Edward YsaisUntitled (2013)

I’ve had this image saved as a draft for almost a year. There’s no arguing that it’s chiaroscuro is executed with skillful aplomb. It’s memorable, quality work and I like it… but I’m conflicted about it.

At first, I thought that the both women were the same person. That’s largely because I am absolutely awful when it comes to facial recognition. For example: If I’m meeting someone I don’t know all that well, when I scan a crowd I’m noting things like height, hair color, build and body language.

I don’t think these are the same women (it’s not entirely clear but the woman entwined with the man appears to have longer hair than the one in the mirror). So my initial impression of this as a critique of the male gaze–wherein the male surrenders to sexual bliss while the woman is condemned to a duality of experience wherein she not only experiences sensation but also stands detached monitoring and critiquing her the relationship between her experience and the male consumption of her experience.

Without that anchor, I’m not really sure what to make of the image. Is this a threesome? There’s a sheen on the woman in the mirror’s skin that could be suggestive of such a scenario. But it fears more like a nightmare–a woman dreaming about her lover cheating on her.

And that’s kind of where things start to unravel for me. In my experience as a dreamer, mirrors straight up DO NOT work like they are represented here. In other words, my experience is that the mirror only reflects a part of me–i.e. my head or I don’t have a reflection.

This dissonance opens a door to some critical considerations about the work. Yes, it’s pretty. Yes, the lighting is sumptuous. Yes, it’s almost certainly riffing on Velázquez‘s Las Meninas.

However, note the way Velázquez uses available light as the primary motivation for his composition. In other words, the perspective the viewer is presented is one which given the light renders a composition built around a masterful understanding of space–especially distance and depth.

Ysais’ image is alarmingly flat. The light functions to render the scene legible and in no way informs the composition. And once you follow that rabbit trail, you realize that due to the slight down tilt of the camera–presumably to compliment the mirror–the vertical slat of the partition at the extreme left of the frame is put askew. Further, the horizontal and vertical slats, transitioning to the bas relief to the damask pattern to the drape and the echoing drape in the reflection–the artifice of the frame becomes hard to suspend in favor of disbelief.

It’s something I’m discovering in my own work of late: the distance between a bad image and a good one is exponentially less than what separates good from great.

Source unknown – Title Unknown (201X)

I suspect the image maker intended to nominate a single image to represent the entire sequence. (Or, perhaps, the context whereby I initially encountered them was individual and not collective.)

Each frame features both compelling and distracting features. For example:

  • (top left) This features the best composition including her nostril in a way that allows the sudden shift to black to operate in a thoroughly flattering fashion. The down side is that while my brain immediately makes the connection that it’s cum spilling over her lower lip, the artsy chiaroscuro could also mean it’s spit or one of those ostentatiously sexual popped bubble gum photos.
  • (top right) If this image had the entirety of her nostril in the frame, it would easily would’ve been the one to rule them all; except for that oversight, it’s a better frame in the way it uses space more interestingly by cutting out the distracting flyaway hair above her ear from the previous frame disappears. Plus, it’s clear that the substance in her mouth can only be semen. Zoom in close and check out the texture in the highlight that contributes dimensionality to the greyer air bubble area.
  • (bottom left) You could argue that the upper right frame has the best skin tone. I’d say that this one is better because the highlights blow out just a little more evenly and although I haven’t dragged it into Photoshop, I’m prett sure this one features the most detail in her lips. The composition is a little wonky, tho. She’s tilting her head slightly into the light and the upper margin makes it seem as if she’s uncomfortable. (I’d also argue that the focus is a tad bit sharper her, probably due to the additional light.)
  • (lower right) I want this one to be so much better than it is. I think it suffers from the worst skin tone, composition, color but there’s also something perverse about it the fact that you can see a little ways into the darkness; see that she’s wearing what is–to my untrained eye–a nice sweater and that this is either a bathroom or a kitchen. (There’s a sink behind her, unless I’m mistaken…) This uses light in a way that I try and with which I am subsequently always disappointed in the results.)

Yet, when they are re-collected and presented as a series… the continuity between the frames bridges the gaps in each of the individual images. In that way it’s clever. And it shows a certain inspired instinct in that this isn’t the sort of image I’d normally be interested in, much less turned on by.