Jaime Erin JohnsonSpine (201X)

Everyone is familiar with the experience of seeing something and swearing they’ve seen it before even though they have never seen it–the experience of déjà vu.

Somewhere exactly halfway between the inverse and opposite of that is what’s called jamais vu–seeing something known as if for the first time.

For me, this photo sits somewhere between déjà vu and jamais vu: I am reasonable certain I’ve never seen it.

..yet I’ve had a notion of making a stunningly similar scene for a while now…

The great photography as fine art curator John Szarkowski maintained that all photos functioned as either windows or mirrors–respectively: showing the viewer the world around them or showing them something about themselves.

I tend to get tetchy about either/or dichotomies. (Or, as the joke goes: there are two types of people in this world; hard working decent folks and assholes who go around sorting everyone around them based on arbitrary bifurcative criteria.) However, I think for the epoch in which Szarkowski worked, windows and mirrors were arguably better criteria than might’ve otherwise be employed.

The thing I wonder is if maybe they no longer apply. I mean photography as a discipline has been predominantly focused on The World As It Is ™ for much of its formative years. (Arguments about the potential for a photograph or image to be subjective, notwithstanding, of course.)

Something I do that I’m not sure whether actually trained art historians do is the tendency to extrapolate based on trends that have already run their course.

There’s the interpenetrative history of dadaism and surrealism–and I’d argue that dadaism arguably better earns the surrealist designation, while surrealism was something more interested in toeing the line of what these days gets termed: oneiric.

As I’ve pointed out David Lynch has made a career out of sometimes skillfully, other times clumsily conflated surreality and oneirism. (In fact it occurs to me that his best work occurs when he actually distinguishes between the two with some sort of logical system–that no matter how difficult it is to parse, keeps these differing impulses in their own respective lanes. And, here I am thinking explicitly of Mulholland Dr. Although if you’d prefer me to restrict things to the realm of photography, I’ll see you Josef Koudelka and raise you Arno Rafael Minkkinen.)

Also, photography doesn’t really have a surrealist branch of practice. I mean you’ve got Joel-Peter Witkin and Jerry Uelsmann–and I’d place both closer to say whatever the hell it was H. R. Giger was on about than of a piece with Salvador Dali.

My point is merely that I don’t think Szarkowski’s windows/mirrors bifurcation works any more–except maybe in oneiric deviations of photography/image making.

It seems like surrealism is invested in showing us a world that is enough like our waking world that were it possible we could step into it and ‘inhabit’ it. Oneirism reintroduces us to a world we already know–but may have forgotten upon waking.

In effect: surrealism is a window, whereas oneirism is a mirror.

And what I adore about Jaime Erin Johnson’s image here is that the experience I have looking at it is virtually identical to encountering a word in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows that describes something I’ve felt is an experience only I have ever had–only to discover that a language I don’t speak or know found that feeling important enough to name.

It really doesn’t matter whether I’ve ever seen this image before–it works because it taps into a sort of archetypal symbology to convey the reality of an emotion that has been if not fully inhabited, then at least methodically studied.

Andrew V. PashisRed Clover Meadow (2008)

This isn’t a good photo–the composition is more concerned with getting the shot than rendering the scene in a clear and legible fashion.

Plus, I’m really not a fan of simulation, fakery or pretense in depictions of sexuality.

However, neither trait prevents me from outright adoring this image and it’s audacity certainly helps with that. The sort of devil may care presentation reminds me that some of the best sex I’ve ever had has featured a comparable setting–i.e. a place that is exceedingly public yet simultaneously secluded enough to render the chance of getting caught with pants down or dress up is not absent but small enough to justify the risk.

The rest of Pashis’ work is significantly more thoughtful than the above. It’s possible to see the broad strokes of the visual it-factor that marks most if not all Eastern European and Russian work so that you can spot it forty yards out. The feeling that nudity although culturally mired to a degree with sexuality is more a by product of the intensity of surviving the harsh winters. A matter-of-factness about the mad desire to soak up sun with as much skin as possible during the white heat of summer.

But whereas someone like Mukhin seems charged with a certain higher octane vitality when his work witnesses the more transgressive features of Russian youth culture or someone Evgeny Mokhorev’s likely inappropriately edgy fixation on young bodies as the locus of a darker yet also truer sexual freedom, Pashis is more openly voyeuristic, classically inspired, contrived and at times unapologetically aggressive in his presentation.

Although mad props are in order for his transformation of one of Ryan McGinley’s worst images into something fantastically crackling with the unfettered potential of being young, free and if not immune to consequence then aware that there’s no bending heaven so you might as well raise some hell.

Sophie van der PerreSarah (2014)

Overall, I find der Perre’s work perhaps a little too self-consciously editorial/fashion in genre.

I do not mean to suggest it’s bad. It’s just that there’s almost a self-same ubiquity to it and it looks to me like all the rest of effectively executed, even thoughtful but ultimately dull editorial/fashion work I see.

But I do really like this image and a few others in her Flickr photostream. And although I could make easy correlations to Lina Scheynius or Chip Willis, I am more interested in my realization that although I consider Erica Shires to be one of the best photographers working today, der Perre’s work actually suggested the closest thing I have to a criticism of Shires’ work: namely, her didactic use of nudity.

Shires is teaching a workshop in Tuscany this month. And one of the first topics she mentions in her course description is: [s]hooting nudity but being thoughtful about it. Does it make sense? Go beyond the literal.

This sensibility is pervasive in her work. And I feel that now that I know to look for it, a great deal of the nudity in her images comes across as preachy.

It is always a very fine line between leading by example and insisting on leading by example. I feel it’s actually the same margin between showing and telling. But one should never tell where it is possible to show and I think what der Perre does is feature nudity in images that are intrinsic to the images themselves. There’s no question of how it happened or whether it was motivated, it merely is a discrete, moment presented without commentary as-is.

The result is playful without being the least bit coquettish or flirtatious.

Jean-Luc VertutApparition (2015)

If you browse Vertut’s portfolio with any attention, you’ll notice that beyond his preoccupation with the nudes-in-landscape motif this image feels different than his previous work.

Were I a betting man, I’d wager he’s been gorging on benoitp‘s work. Certainly, not a bad thing–and although I appreciate the straightfowardness of this image over Paile’s endless barrage of hallucinogenic visual fugue-states–I’m just not sure that the flash here is strategic enough or appropriately in harmony with the scene to serve. I love the idea and I think sans the strobe it might’ve worked; with it, however, what was clearly intended as a grace note, cacophonously muddles things.