Megan CullenUntitled (2016)

I am the type of girl who sees something and pretty much immediately feels something about it. It’s a great skill for someone who is–ostensibly–an art commentator. (Honestly, it’s effing exhausting af in the here and now of day-to-day exigencies.)

Usually, I’m pretty good at pointing in the direction of why I feel the way I do about what I see. However, there are times when I know that I like something but I am not immediately able to convey any sense of the why of my feelings.

This is one such image.

The pace of keeping up with running this blog, on top of holding down a FT job and also trying to focus on my own various creative efforts–I am not always able to dig in long enough to suss out the whys.

Typically, I either append relevant quotes which expand, compound or complicate the photo/image in a way that feels like it points in the direction of what I feel but have no idea how to articulate. (Same with my #follow_the_thread and #juxtaposition tagged posts; #palette posts were originally similar but increasingly it’s just proven to be a much more clearheaded and coherent–therefore less abstract–way of “speaking” about color.)

Present, I am–after much weeping and gnashing of teeth–finally operating with a bit of a queue buffer. So I’ve had a little bit of time to sit with this image and work to untangle some of what appeals to me about it.

At first blush, I have mixed feelings about the composition. Either the camera or the bus is not level and the camera has not been especially reoriented to compensate. The mass of black in the upper left corner renders the frame top heavy and cumbersome.

However…

The immediacy of what’s depicted diminishes the impetus on getting a perfect frame in favor of baseline visual legibility requirements.

And I’m cheating a bit and putting the cart before the horse here. My initial reaction to this was bus (public), boob (’private’). (I am and will forever be a sucker for things that transgress on entrenched notions of what constitutes public and what constitutes private.)

The next thing I notice is that there’s two people in the frame. The anonymous young woman flashing people on the street (?) and another woman cracking the fuck up inside the bus–presumably aware of what’s happening. (The initial immediacy of the image expands by placing the image maker and by dint the viewer in a relationship of both see and seen, in a way which self-referentially indicts the voyeurism of seeing with an empathy of an awareness of the political and absurdist facets of being seen given discontinuous overlapping contexts.)

This immediate sends my brain scurrying to make connections with other examples of similar charged visual depictions. In this case, I immediate remembered oan-adn – The passenger (2015) and k.flight’s 2008 self-portrait titled in the back of the bus.

After a bit more contemplation I noticed that there’s what is without question the symbol for an eighth note on the side of the bus directly below the boob peeping through the open window. This adds a narrative implication to the image. (I think anyone who attended a quotidian American middle or high school has experiences of the abject tedium of being stuck with a bunch of classmates on an interminable bus ride. It’s not difficult to image that boredom inspiring the students to see if they can begin a process of brinksmanship where you do things in such a way as to be seen by your classmates but not noticed by chaperones. I am very taken with narrative potentiality–always.)

Really, though in this case I’m all about that eighth note, or as the British refer to it a quaver. Consider the definition of quaver:

verb (used without object)

  1. to shake tremulously; quiver or tremble:
  2. to sound, speak, or sing tremulously:
  3. to perform trills in singing or on a musical instrument

verb (used with object)

  1. to utter, say, or sing with a quavering or tremulous voice

noun

  1. a quavering or tremulous shake, especially in the voice
  2. a quavering tone or utterance
  3. Music (chiefly British). an eighth note

Quaver is actually the pitch perfect word-concept to accompany this image. And it pushes my brain even further because although it’s been years since I’ve studied music theory it strikes me that generally eighth notes are more a function of time signatures with an integer divisible by 3 in the numerator–as opposed to the more standard numerator divisible by 2.

When I was a child my mother referred to this as the difference between march time (2s in the numerator) and waltz time (3s in the numerator). She explained that all you had to do was pay attention to the way your body wanted to move with the music. If you want to march in a straight line it’s two based; if you want to turn in circles it’s three based.

This image is absolutely in waltz time.

Source unknown – Title unknown (2017)

For all the ways this image is a failure…

Hold that thought. Before we continue, let’s take a bit to actually call out all the things this does shoddily:

It’s underexposed. Now I’ll grant you that there’s a clear emphasis placed on the skin tone of the clearly tanned and athletic subject. (My guess is that this was probably taken on an sunny day on a section of trail fairly well shadowed by the forest canopy–check the patches of sunlight spill in the upper right corner.)

By turns that underexposure compresses dynamics within the shadows–her sports bra/bralette (I have one that’s very similar and it’s tres comfy) appears more or less a full black mass that seems like an absence in the frame.

The lack of light narrows the depth of field. Her left sneaker is partially extended so far towards the camera that it’s out of focus. (You’ll note that the sharp focus drops somewhere between the underside of the top rail on the bench behind her right armpit and the top rail of the halfway between her right shoulder and right knee.

But, for all the ways this image fails, it does several things–if not well, then at least curious ways.

I find this super relate-able? Part of it is that there’s an implicit narrative element. The subject stepped out of her shorts–she was wearing sans undies, discarded them on the seat.

However, even that goes back a bit further because you can trace that back to the decision made while getting dressed to eschew panties. The reasons could run from not having any clean knickers but still needing to go for a run, or the notion that you’re not really appropriately dressed for the activity you’re undertaking or because you’re planning to make sexy photos outdoors (or something even more naughty) and need to be able to get undressed and dressed again rapidly.

As far as improvised penetrative sex toys, a banana may be the most phallic in shape but it’s not especially well suited to the task. The base of the fruit has ridges that can scrape. (Carrots are preferable; cucumbers if you want more girth. Also, if you are going to use fruits and vegetables to stimulate your more challenging to reach inner parts–you always have to wash the fruit/vegetable thoroughly. Any place where you are inserting this is super absorbent and you don’t want a sensitive, absorbent part of your body leeching petrochemicals or pesticides. I personally maintain that you should wrap up whatever you’re using with a condom–but that’s me, overly safe Susie.)

Beyond the base, there’s also the fact that the meat of a banana gets increasingly mushy as it’s temperature increases–and the human body is almost 100 degrees F internally… you do the math.

Maybe the banana was just handy–they are great snacks to bring on a hike (they come pre-packaged and portion controlled!). But I do think that it is strangely fitting here (pun intended), because the other thing about this I adore is the way it messes with notions of public vs private. I mean this takes place in the woods–thus there’s a notion of semi-private. But the bench suggests that although you may presently be alone, this area is not necessarily only yours. Other people might happen along. That can be an interesting place to explore.  The feeling of doing something in an environment where you’re not supposed to do it but where you are unlike to get caught doing it is thrilling. It also causes your body to respond to things in unexpected ways.

It’s easy to say that this woman is modeling her expression to some sort of male gaze–the I’m being pervy and am knowing being witnessed being pervy so I need to look like I’m enjoying myself. I don’t know… as someone who has attempted to make self-portraits conceptually and specifically similar to the above, I would be struggling not to orgasm if this picture were of me–and truthfully, that’s the last bit: although this isn’t a good photo, I sort of which it was a photo of me; good or not it would be a really truthful presentation of who I am and what my concerns are in a way that would make me feel extremely sexy.

Tony PatrioliTitle Unknown (19XX)

It’s not the first thing I notice so much as the fourth or fifth, but this photo was almost without a doubt taken in the same area where act one of Antonioni’s beautifully shot L’Avventura unfolds.

I say “not the first thing” because I have all kinds of complicated feels about this and I am not entirely sure how to convey them. (That’s not entirely true… it’s more I can’t seem to work up the courage to put it all into words would could potentially be turned against me.)

Part of these feelings relate to my suspicion this was likely made in the mid-70s when Patrioli was fixated with shooting single, hetero, cis-boys who weren’t opposed to playing along with the photographer’s homoerotic vision.

It’s a sloppy conceit–and I say that as someone convinced that it’s just barely on the grey side of immoral to ask someone to enact something in front of a camera that they wouldn’t also willing ask of you were the roles reversed; but the resulting trilateral tension is fascinating: the homosexual photographer having straight boys play at being gay, the straight boys who aren’t DTF but who don’t mind going along for the ride and the audience who subsequently  can’t take either party quite at their word.

The premo genderfuckery appeals to me. I mean really, really, really, really, really (that’s five really’s) appeals to me. But there’s also the likely unintended side-effect of decoupling physical arousal from sexual ideation. That’s the part I don’t know how to talk about…

I’m mostly opposed to the metaphor wherein sexuality is equated with hunger–that path skirts a little too close to notions of privation and entitlement. But I am willing to go so far as to say that there is at least a correlation insofar as if I say that I’m hungry, I’m asking not because I expect the person with whom I am conferring to feed me or even that their hungry. It’s because I’m fucking hungry and I need to do something about that shit, pronto and I know that I’m not the only one who is capable of experiencing hunger.

I See Who You AreUntitled (2014)

Kara Neko was one of the first Tumblr models I followed.

At least initially, what drew me to her work was the deeply contemplative stillness of her self-presentation.

Like a total newbie, I fouled up the attribution on a image of hers. Almost immediately, she messaged about my error and dazzled me with her polite charm.

A bit more than a year ago, Kara began collaborating with Tetsu on I See Who You Are (ISWYA). 

What with my own pathological obsession with questions of public vs. private, representations of sexuality and the arbitrary nature of so-called social propriety, I was bound to be interested in the project.

Kara’s commentary ended up being my preliminary take away w/r/t the projects underlying conceptualization:

It’s our intention to create strong balanced and emotional portraits charged with positivity. You see photographed here, a girl looking inward, outward and for connectedness in the world around her. .

ISWYA has grown substantially. Kara’s friend, photographer Jonathan Waiter–who is battling cancer–and a handful of art models have participated.

Of late, I’ve grown ambivalent toward the project. Certain images move me but I feel it’s more luck of the draw than craft.

For example: this snatches my eye because Sylvia is the flavor of ‘beautiful’ customarily reserved solely for poetry. Then there’s how the slightly muted colors accentuating the bleaching effect of winter light and rendering impossibly perfect facial skin tone.

In turn, the dulled colors balance Sylvia’s delightfully mismatched socks against the fulcrum of the tote bag upon which she is seated.

Plus, this might as well have been shot in my actual backyard for how far it is from my apartment–a proximity which makes it even harder to believe how calm Sylvia is of her undress, openness of her pose. (Were it me, I would’ve been terrified…)

But as much as I like various facets, the work ultimately chafes me.

The reason has to do with the artists’ statement that now accompanies the work:

The images presented strive to portray a woman’s sensuality as an organic part of her environment. Rather than simply acting as nudes they create a new lexicon in the geography of the feminine form.By taking away the importance of clothing to cover ones body, the model’s emotions have become more apparent. The aspect of nudity becomes just another ingredient of the image rather than the only one. Too often in nude photography the emotional aspect is disregarded, and the viewer is left with simply a naked body. Here you are able to connect personally to a woman’s being and contemplate the elements of her life that might exist but cannot necessarily be seen.

Often in life we use our personal style as way to define who we are to the world, such as the clothes we wear or the latest technology we possess. With so many elements to explore we become detached characters, unable to connect to one another or even ourselves. When we unveil our masks and allow ourselves to be vulnerable we are confronted with what exists within: the insecurities, sadness, joy, and the instinctual desire to live and love.

As far as the tendency for the inclusion of additional context to diminish the tendency of nude imagery to simply leave the viewer with a naked body, ISWYA is v. on point.

Beyond that the conceptualization stands starkly at odds with the work.

By focusing on the body in an environment, there’s a v. fine line separating non-landscape imagery from landscape imagery. The image above with Sylvia is close enough to the subject that the inconsistent composition is masked by the exquisite balancing of colors. Whereas when the photographer is farther from the subject, the incidental nature of the handheld camera and the snap-it-quick-before-anyone-sees imperative that work close up, result in images that feel forced and feature the sort of sloppy as fuck composition you’d expect from a goat wearing a jet pack on a trampoline during an earthquake.

But that’s a lesser problem in the scheme of things. There’s the matter of eye contact, to consider.

As per Kara’s original framing where a girl is looking inward, outward and for connection with the world. Note how there is an equality between the photographing and a holistic presentation of self.

The image above suggests a total inversion of that framework. Replacing the tendency to isolate the viewer and a naked body with coy flirtation as justification for seeing and being seen–i.e. the same old straight white male gaze strum und drang–or metonymy for conveying ‘insecurities, sadness, joy and the instinctural desire to live and love’ is inexcusably unrefined and lazy in its base essentialization.

To put it another way. Recall Marcus Auerilus: of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself, what is its nature? 

Better yet, ask: why is she nude?

Note:

I am loathe to remove anything that might be even loosely deemed attributive.

Thus, in the interest of full disclosure this image was posted with a quote from Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood.

I removed the quote.

I’m not anti-Murakami. In fact, I’ve read roughly half his fiction.

Norwegian Wood is the work I liked least. 

I wasn’t really able to put a finger on what exactly I so actively disliked it. But a brilliant feminist acquaintance took umbrage to my wholesale recommendation of Murakami. She suggested that he always wrote his female characters with one hand so that he could masturbate to them with the other.

It only took two me two more books to realize the astuteness of her observation. In hindsight, it’s exactly the reason Norwegian Wood left such a bad taste in my mouth.

For all I know, it was Sylvia who suggested the inclusion of the quote. In which case, apologies are in order. But the inclusion is just a little too telling given the less than subtle reality of how the work reads.

It’s fine if it’s all just masturbatory fodder. Really, I am okay with that. What I am not okay with is using the trappings of feminist discourse as a get out of jail free card.

Alec DawsonUntitled from Nocturna series (201X)

Any convesration about Dawson’s work will prove a fool’s errand unless one first addresses the elephant in the room: Gregory Crewdson pernicious influence.(Sidebar: whenever someone says elephant in the room, I look around for a split second hoping there’s actually an elephant in the room so maybe I can hug it. I ❤ elephants like whoa.)

Now, I know I mostly come across as a crotchety, you-kids-get-off-my-lawn, over-critical contrarian but I do make a very concerted effort to stay constructive.

However, there are several photographers for whose work I can only muster abject revulsion; Crewdson is one.

I would never dispute his technical acumen–even if questions as to whether his process precludes him from consideration as a photographer are interesting thought experiment.

And his finely tuning, orchestrated lighting masterfully facilitate a consistent, oneiric aesthetic.

My objection is to the manner whereby the elaborate conception/execution and presentation insist upon itself and is excused as being in service of conveying a decisive moment-esque impetus; bullshit given simply asking of the image what led up to this moment and subsequently what leads away from it remains indecipherable.

If Crewdson would shut the fuck up about his work as being narrative–a concept he woefully misunderstands–then I might give his work a pass.

But as goes Gregory Crewdson, so goes a raft of fuckwit MFA students as well as Reverend Bobby Anger and Alec Dawson.

Not to malign the latter two by association but with such a pervasive debt of influence in their work, they both get snared by their similar reliance on aesthetic as means of compensating for flimsy narrative conceptualization.

That being said, I hardly want to piss all over Dawson’s work. He has a profound knack for making a scene appear cluttered without detracting from the composition and though I do worry about the implication of some of Frances Blanc dead and crumpled poses in Nocturna; the series would arguably prove more compelling than Crewdson if Dawson could cull a very much needed, tighter edit.

David Jubert Graphistolageimprobable (2011)

What first caught my attention was the splash of what I always call acid green but is probably better termed: pistachio.

It’s one of my favorite colors–commanding visual attention and reminscent of the prevailing color during the second third of Mark Romanek’s brilliantly executed music video for nine inch nailsThe Perfect Drug.

Next, I wondered how a picture from the Montparnasse stop on the Paris Metro ended up on my dashboard since I’m hardly a railfan.

Yes, I confess a vague fondness for trains–especially trains that serve in citywide subterranean mass transit systems. I can’t explain this fondness more than to explain that my ex always insisted that the NYC Subway was ‘magic’.

Maybe not be true magic but there is certainly something magical about descending and depending on the time of day and line, a train pulls into the station. The doors open–people step out, people step in. The doors close. The train follows the tracks and spirits you uptown, downtown, crosstown.

It took me awhile for me to see the nude on the opposite platform visible between the two train cars.

There was something about having my persistent gaze rewarded that appealed to me–at least initially.

With subsequent consideration, I am less impressed.

I do appreciate the rupture this represents with most of Graphistolage’s work. His draughtsman-esque insistence on symmetry and super saturated color–both of which I find cloying, at best–are absent.

The trouble is his approach does not adapt to the situation in which he finds himself. The effort to emphasize symmetry is cursory at best–the camera is not level as well as being panned slightly left.

Further, the figure bisected by the right frame edge fails to completely balance the asymmetry of the man on the left exiting the car through the open door.

Ultimately, the technical shortcomings serve as an elaborate distraction from the one great blight of the image: once you see the naked woman the image offers the viewer no assistance in unraveling the question of why she is standing there so improbably framed.

Dane – Johanna Stickland (2013)

First off: this is really the first time I’ve put a face to the name Johanna Stickland and Jesus Harold and Maude Fucking Christ on Christmas she is breathtaking.

Looking back I’ve seen oodles of her work before but it’s never clicked until this that it’s the same young woman in so many wonderful images.

I won’t lie: I am completely taken with this. If you’re a regular, you’ll ask: but what about your intractable opposition to #skinnyframebullshit?

It’s not #skinnyframebullshit. Why? Well, the composition doesn’t echo the model. Instead, the frame is oriented in this fashion to compensate for both the lack of room (the area between the shrubs and the chain link fence is quite narrow); also, if the camera were landscape oriented it would create all kinds of problems–there would be even more of the bokehed fence (which as it is teeters at the edge of too much), not to mention the shrub which you can see jutting into the lower-right corner of the frame would appear in the frame and distracting from the loose one point perspective that constantly refocuses the eye on Ms. Stickland and her intensely penetrating stare.

Lastly, this fence–like so many of its brethern–is slightly canted. Ms. Stickland’s pronounced lean away from the fence combined with the upper arm intersecting so precisely with the first horizontal third expertly balances the frame.

I am curious to know more about the image maker responsible for this but I can’t find fuck all about Dane anywhere. Alas.