Laurent BenaimUntitled (2018)

It’s interesting to me what people accept regarding the aestheticization inherent in most mainstream pornography. That the cute college coed is going to answer the door in her robe, see the muscly stud with a pizza and be immediate DTF? That everyone who fucks does so in opulent but ultimately either nearly empty or decorated without any discernible sense of form or function, without a single trace of any sort of shadow anywhere in the scene? That the only people who fuck are perfectly depilated without a trace of body fat?

The general motif is that if it distracts from the fantasy, it should be diminished or eliminated. But just as the best lies are sown in the same furrow as truth, so I think that the reality of depicting sexuality is that if your fantasy has an correlation with reality, an aesthetic that eschews the aesthetics of perfection is probably the better option.

This image is downright ugly–looking more like a photocopy of a photocopy that has been darkened to compensate for the first layer of generation loss. But it really does work better for that. You can’t so much focus on the pretty picture so you instead have to embrace what’s being depicted to engage with the picture.

And I can’t tell which part of this I like better: the self-aware way the model is staring directly into the camera or the discrepancy between the way her ankle in those stiletto heels is wrapped in light or the way you can only see the other woman’s breast by imagining what’s in between her breast and the cast shadow.

Alex SothUntitled from Looking for Love (1996)

I saw Blue Velvet for the first time over the summer of 1997; I was 19 and I HATED it.

I was somewhat familiar with Maestro Lynch at that point; I’d seen The Elephant Man, Dune and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me–I enjoyed the former, was underwhelmed by the second and the sequence from the latter in The Pink Room is one of my favorite scenes in any Lynch film.

And even though I disliked Blue Velvet, I could admit that my issue with it had less to do with it’s quality and more to do with it’s tropes.

The primary reason I loathed was more a function of my perception than anything on the part of the film itself. By that I mean: I saw Pulp Fiction something like seven times while it was in theaters. It had thrust me deeper into ‘art house’ fare and I watched everything (not an exaggeration) that had any sort of link to either Tarantino himself or was categorized as being Tarantino-esque. (I spent a lot of time watching a lot of rubbish.)

My quarrel with Blue Velvet was that I had seen almost everything in it in other things. I felt that it was unoriginal.

I know, I know… it was partly because it looked so thoroughly modern and fantastic, I failed to realize it predated most of the stuff I thought it was ripping off by almost a full decade.

Luckily, I was forced to watch Eraserhead for a class and was thoroughly transfixed by both how weird it was/how beautifully it was made to look. I saw Wild at Heart (mixed feelings), The Straight Story (I feel like this and Eraserhead are the most truly Lynchian as far as it pertains to aesthetic vision), Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. (LH and MD both share the same structural form–a Möbius strip and I’ve always felt like in the context of the latter that Adam Kesher is a stand-in for Lynch himself and that LH is the movie that The Cowboy insists Kesher make but MD is the film he really wanted to make in its place.)

(We don’t discuss Inland Empire–I have interacted with Lynch twice in my life and both times I’ve started arguments with him; the second time I may have told him the second hour of IE was entirely unnecessary and that had he still shot on film he would’ve made a better project for having to make decisions instead of throwing things at the wall and then leaving it up to the audience to decide whether or not they stick…)

Anyway–and I swear this all pertains to Soth (which he says rhymes with ‘both’ but why would you not say rhymes with ‘oath’, I mean really…)–I actually did go back and watch Blue Velvet again. The second time I was blown away by it. I may be partial to Eraserhead and Mulholland Dr. will likely go down as his crowning achievement but really, Blue Velvet is a cinematic masterpiece of truly rare acuity.

How all this relates to Soth is: I am not a fan of his work. But I try to remain mostly civil as far as this project–like I despise the work of Gregory Crewdson (spoiler alert: he’s not particularly well liked by those who had a hand in training him or who are his ostensible peers) and Fox Harvard and Brooke Shaden are godawful… but mostly I keep it constructive.

I have actually changed my opinion on Soth. He work doesn’t especially resonate with me but I now see that what I read before as vapid vacuity, is actually much closer to the form of fine art photography rendering meditations on disaffection and loneliness banal. I don’t really think this is exactly the best tact but it is a code I can read now.

And I think that’s really what I’m getting at: if you are doing the work you are supposed to be done correctly, i.e. with the appropriate degree of rigor and attention, then you are going to realize frequently that you’re wrong more than you are right.

I know this blog comes across as persnickety and I realize there are things I say that seem preposterous–but this is a way I’ve found of pushing myself to do the work.

I was wrong about Soth. It doesn’t mean I’m gonna rush out and buy his work it just means that I had not yet found the right photo to draw me into his work. The photo above was what I needed.

Rogier Houwen – [↑] Women Kiss (201X); [↓] Title Unknown (201X)

The second photo here dates from late 2012 at the latest. I suspect the upper photo was made around roughly the same time.

Houwen’s style has morphed–with his more recent work focusing on interrogations of photographic process and deconstruction of traditional darkroom technique. It’s not exactly original or even innovative but it’s still interesting. (For example: I unfortunately can’t access the sectors of my memory banks where the name is stored but there is a notable fine art photographer who worked in almost exactly the same vein as Houwen is now who was active primarily in the mid-aughts. That artist’s work is of a much higher quality but I still appreciate Houwen’s soulfulness–it contributes a vitality to his work that I always found lacking in the work of the hot shot photographer whose name I can no not even remember.)

I’ll stay in my lane though. Houwen’s work–at least circa the epoch of the above work–is reminiscnet of Patricio Suarez. Not how both skew darker in terms of dynamic range and both feature a strong preference for backlighting. (This allows them to do some fascinating things with the boundaries between shadow and light, i.e. the way the woman in the lower photo above is separated from the background by a halo of mid-tones around her right shoulder, neck, hair and back.)

It’s not exactly correct but I think the difference has something to do with the raison d’etre for the photo. In Suarez’s case the photo is indicative of a feeling–the chicken hatches the egg. Whereas with Houwen, the feeling is the egg from which the chicken hatches.

Source unknown – Title unknown (201X)

The eye moves left to right over this frame; the action flows in the opposite direction (right to left)–like walking into the ocean when the tide is pushing in against the land; or, as if the arrow were pushing itself against the bowstring of its own accord–seeking that perfect tension wherein it can only be loosed free and true on target.

Victoria Baraga – [←] Self-portrait (2012); [→] Self-portrait II (2012)

I could’ve sworn I posted the Self-portrait II previously–but I’ve spent the last half-hour trying to find it and I see no trace, so…

It’s possible I had it saved as a draft and subsequently opted not to post it.

There’s not one but two layers of ubiquity working against these images. The TLR, waist level finder in the mirror trope deserves every bit of shit the bathroom mirror selfie gets. (Folks who pursue the former tend to get a pass they shouldn’t because they’re doing it the old-fashioned way and it’s not as straight forward was aiming the camera and pushing a button–but both tend to be devoid of any vivacity.)

There are exceptions of course. Laura Kampman does some exquisite things within very narrowly circumscribed margins–i.e. there’s a ridiculous degree of technical mastery at work in her better photos. Baraga, on the other hand, tends to fixate on capturing herself in the act of watching herself.

The result is conceptual satisfying–the viewer watches her watch herself, while she watches herself experience intimacy. It’s a clever deconstruction of the triad where the photography use the camera in an effort to parse time and space in such a way that the viewer of the resulting photo see much in the same way the photographer did in the moment of making the image. In this case, the mirror is an impartial arbiter allowing her to focus on one relationship in the triad–photographer to subject and subject to photographer in a fashion that presumes an empathetic response from the viewer.

There’s life an artfulness to these images that far exceeds 98% of comparable work out there.