Juxtaposition as commentary
Yan Bertoni – Emma #3 (2017)
This is a visually arresting image–without a doubt.
Were one so inclined one might talk about color (The palette of red hair to ochre lichen to the brackish algae tinged lake) or about texture (the lack of texture in Emma’s skin and the surface of the water vs. the abundance of texture in the wooden dock).
I–for my part–can’t look at it and not compare it less than favorably with Chadwick Tyler’s effing exquisite image of Cora Keegan from back in 2014.
The fact that I prefer one to the other probably won’t surprise anyone who has been following this project for any period of time. The reason why I prefer one over the other almost certainly will: I think the above image is over-composed to the point of sterility.
What do I mean? I mean this isn’t strictly governed by the rule of thirds. I charted it for you to peep:
What is interesting is that if you zoom in a bit and ignore the water the dock conforms to the rule of thirds:
This sort of nesting of for frames within frames reminded me of the Golden Ratio. So I diddled around with that for a bit. The image in no way conforms to it but imposing the spiral in on particular way does illustration something about how the image is arranged to cause your eye to track back after it has moved all the way from left to right:
Well, I mean… that all sounds pretty sophisticated when I lay it all out there. So why do I prefer Tyler’s image?
Well, I don’t think the golden ratio overlay is a function of calculations in the making of the image. More: I think that the golden ratio is everywhere. Yes, it’s rare to find an image that conforms to it to a T but I think the rule of thirds works because it takes the ordering principles of the mean and parses them in such a way that you can achieve a similar effect without measuring with painstaking exactness. I’d wager there’s very few thoughtfully composed images that can’t be argued demonstrate some implicit reliance on the golden ratio.
What makes Tyler’s image better is that well–there’s little if anything to stop someone with a decent camera, time and a little bit of money from recreating Bertoni’s image. While I will grant that the model will be slightly older and the reflection of the sky and the weathering on the dock might have changed slightly–it’s not a question of whether or not it can be done, more a question of whether or not the person doing it has the patience to do it.
How would you even begin to go about recreating Tyler’s image. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
When I say sterile that’s partly what I mean. Bertoni’s image has been so rigorously balanced it has no life left to it and as such there’s nothing distinguishing it as singular or unique. (Also, I’ve seen other pictures from this series and the dock here is like six feet off the water–which you can’t tell given the image.
Also, what is Bertoni’s image about? A model posing for a photographer. There’s little else as far as suggestion of a narrative.
Whereas with Tyler’s image: why the hell is she smoking with her head hanging off the dock? Does she not want her face int he shot. Is her hair in the water? Is this a model posing for a photographer or is it two friends hanging out one with a camera and another just fucking around and then there just happened to be this wonderful accident of a masterpiece of a shot.
At first glance, there was some thing about this image that flustered me–not flustered as in frustrated, more unconventional; as in the way the profound is often masked by it’s commonplace-ness.
It’s been saved as a draft for several months now. I keep traipsing back to it, spending an hour hear and there trying (and ultimately failing) to give expression to an inarticulate gut reaction.
As with so much of my intellectual life, I have this tendency to believe only that which is so difficult as to be functionally impossible has merit. It’s a mentality that in the absence of intellectual heavy lifting, creates unnecessary work.
But that’s super abstract. Let’s keep it concrete and focus on this image: from square fucking one this image has been about the effortless, lack of contrivance to the pose. It is as if posing for an image were to be separated into a continuum of 1. ) preparing to pose, 2.) the mindful tension of holding the pose and 3.) the subsequent dissolution of mindful tension, then this image would represent the moment after 3 but also before 1.
This fit with my limited familiarity with Esquivel’s work; thus, most of my initial efforts to explain my reaction centered on the notion of pose. The trouble is that when you’re looking for something so specific, there is a tendency to miss the forest for the trees. By focusing on pose, I drunkenly lopped down long dark alleys of considering odd framing decisions; and instead of taking a step back, trying to justify my initial theory by suggest that kind of like counterpoint in musical compositions, the frame was an effort to highlight poses intended to exemplify the Golden Ratio.
However, after spending some time with Esquivel’s work, I’m realizing that there just isn’t that consistency in her use of pose. For as natural as the above is, her work is also rich with unnatural, highly stylized poses. In fact, her use of scale and angle of view differ enormously over her body of work. That which remains consistent is how she frames things.
And the framing is extremely interesting; it features an internal logic–while not immune to #skinnyframebullshit, she mostly avoids it–as well as an external consistency across her work. Moreover, there is a sense less of an image maker creating an image and more that the work exists as an exercise in assisted self-portraiture.If you spend any time with the images, there is a feeling that the impetus for the frame being what it is has more to do with it being something the image maker might have set up a tripod and posed for the picture herself without access to willing models.
I won’t even pretend I understand the lighting design here. A key light aimed at the background slightly to the right of the model’s shoulder? No fill light? Her body blocks roughly a third of the light and there is almost no gradation between mid-tone detail and a complete absence of shadow detail.
It doesn’t look great but it’s not objectively terrible either. Yes: shifting the light back two feet would smooth the transition from midtone to shadow while also emphasizing her expectant stare and bringing out the green in her eyes.
I’m far more interested in the model–who is she?–than anything with fuck all to do with the photographer. Her pose, posture and the ambiguous position–somewhere exactly halfway violence and restraint–of her left hand.
Together it’s almost enough to make me overlook the seeming technical ineptitude and flagrant #skinnyframebullshit.
Those who peruse what I write will be aware of how much I loathe fucking gratuitous/illogical use of portrait orientation.
I never tire of calling that bullshit out. But, for the sake of avoiding redundancy and not beating a dead horse on the subject, I am going to henceforth distill these criticisms to a pithy hash tag: #skinnyframebullshit.
#skinnyframebullshit should be applied here. Further, the awkwardness is compounded by the top frame line’s amputate the young woman’s legs. (And if one was inclined toward hair splitting: an argument can be made that with the angle of light it would’ve been preferable to swap the position of her head and feet.)
Even with these shortcomings, I dig this image a lot. Mainly because it dodges the usual questions of subject/object and exhibitionism/voyeurism back loaded into visual depictions of masturbation. It has the sort of masturbation as punk rock/do it yrself sex positive vibe I adore.
Valeriya on the bed.
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A film school cohort of mine (and long-time shameless Tumblr lurker) begged me to re-blog this photo of Valeryia.
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He’s interested in booking her for a photo shoot but claims the Google has exactly zilch on her.
If you know her or have decent info to pass along, maybe throw him a line: minuslinear at yahoo dot com.
Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no “erogenous zones” (a foolish expression, besides); it is intermittence, as the psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance (Barthes, pg. 9-10).
Perhaps it’s the introversion suggested by the huddled pose or the comely skin. My eye—wishing it was a tongue—darts and circles the erect left nipple.
But the wetness of wanting is thwarted by the shallow depth of field which pushes my gaze away over oceans of cream floating morning glories, wilds rose and springs of red baby’s breath before being pulled back again over small breasts and pale skin to sunlit shoulders and long strands of red silk hair.
And in this seeing I have an honest-to-goodness itty-bitty petit mort every time I glance at this picture.
No, it’s closer to a lover shifting slightly and the movement sending cascades of shivers outward through the ebbing pulsing of orgasmic spasms.
A feeling not unlike the memory of pixie with snow white skin, wire straight, carbon black hair and mischievous eyes wider than miles of un-translated manga: I gazed as she reached across the table, her motion pulling the lower edge of her too-small t-shirt away from the waist of her too-large belted jeans. Thinner than a rail, the ridges of her spine led my eyes down to the orange on purple Victoria’s Secret underwear.
But the headless woman does have anonymity. And where this previous implied women as little more than fodder for men’s sexual appetites, it now is put into service in order to facilitate the open expression of a sexual identity from behind the safety of a mask.
To be clear, I think that’s awesome; but like all awesome things, it is not without its problems. In this case, the line between anonymous expression and exhibitionism is razor thin at best. What is presented as artful and considered frequently suffers as a result of compositional inconsistencies necessitated by the requirement for anonymity.
This beautiful photograph is one of the few that manages to be rigorously consistent in its composition while also employing the frame edge as a means of masking idenity. A slight shift in perspective, however, would have almost certainly transformed it into something either nakedly exhibitionist or visually impoverished.
It for that reason I think most photo dabblers would do well to borrow from the book of Bellocq’s brother by making a thoughtful image first and then blacking out faces and identifying features later.
The above reminds me of a pinup photo. Or, more accurately perhaps: anti-pinup.
With all my bitching about how so many photographers cut up women’s bodies with slipshod framing, you would think I would be goddamn all over the pinup. (Can you recall one that doesn’t include the entire body? I can’t.)
But there are two things I find troubling about the pinup tradition. The first doesn’t apply but it lends weight to the second: in a pinup the model’s acknowledges the spectator’s gaze.
Miss Damage, while clearly aware of the camera on her, ignores it.
However, taking an existing form—in this case the pinup—and replacing its various components with their appositives does not a new form make; In other words: you can include all the thin, alluring, pierced beauties with a progressive take on body hair—and please do not misunderstand me, Miss Damage is so hot you have to spell it haute—but the result will invariably mimic the original form.
What bothers me is the inherent problem of pinups (as well as anti-pinups); whether intended or not, they serve as a metonymy wherein the whole of an individual’s sexuality is represented by a part, which is most often their sexualized body.
As much as I hate on pornography—it rarely struggles with this problem. Depicting the sex act is fundamentally narrative; it has a beginning, middle and end; demands choices with regard to the inclusion or exclusion of a mass of details.
As Nabokov noted: God is in the details.
Edgar Degas After the Bath Woman Drying her Feet 1886
I do not buy the rationale behind the quip: “if you can’t masturbate to it; it’s art.”
Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye is widely acclaimed novel featuring jaw-droppingly pornographic interludes. I read it in one evening six years ago during which time it proved necessary to bring myself to orgasm not once, not twice but thrice.
Am I implying an ‘Impressionist’ painting was intended as masturbation fodder? Well, yes. And not because I have used it as such or think you should—okay… that last part was a lie: I have and you should. But how is what was good enough to assist Degas in keeping the ‘paint’ from drying up in his brush no longer applicable to the question of how images affect us?
First, it seems egregious to delimiting this as not pornographic as well as devoid of sexuality in the same breath. It wasn’t like Degas’ politics weren’t bass ackwards and historical those with similarly conservative worldviews have a tendency to be a wee bit sexually repressed. But even if he was secretly a horn-dog holding a candle behind a glass plate negative so as illuminate some hot harlot blowing an aristocrat, the level of detail would have been at a level comparable what these days passes for soft-core porn.
I think there is a similar desire to show something taboo but the way Degas goes about it is just a little too sublime to at first glance see how devilishly clever he’s being. Yeah, the thought of a woman in the bath makes you think you might go all tingly down there if you focus on it too much. However: instead of sensationalizing the prospect he treats it as the mundane domestic scene it is.
The first thing I notice—and full disclosure I am as far from an expert on Parisian social mores in mid-to-late 1880’s as one person can get without expending effort—it would be unlikely for such a young woman to live alone. Why do I say she lives alone? Look closely—where is she drying her feet? Yes, she’s sitting in a chair covered with what seems to be a robe but since when are bathrooms big enough for armchairs and closets? There’s no indication of a tub and this looks like a bedroom or sitting room. It follows that she has finished her bath and moved out of the bathroom to sit in the chair and finish drying off. It could be husband isn’t home or she is a working girl but either way she is demonstrating behavior only becoming of a damp trollop.
Damp trollop or not, with the feminine touch of the robe laid over the back of the chair the space—although not probably her apartment in real life, becomes hers. If we stop to question whose things these are, the only conceivable answer is hers. However it happened, she has a space of her own. She has things and she does things just as we do. In other words, we are looking at woman who is, like us, deeply human.
The ‘we’ to which I keep referring is a reference to the fact that his work is without question voyeuristic. She is unaware of being watched by someone unseen to her.
There are three more things I have to mention about this image:
First, Degas began experimenting with photograph in the early 1880’s. It is impossible to not see the effects of that experimentation here: how the extreme foreground and background become increasingly blurred as you move away from the woman’s back—the point of focus; causing the scene to appear as if through a lens with a wide aperture/shallow depth of field.
Second, models always talk about never knowing what to do with their hands. Look at this I am reminded of something that I was told repeatedly in film school but I did not until now grasp the meaning: always motivate an action. In this case, the exaggerated act of drying her feet occupies her hands in a way that is already relaxed and natural. (The way her left arm is tucked between her leg and chest is my favorite thing.) I suspect when I model mentions she does not know what to do with her hands, the real fix is not to imagine things for her to do but ask instead: what is she to be doing in the scene.
Finally, this work stands out from the rest of Degas’s oeuvre; so much so that although I find Impressionism highly distasteful, this is one of my favorite paintings ever.