Ellen von Unwerth – Peaches, 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.)