’s looking, although her gaze is at an angle that is slightly turned towards the focal plane).

Normally, this would be a trap for the gaze while scanning the photo. It’s not here. I’ve been trying to figure out why and here’s my best guesses:

First, there’s some interesting stuff with triangulation. That little black sprig sticking into the lower left of the frame? It forms a natural triangle with Artemis’ eyes and the aforementioned bright dot in the background tree. This pushes your eye left.

Then there’s the upward oriented triangle suggested by Artemis’ arms–this draws attention to her face but it also echoes a larger triangle between the three darkest points in the frame: the sprig at frame left, her hair to the right of her face and the area in the thicket of flowers near the lower right edge of the frame.

That thicket of flowers is rowdy and cluttered, but the slightly soft focus renders them a decorative anchor to the foreground without distracting our attention from the subject.

All of this is executed in a style reminiscent of the way Renoir tends to give solidity to objects in the foreground while rendering the background in a sort of teary eyed blur.

Paula AparicioInés en casa, buenos aires, Diciembre (2017)

Aparicio is a fantastic photographer and image maker. (The above is digital; but she also works in analog.)

I’ve been working out how to tell you something about this for several days now. It’s not easy–not for lack of things to say but in the saying of something there is all too often an effort to demystify. Aparicio’s work resists that approach.

It occurred to me that although this is monochrome–it’s actually not dissimilar from the selection of Polaroids made by Andrei Tarkovsky’s released through Thames and Hudson entitled Instant Light.

My copy of that book is currently in storage–so I searched for some samples to include side by side with other work by Aparicio to illustrate similarities. Except the site I landed on was this and well, I’m inspired to run in rather a different direction.

As Michelle Aldredge points out–Tarkovsky was extremely anti-Hollywood. He felt that there were two predominant means of expressing ones vision: the descriptive and the poetic. He opted for something that was both third option and middle ground: metaphor.

Yet, he was adamant that what he was doing had little to do with symbolic coding. What he meant by metaphor was something along the lines of this:

I think people somehow got the idea that everything on screen should be
immediately understandable. In my opinion events of our everyday lives
are much more mysterious than those we can witness on screen. If we
attempted to recall all events, step by step, that took place during
just one day of our life and then showed them on screen, the result
would be hundred times more mysterious than my film 

In other words, he sought to present the world of his films not as a story or exercise in formal decryption. It wasn’t even really supposed to mimic the function of dreaming, it was more an effort to use the immersive nature of cinema to convey an approximation of an experience that while not the whole experience might be somehow more than experience.

That’s what I admire so much about Aparicio’s work. The way it hones in on the magnificence and mystery in the mundane of lounging around on a sunny morning in a way that feels both foreign and familiar all at once.

Also: the lighting here is excellent. It appears almost backlit but the light is actually slanting left to right across the frame. The flattens Inés right arm against the overexposed backdrop, while emphasizing her face in profile and lending her body more solid dimensionality. (It also has the effect of making it seem as if she’s tilting towards the camera a bit.)

This would’ve been a good image without any other additions but there’s also the way the light catches her eyelashes and what look like burns from cigarette ashes on her underwear that makes this thoroughly mesmerizing.

(It’s also a bit like a Vermeer where you think that if you watch it long enough the picture will come to life and you’ll get a glimpse of what happens next–even though the medium makes that impossible.)

Francesca WoodmanDepth of field, Providence, Rhode Island (1975-8)

Woodman first appeared on my radar in either late 2005 or early 2006.

Her Wikipedia entry was much sparser then–not that it’s anything to write home about now; however, it did have one fantastic feature: there was a ridiculously chronological index of approximately 120 of her photos. (At that point it was the most comprehensive collection of her work–essentially, every photo uploaded to the Internet was centrally linked.)

Dribs and drabs of additional work would emerge as new exhibitions went up. And the spate of new and/or updated monographs in the late aughts introduced even more work.

That shifted noticeable with her 2012 Guggenheim retrospective in NYC–which if memory serves consisted of 20% new/rare photographs.

The Guggenhein show was staged more or less chronologically. Beginning with the early work–culminating in her Swan Song series; before interjecting the work she made while studying in Italy for a year (which was housed in a passage and adjacent niche), followed by the ‘failed’ fashion photographic efforts and then looping back into the first room where there was work from her time at the MacDowell artist colony.

This layout was simplistic but with the simplification driven by cleverness not torpor–allowing her work to demonstrate itself as always of exceptional quality but arranged in such a way that her incandescent genius becomes all that much more apparently as she slowly begins to fire on all cylinders. (If nothing else a strict chronological view of the work shares with the viewer a sense of hard work finally paying off when you consider a photo like the one of her as her alter ego Sloan side-by-side with other work from the same period. She was getting better, saw she was getting better and derived confidence from the awareness.)

The narrative of her trajectory has always been that she peaked during her year abroad and never quite managed to reach such Olympian heights ever again. The notion that her fashion experiments were a failure dovetails nicely with this theory.

Still, it’s always bothered me that one of my favorite photos she ever made emerges from the same period as the fashion ‘failures’–namely, this self-portrait with a wasp on her neck.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve noticed a deluge of work I’ve previously never seen emerging. (The above is an example of such.) There’s no enough of it that I am beginning to question the endurance of the narrative that she was very good but also immature, undisciplined and very lucky.

There’s a couple of things you have to keep in mind here: first, the photos that until recently have been understood as her overarching body of work were ones she exhibited during her life. The subsequent work that’s emerged has been released into the world by her parents. (This has led to issues where there exist an original print or two she made herself vs work that he father has reprinted–the latter tend to present a more dynamic range of tones, whereas hers skew much darker, as a rule.)

The notion that the fashion work was a complete failure is something I think the newly released work calls sharply into question. I won’t argue that a lot of it is bad. There’s enough of it that is at least stubbornly iconoclastic that suggests something further at work here.

Increasingly, I think that what gets interpreted as failure was merely an effort to play the can I be an artist in mid-to-late capitalism and not starve. My impression is that Woodman was attempting to fit her style and preoccupations to what she understood as the framework high fashion sought. When, really, the other way round was the way she should’ve approached it. (A more concrete way of putting it might be to suggest that whereas her early work were about self-expression, the later work is an effort to invert the ploy of inventing an alter ego like Sloan (to allow herself to explore–representation at some degree of remove) and instead wanted to filter her work in such a way that she would be perceived as belonging on the fashion scene. It didn’t work because too much of who she was involved independence and a commitment to non-conformity.

As bad as some of the fashion stuff, it is not all bad and she continued to make exceptional work–or that’s what the emerging work suggests to me. It’s almost as if the darker her vision became the more increasingly universal the reaction to and response to her work.

Pavel KiselevKate (2017)

If you’ve spent any time plumbing the depths of :::air quotes::: fine art nude photography/image making on the Interwebz, you’ll be familiar with Kiselev: he made a bunch of images of women lounging around in various stages of undress inside a cabin on a sleeper car aboard a train. He eventually edited these images down and released them as a photo book called Railway novel.

His work has always been interesting in a knee-jerk, voyeuristic fashion–he’s clearly most comfortable when his work pursues a measured but by no means reserved eroticism.

This portrait of Kate (above) is surprising for a number of reasons. The eroticism is understated. Yes: there’s the cherry pinched between her teeth, hair partially obscuring her left nipple and her knickers pulled down and up draw attention to the shadowed cleft between her thighs.

The way she meets the gaze of the camera though suggests–to me at least–that it’s all a carefully constructed ruse to command attention. I mean: leaving the eroticism and voyeuristic impetus for a minute–the use of color is actually effing fantastic; the dark navy of her sailors collar, the matching skirt (darker for less lights reflecting off it) and the darker blue of her denim shoes.

And the blue is perfectly balanced by the green brown to yellow motif of the autumnal leaves. (Hell, the attention to texture is even hitting and sticking: the brushed chrome of the legs on the bistro chair, the vinyl of the white seat cushion–even the texture of her stockings registers.

I am not 100% sure what the haze in the upper left corner is exactly. I’m guessing it’s supposed to look like fog–or, what in painting is termed: sfumato. It’s not evenly applied across the area, however; and my gut says it’s that thing you see often in documenting products for commercial campaigns where you reflected light directly into the lens. (You can do this with a white sheet of paper or the blade of a knife held at an angle just on the periphery of the lens’ angle of view.)

I’m bothering to point this out for a number of reasons but mainly to demonstrate that if you keep making pictures–merely the act of continuously creating will improve your work.

However, those who both consistently create work and consume work will always progress faster and more organically than others. Like I’d put money on the fact that Kiselev knows the work of the Ninja Turtles namesakes. But, looking at this, I suspect he’s also familiar with Otto Dix. (This portrait of Kate reminds me of Dix’s 1926 Portrait of Sylvia von Harden–I suspect that’s not an accident.)

Mariela AngelaPear Tarts, Melbourne, Australia (2014)

I have this irritating habit of becoming obsessed to the point of hysteria with certain photos/image and/or photographers/image makers. Above is the latest in a long line.

It started off with Kim Eliot Fung. Continued when I stumbled onto Lynn Kazstanovics’ brillaint work. Again, same with Mathilda Eberhard– seriously tho, if any of you knows Mathilda or could pass a message to her from me, please get in touch. See also: k.flight, Alison Barnes and Sannah Kvist. (I have reason to believe that Mathilda and Sannah are acquainted. But again, I’ve contacted Sannah twice with no response and so anything further seems a bit too close to harassment.)

Anyway, I’ve actually interacted with half of these people. Lynn and I are friends. Kim and k.flight were much more cagey. I both cases part of my interest in them was the way their work seemed to spring fully formed from an internet persona that was almost wraith like in it’s enigmatic as it’s presence as an exercise in absence. Like I still don’t have the first fucking clue who either Kim or k.flight are and I’ve met Kim in person once and k.flight and I were planning to collaborate on something.

The point of all the preamble is that I know absolutely nothing about Mariela Angela except that the above image was made with the camera on a mobile phone. (I know. I’m with you but it’s legit.)

She won an award the previous year for a photo called The Waitress Viola. Again, made with a mobile device and staggeringly well thought out and executed.

She has an Instagram, but it’s private. (Also: fuck Instagram.) Still, if anyone knows more about her and her work, I’d be over-the-moon for more info. The two images I’ve seen of hers are fucking exceptional.

Donatas ZazirskasUntitled (2016)

It occurs to me that one of the things which hinders the teaching/creation of art is placing too much of an emphasis on originality.

I am honestly not sure where I personally fall on the whole spectrum of innovation is still possible vs it’s all already been done; however, I do know that focusing on whether or not something is original is just about the quickest death that the momentum of doing can die.

Consider Zazirskas–who favors either highly, manicured, even lighting design which restricts most of the tonal range in his scenes to Zones IV through X (a la this, also this) or a darker, moodier chiaroscuro where there’s very bright light, truncated mid-tones and very dark portions of the frame (as above).

Unfortunately, his work rarely fires on all cylinders. (And I do not mean for that to be a dismissal; I think he just needs to keep working, pick one tendencies and explore it instead of trying to embrace and enact three very different approaches to scene setting.

I don’t think this is an especially original picture. It trades in the same fierce backlighting that folks like Paul Barbera have expanded into a wistfully sensual, visual nostalgia kick-to-the-head. There’s also similarities to Hannes Caspar and STOTYM–less stylistic more in tone and content, respectively.

Point is: what interests me about this is the equivocation in Zazirskas’ handling of poses and gesture. His most technically astute image (here) is too tied to a rigidity of conceptualization, i.e. the subject’s reflect vs her poses that the rest of the image–no matter how interesting the setting, details or color (I mean god that eggshell blue is to die for)–the frame hanges loosely around the insistence on a pose that doesn’t work.

Yet, with the image above all the elements–the composition, the lighting, the floor, chair and board behind the chair with faces cut from magazines and glued to it presumably, all gathers to suggest a fluid unity of concept and execution.

Back to my point about originality, though: all the photographers/image makers I’ve linked with Zazirskas are all folks whose work I think is more prescient and refined. The thing that distinguishes Zazirskas, however, is the fact that he is very much not doing fly-on-the-wall work like the others.

The angle of the model’s left leg in this is actually both demurely shielding while also being a provocation–exercising agency over what is seen and what remains discreet while complimenting the lighting (the darker portions of the outside of her left leg contrasting with the hot spots on the outside of her right thigh).

For as much as I like the other work, I feel like this is at least more honest with itself about what it’s essential nature is. That’s rather something, actually.

Alexander Talyuka*** (2016)

You know how there’s a statistically relevant correlation between being a fan of Smash Mouth and being a Douche Bro?

I’m here to suggest a similar relationship between white cis men who identify as ‘fashion & nude photographers’ and shitty, quasi-exploitative imagery.

Talyuka is a sterling example.

However, much like the infinite monkey theorem suggests, even a douche-y bro can sometimes stumble upon a good picture–consider the above.

And it’s not even necessarily good. First and foremost, there is no compelling reason for this to be a vertical composition. Second, I’m going to take a wild stab and suggest that it was shot on some sort of full manual, setting. This would’ve been an image that would’ve benefited from an extremely shallow depth of field as her knees and hands contribute decidedly towards creating a foreground and the wall behind her is an obvious background. Rendering both bokehlicious, could have accentuated her expression–somewhere between coy and perhaps deflective of unwanted insinuation.

But really, I’m all about the mussed hair. It’s like she just pulled a wool jumper over her head and her hair is all wild with static electricity. It flies in the face of the prerogative for perfection in fashion moded work and her it at a cute, down-to-earthness to the image that renders it palatable.

John DugdaleA Turbulent Dream (1996)

I’m forever suspicious of artists who lead with a list of influences. It always feels a bit like an effort to force your work to rub shoulders with the work that initially drove you from passive consumer to active creator. And it frequently comes off as an attempt to predispose the audience to approaching the work in a proscribed fashion.

I’ve learned to be especially dubious of people who lead with exceedingly obvious options. Like I’m not going to talk about the influence of Francesca Woodman or Andrei Tarkovsky on my own work because the debt is so extensive and front-and-center that to draw further attention to it would be rudely redundant.

Dugdale’s portfolio is there double quick with the suggestion of a genealogy shared with Henry Fox Talbot, John Herschel, and Julia Margaret Cameron. Excluding Talbot, they aren’t the usual suspects.

He goes on to mention the American Transcendentalists: Whitman, Dickinson, Thoreau, and Emerson.

I’m always intrigued by the cross-pollination of disciplines in the arts. So a photographer who cites writers as influences, has my attention. (In my own work, although I won’t get into Woodman or Tarkovsky, I will absolutely drone one endlessly about the global impact on my own creativity as a result of the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.)

For the benefit of those of you who aren’t necessarily well-versed in the art historical equivalent of card counting, Dugdale is soft shoeing it around a rather obvious exclusion: William Blake.

But wait, you interject, wasn’t Blake all about Red Dragons and The Ancient of Days?

Indeed he was. But, bear in mind that Blake was subversive as fuck. He was re-introducing the fantastic to the familiar–the familiar being prudery surrounding the practice of Xtianity. Or, if you’d prefer: Blake wanted to reappropriate wonder from centuries of lifeless liturgical boredom.

Dugdale’s work seems comparably preoccupied with searching for the transcendent in the mundane.

And now I’ve earned the right to inform you that Dugdale is completely blind and has been for the majority of his photographic career. 

Arno NollenUntitled (20XX)

Although I can’t make heads or tails of Nollen’s work–it’s too scattered and profuse for me to know how in the Sam Hell I’m supposed to fucking approach it–this image walked in my brain like it was a cat that owned the joint and my brain had a front door I’d accidentally left open.

I can’t explain why I like it. It’s #skinnyframebullshit and the way her right ankle gets cut off is more than a little awkward. Yet, there’s something about her expression in combination with the self-conscious placement of her hands and her slouching posture that manages to reach in and completely short circuit my brain so that my only thought is Jesus Harold and Maude Fucking Christ on Christmas she is Helen of Troy beautiful, people would wages wars over her.

But I think–despite how off putting I find Nollen’s typical presentation–that in this case it enhances the effect of the image. The post-it notes recall a certain studious academic fervor that I suppose is an effort to undercut the sexualization and objectification that come to bear on the image. It’s half good first step and half cop-out but that it’s there at all feels reassuring in a way that it will probably take me another two years to even begin to articulate.