Ellen von UnwerthPeaches, Rouilly le Bas (2002)

Generally, I think of Unwerth in terms similar to Miley Cyrus: I’m not a fan; I have a visceral distaste for both her and her work–but goddamn it if I don’t hear Wrecking Ball every other time I’m in a bodega or an airport bar and that effing hook comes on and becomes lodged in my brain for days afterward.

Double Trouble, New York (2002) is Unwerth’s Wrecking Ball–I don’t think it’s an especially great photograph but there’s something about it’s joyful immediacy that I find difficult to shake.

Peaches, Rouilly le Bas has me shook, tho.

There’s not much in the way of mid-tones–everything is either highlight, highlight with minimal detail, shadow with minimal detail, shadow. This functions as a diminution of the frilly femme frocks and makes it less fashion photography and something closer in aesthetic to mid-century reportage.

I can’t say I’m especially fond of the way the horizontals of the roof/gutter line in the background and the retaining wall upon which they are seated. Yet, it appears that the retaining wall was not perfectly parallel with the roof/gutter line. (And even if it were framing it symmetrically would have flattened the scene.

On second thought, ‘flattened’ may not be the best way to put it. It’s not as obvious as what’s happening with the models’ legs but note also how their posture changes from left to right: upright and leaning towards frame left, more slouchy and leaning (slightly) towards frame right and then leaning right to the point where the model’s head is sideways but her posture despite the slight right lean is close to upright. All this balanced again the frame’s cant and counter balanced against the poses which is then counter balanced against the roof/gutter line. That’s some masterful visual calculus, honestly.

I read up on Unwerth and turns out she’s a former fashion model who became a fashion photographer and is now mostly focused on concerns regarding the politics of visual depiction and femme eroticism. (Here’s a case where the term female gaze is probably not pretentious/preposterous in application.)

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My initial reading of this was a variation on the see now evil, hear no evil, speak no evil trope. Except it’s more of a spectrum: modest and abstaining from eating the fruit to being coyly aware of being see but pretending not to notice while eating a peach to being ‘immodest’ while aware of being watched (and acknowledging the voyeurism by making eye contact with the viewer) while transforming peach eating into an undertaking shoot through with a nearly seductive impetus.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears is probably the better corollary, honestly. It’s not perfect—Goldilocks doesn’t move from one extreme to another, she tries both extremes and then settles on the inbetween option. (But I do feel that stumbling block just means that just right doesn’t have to be in between extremes, it can just exceed the customary boundaries of what is considered the usual furthest extremes of the spectrum.

Strangely, this got me thinking about the pattern of threes and fours in fairy tales. (I was reading something several months back that included several non-European fairy tales and I was surprised that events transpired in sets of fours. I made a mental note to look into threes vs fours–unfortunately I’m a stoner and I didn’t write it down, so, uh, yeah… it slipped my mind.)

But I looked into it and it seems that sets of threes are usually associated with predominantly Xtian cultures–the bible being full of threes: the trinity, days Jonah was in the belly of the Whale, # of times Peter denies Jesus and days Jesus lay in his tomb.

It seems that cultures favoring sets of four were much more in-line with paganism and their emphasis on fours may likely derive from notions of the four elements (earth, water, wind & fire), the seasons and/or the four cardinal directions.

Both The Bible and fairy tales (think Snow White) place an emphasis on sevens, as well. Conceptually, I think it’s interesting that theist traditions (predominantly 3s) and pantheist traditions (predominantly 4s), taken together allow for a balance hinged on the sum of 7 between them.

(I just realized while right this that most western music is based off divisions of 3 or divisions of 4. Oh the endless audacity of Pink Floyd’s Money.)

There’s also the wisdom that from the standpoint of visual composition, odd numbered sets of subjects are preferable to even ones. And three is kind of especially wonderful because as anyone with a fair amount of freckles knows… any three non-linear points when the three points are connected by one line, it forms a triangle.

It may seem that I’ve gone entirely off the rails with these conjectures but I’ve ended up here rather purposefully: by and large photographs and images all have frames consisting of four edges.

I’m not sure whether or not Unwerth was aware of any of these things that it’s possible to read into this photograph. Probably not. (I know from folks who have responded to my work that frequently the work conveys things I was wrestling with when I made it but didn’t necessarily see as relating to the work.) And I still think of her work as analogous with pop music. But not all pop music is intrinsically shabby because it’s popular. So I think I’m gonna start thinking of Unwerth less like Wrecking Ball and more like Fight Song–which I like enough to not even need to qualify it as a guilty pleasure.)

Rebekah CampbellGrace Hartzel for Odda Magazine (2017)

Hartzel is a fantastic model. (I’ve featured her work with Roe Ethridge previously.)

However–although I definitely dig this image–I’m posting it primarily as a means of correcting something I realize I fucked up a while back; namely: I referred to the gesture in classical oil paintings that was used as a shorthand to indicate the person making the symbol as Jesus.

It occurred to me that the gesture–although based upon anointing parishioners with consecrated oil–is actually also startlingly similar to the configuration commonly used to stimulate the G-spot.

In my cursory research, I noted that the positioning of the fingers was supposed to spell ICXC–which is the ancient Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ.

Well, I was incorrect. There are two gestures–one associated with Catholics, the other localized to Greek and Eastern Orthodox.

The gesture that Hartzel is making is the Catholic variation–it does not spell out ICXC. (And it is definitely the same gesture most commonly associated with stimulating the G-spot.)

The Orthodox gesture is actually comparable to what the kids these days call The Shocker–or two in the pink, one in the stink.

I vaguely remember reading somewhere that frequently–Xtianity, esp. Catholicism, appropriated it’s symbols from various cults, frequently doing little beyond futzing with their orientation before deploying them. (The essay I’m thinking of mentioned how the upside down cross is actually the original orientation–as it was associated with a decidedly anti-Roman fertility cult; however, Catholicism–being linked with Rome–inverted the symbol to reorient things in line with the Roman context of Christ’s Crucifixion and ‘resurrection’. Thus, the cross in the upright orientation is actually the perverted symbol with regard to the context of its place in ecumenical/liturgical usage.)

Txema YesteExtase featurig Stella Lucia for Numero (2016)

The image above does not really fit the format of this project. I’m including it anyway.

Why? Well, first of all, it’s more or less embedded itself in my subconscious. There’s something both beautiful and sinister about it.

Also, I really don’t care for snakes. To the extent that whenever a photo of a snake slithers across my dashboard, I physically cringe–every damn time.

It’s not an intrinsic or irrational fear–I came about half a second from stepping barefoot into a nest of copperheads when I was a wee one. I remember it very distinctly because of the sudden sharp stop from my father that despite the fact that I normally did not give a fuck what he said his voice left no room for anything except to stop dead in my tracks. I saw it a second later–a big momma copper head ready to strike, her babies relatively oblivious nearby. I was instructed to back away slowly. Took half a step and then was suddenly yanked back several yards.

I also remember connecting that memory with a scene in a PBS educational series where an Indiana Jones type character had to proceed through a tomb and there was a pit of snakes and the viewer was informed that a certain number of the snakes were venomous while the rest were harmless. The idea being that you could calculate the risk of clamoring through the pit if youw ere so inclined.

So snakes are one of the few things where something in the real world has crawled into my dream world. Any dream where I am outside and there are leaves on the ground or visible tree roots, my brain is automatically wary of snakes.

And ring neck garden snakes or corn snakes are great–and I have no qualms handling them. It’s just coming upon a snake unexpectedly always makes me very antsy because I’m not so great at determining if their venomous or not. (Same way that I’d love to forage for mushrooms but there are too many that I just can’t tell the super poisonous ones from the edible ones… so I just don’t mess with it.)

The snake in this image is some sort of boa constrictor or python, I think. But it’s shot in such a way that you don’t immediately know that.

It’s also a narrative image–what the narrative is, is ambiguous; but it is better for such ambiguity. (Also, there’s not many interpretations that aren’t somewhat surreally unhinged.)

As much as I don’t care for vertical oriented images, this is an example of an image that would only work as a skinny frame.

Author uncredited – COS PRIMAVERA/ESTATE (2017)

When you start learning photography, you’ll have a lot of maxims thrown your way:

  • 400 speed film stock should always be shot @ 320 ISO
  • Expose for shadows; develop for highlights.

The premise behind both of this isn’t nefarious. I mean the 400/320 thing actually was a huge benefit for certain Kodak B&W stocks–all of which are no extinct (to my knowledge).

But you’ll have someone like me who rates a a half dozen rolls of 400 speed stock at 320 ISO and is subsequently displeased with the result so then goes on to shoot another half dozen rolls at the 400 box speed and is equally dissatisfied and only then realizes that maybe it’s the film stock that’s not working for me.

The expose for shadows; develop for highlights is useful. But I’d rather teach someone how to actually use the Sunny 16 rule to shoot without a light meter and then teach the expose for shadows and develop for highlights after the student has spent a year or so honing their dark room chops saving overexposed prints.

There is one thing I heard Mark Steinmetz suggest in a lecture that is actually indi-fucking-spensable. He talks about how in the afternoon, you’re walking down the street with your camera loaded with B&W film and you find that walking on the side of the street in shade, everything looks flat and muddy but if you cross to the sunny side of the street, shit just pops off your negs.

The reverse is true of color. Too much light is a bad thing but if you cross over to the shady side of the street.. bingo, your colors look better. (And, in truth, your colors are never going to look better than golden hour or for like three hours after its rained in the spring but the clouds are still hanging around and the grey against the green just super saturates everything. Swoon.)

But the point is well taken here. There’s entirely too much light for this image to have worked in color. This is likely digital–but it’s smartly executed–the gray scale grade of the background means that you can actually let the white of the suit blow out completely at points but the lost detail in the highlight tone just conveys a brighter white. (With only a few exceptions the only folks doing anything interesting in digital cinematography are actually exploiting this same trick.)

Virginie KhateebUntitled from the series A crowd of people turned away (2016)

The two words I’d use to describe the emotional state that precedes composing posts like this are: uncertainty and dread.

I’ve said it before but the not dead yet horse can use a few more lashes–writing is an intensely painful undertaking for me. (All my writer friends would be quick to console me that such a feeling means I’m ‘doing it right’.)

But I never feel like I’m doing it well, let alone ‘right’–whatever the hell that might entail.

I just know that this belongs here. It’s a less preternatural awareness and more obsession–I just read this as being staggeringly perverse. And I can say that and merely by asserting the point, disengage and leave you, dear reader, to unknot my meaning through your own meditative contemplation.

But to do so would indicate an intellectual disingenuity that I can’t really abide.

I guess the first thing I notice about this image is that the staging of it seems intended to convey more than anything the relationship between these two women. In other words: maternal (mother or grandmother) figure and progeny (daughter or grand-daughter).

And the thought reminds me of a conversation I had recently with an acquaintance about how all relationships are–by their very nature–a sprawling mess but that mother-daughter relationships are far and away the most fraught and messy.

Add to that the way that just barely visible in the background is ruined building in front of which these two women are standing. It’s almost as if the world behind them is collapsing as they look towards the future.

The younger woman is slightly closer to the camera. Her body is angled so that she is both perhaps about to walk forward and positioned in such a way to minimize the parts of her body that can be touched by the older woman. In other words, her body language speaks of trying to make herself a smaller target while still behaving as is expected of her.

I am inclined to suggest the older woman is supposed to be her mother and not her grandmother. (I’d expect a grand mother to either stand at slightly more of a remove; or, to be less demanding in the way she’s forcing physical contact.)

The older woman is positioned in relationship to her daughter and the ruins behind them. There is a very profound sense that this scene will not last long and that if the older woman moves, she will retreat not follow the younger woman as she moves closer to the camera.

I adore the texture of the sweaters and how with selective contrast control, the boundaries between their body are clearly delimited but there’s still a connection between them.

I look at this and I almost hear my own mother ordering me to not slouch and to do people the courtesy of looking them in the eye. (Eye contact is unbelievably difficult for me and I think there are maybe four people I know whose eye color I can tell you when asked.)

But none of that is really perverse. It’s loaded with pathos and highly relateable, yes. So what makes it perverse?

It’s partly the way she’s forcing her head into this haughty, regal posture. It’s also the way the sweater has fallen around her right shoulder revealing her camisole. And I can’t help but see the sort of dichotomy mothers must face with their daughters where they want them to be self-possessed, independent and strong–while also not cold and unappealing.

Also, the way the older woman is more concerned about the way her daughter has positioned her head as opposed to the unsightly fallen sweater, suggests a bit of the adage where women are socialized to leave something to the imagination.

All that makes me uneasy. But then there’s a fact that this photograph is part of a series borrowing it’s title from lyrics to The BeatlesA Day in the Life.

As I’m sure you know that song includes the infamous line “I’d love to turn you on.” Which is supposed to be a reference to the famous line from Timothy Leary advising folks to turn on, tune in and drop out. (But you can’t overlook the more obvious meaning, especially in light of this image.)

So I really think this image is about how parents dedicate their existence to providing a better life than they had for themselves. It’s well intentioned enough but it contributes a lot of baggage when kids don’t necessarily want a life similar to their parents.

It’s like at what point does the task of raising a child end as does a certain level of at least indoctrination, if not straight up brainwashing occur?

There’s a feeling–to me, at least–that things don’t necessarily end well for either of these women. The younger one maybe still has a chance. But what I think makes it interesting is that although there’s a sense of foreboding, there’s a humanity to the older woman that saves her from being read as a unyielding crone.

Roe EthridgeAmazing Grace feat. Grace Hartzel in collaboration with Fendi for Document Journal (2016)

You can’t dismiss the importance of the author in the case of this image. But it’s hardly the first place I even want to go…

I mean: it’s lovely. Someone should write a dissertation on the skin tone. (Most work with exquisite skin tone accomplishes it by an Albers-esque limiting of the color palate. For example: you frame things in such a way that the color palate is limited to two complimentary colors and you limit the range of those two colors and this allows you to stretch the range of subtle gradation and range within skin tone.

And that’s part of what’s going on here–the fuzzy yellow purse, the blonde wood on the chair and the bleached khaki color of the wooden wind chimes.

It’s the flourishes that separate this work from your run-of-the-mill fashion editorial. Note: the rose gold of Grace’s phone, the azure line reflected in her shades and the green grass pushing up through seams in the concrete underneath the chairs chrome legs.

One could argue that perhaps the concrete goes a touch too green around the gills–but it’s not that bad, really. And the dynamic range in the picture is insane–especially given that the aforementioned trick with good skin tone demands a better range of mid-tones through limiting areas of extreme over and underexposure where this has (I’m guessing) probably a 9 or 10 stop range.

Let’s back track and address the author of this image: Roe Ethridge. The gallery world really likes to bend itself into pretzel shapes to justify the art-worthiness of his work. A lot of it is found or appropriated work that is retooled to a specific conceptual end. A metric shit tonne of ink has been spilled on the topic and everyone is saying the same things poorly.

Too much criticism hinges on a sort of scientific-mathematical proof of a point. I think some of it serves a purpose. Most of it? Not so much.

I get a lot of shit for being a ‘colossal dick’ when I take a particular facet of something I post here to task. Here’s the thing: the sheer fact that I posted something here means that something about it struck me as meritorious. Frequently it’s one thing and I spend ¾ of the post playing whack a mole with the stuff I want to disavow from it, but that’s another story.

My point is–to quote El Duderino: It’s just like my opinion, man. You should take it with a Gibraltar sized boulder of fucking salt. Your mileage will vary, etc., etc.

The only rule is does it blow your hair back? If so, that’s great. And if you’re interested in going a step further, start asking yourself why it blows your hair back? That is all I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to point to concrete correlations whether they are technical bits or free associations from my own experience that enhance the impact of the work.

If you disagree with what I’m saying–I’m not right automatically and you’re not wrong by default either.

Like it’s fine if you adore something that no one else really cares for. But excepting my brother–who is an asshole–it’s fine if you like the musical stylings of Creed. I don’t and were never going to see eye to eye. But generally speaking, I know a lot of people who like Creed personally but do not feel the need to evangelize for them being the greatest thing that happened ever to music.

That’s really one of the only things critics are good for–keeping artists and their fans honest.