Nazif Topçuoğlu – The Curious Operation (2005)

I can’t quite decide whether the way this bloody mashes my buttons is masterful or ham-fisted…

The lighting is pure Caravaggio chiaroscuro, the compositions utilize Vermeer as a point of departure and the poses are the most Balthus thing since Balthus Balthused.

I’m a little discomfited by the way so much of the work depends on a sensational presentation of adolescent female bodied-ness. And don’t get me wrong–I’m not against nuanced, complicated and even edgy visual depiction of that issue. There’s just…

Let’s let Mr. Topçuoğlu explain himself:

When employing the representations of youth as imagery, one has to deal
with the issues of gender roles and male gaze. In these photographs,
unlike the more common examples, a respectful stance towards the female
has been taken. The subjectification of the female youth as a
gender-free ideal, inevitably involves her intelligence, beauty, energy,
and struggle as the major concerns of this work I do photography
because… I need to produce the images which are provocative but not
exploitative that I would enjoy looking at
(Emphasis mine.)

I’m trusting each of you to be sophisticated enough to note the contradiction and to multiply the concern it raises by the power of it being deployed by an ostensibly heterosexual, cis-gendered man.

The thing of it is: I want to embrace the narrative and its implication. The obsession with youth and the line separating innocence from experience is the quintessential fascination. And it’s not that I don’t believe there’s a sort of bullying going on wherein that fixation manifests itself in a sort of full-contact exploration that may or may not include–strictly speaking consent. I know that when kids are curious about each others’ bodies, they’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission. Folks gets pantsed, you get pinned to a wall while someone looks down your shirt and makes pirates dream jokes. My point is: those actions are based in this weird curiosity-shame spiral.

The resistance in this photo–besides being hell of stylish–is perfunctory. There’s the presence of a bullying sense to it but it seems more like a perhaps slightly more intense game than anyone participating signed on for.

All of Topçuoğlu‘s work–with one exquisite exception–assigns an implicit lesbian subtext to adolescent female interpersonal transactions. Touch is almost always at least informed by some miasmatic subliminated sexual desire. My experience is that while that is definitely a possibility, it’s in no way the default.

I’d be curious to see someone like Prue Stent or Lula Hyers re-imagine these images in a more authentic fashion–since it seems to me the prima materia is solid enough that it would benefit from being informed by lived experience.