Andrew KaiserTitle Unknown (201X)

I dig Kaiser’s work. His B&W stuff is frequently good, sometimes great. (This image of Gwendolyn Jane from last year will hold its own against just about any other image made that year.)

He seems to prefer film and although I’m probably reading into it too much he seems to possess a better grounding than 95% of the quote-unquote fine art nude photographers out there–in that he appears to own that something isn’t just art because some schlep asked a a naked woman to stand on a bounder in a picturesque landscape.

I love this image, for example because there’s a stillness, a calming quiet around it. It feels uncontrived–the viewer is allowed to glimpse something that they probably wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. But the emphasis isn’t on the transgressiveness of the seeing but on documenting the immediacy of the experience. The current rippling around her fingers, the watery undulations of her reflection.

But the thing I like best about it is that her anonymity is preserved. No, it doesn’t look entirely natural–it’s clearly been burned in quite a bit. But the point is it is unequivocally bad craft/technique/etiquette to use the frame edges to decapitate a subject. It’s inherently objectifying, first off. Second off, it’s lazy and inexcusably sloppy. Yes, including the entirety of the body presents a litany of additional challenges that aren’t always easy to negotiate; but the result will always be superior to the alternative.

Lucas FogliaPatrick and Anakeesta, Tennessee from A Natural Order series (2007)

If you’ve studied photography at all, viewing Foglia’s work–besides being an utterly joyful proposition–is likely to be a bit like Where’s Waldo; except instead of finding the ambulatory nerd decked out in a red and white striped shirt, you’ll be registering the effing myriad of prominent photo-historical influences.

There are two influences that I think are especially relevant to consider in the context of this image: Sternfeld’s Sweet Earth–which might best be seen as an initial survey upon which the series which contains this image (A Natural Order) is a more focused examination with a decidedly humanistic approach; and Fred Hüning’s ground breaking handling of nudity as entirely common place, even as it forms a spectrum from incidental to overtly sensual.

On a personal note, this image in particular resonates with me fiercely. The reasons aren’t something I can share in their entirety due to matters of privacy but I’ve maintained in a steadfast fashion that I have no desire to reproduce. There are two factors informing this notion:

  1. The world is fucked up and bullshit and it seems to me the ultimate act of human arrogance and hubris–not to mention cruelty–to bring a life into this world as it is.
  2. Like most folks who come of age in staggeringly abusive environments, I worry that I am too fundamentally damaged to be a good parent. Not to mention irresponsible, immature and selfish.

However, during an intense conversation with a very dear friend–friend is nowhere near strong enough a label, perhaps ‘lover’ is closer were there a way to subtract explicit sexual intimacy from the term–she noted that she wants to have a child because while she understands and agrees with my analysis, the world isn’t going to improve unless people who care are willing to risk stepping outside of their comfort zone and try to build a better future. And the simple fact is: a better future requires the continuation of the lineage of people who believe in gentle dreams.

And in that moment and still in this moment, I felt a longing I cannot name and the only expression I can give it would be to have said to her: if it was with you, I would want a child, too.

Life is strange, yo; life is strange.

Source unknown – Title unknown (201X)

Working on this blog for the last four years, the seed of an idea has taken root, grown. More and more, I am of a mind that there is something not unlike a visual grammar which applies to image making.

I’m not sure it’s fully formed enough of a notion at this point and I’m probably going to disavow what I’m about to bumbling attempt six months down the road but here goes:

I think when one looks at an image one does so with a question–whether conscious or not: what does this tell me?

In the case above, the image seems fixated upon itself as ‘pretty’. (The initial response to the question what does this tell me? is rarely more than a cursory, instinctive response–in other words, it’s acritical.)

What follows my own notion that this image is ‘pretty’ are questions about genre and form that occur in tandem. This is ostensibly a portrait. It’s presentation is very studio-esque; however, removed as it is from a studio, it is also a landscape.

This second point is heightened by the way the image emphasizes physical location in a manner similar to strategies codified by pictoralism, i.e. the off-balance composition and the way light is subtly sculpted–there’s likely a bounce board of some sort reflecting the light so it accentuates the model’s face.

At this juncture, I am inclined to ask why her shirt is unbuttoned. She’s sitting in the shade, so it’s not to get a tan. And of all people I understand the instinctive desire to be naked in nature; but her pose suggest she is about to nod off.

The Baby’s Breath she’s collected in a basket explains her presence–and also reminds me of John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia. Further, her outfit is strange. The turquoise of her skirt seems very modern and clashes with her blouse, which could–with a certain squint–strike one as provincial.

My own inclination is to look closer to make sure I’m not missing cues that might, if not rememdy, then better focus my questions. But there are no further answers and instead I begin to notice all the things that diminish this image’s overall quality: the way the bounce that’s directing such flattering light onto her face also is highlight the tangle of low hanging limbs over her left shoulder, the weird motion blur at her knees contributing a sense of tension which contradicts everything else in the image.

I walk away from viewing this with the idea that the image maker had something in mind more along the lines of the gorgeous work Owen Gray has made with Dolly Leigh but either failed to achieve it or (more likely) neglected to communicate the true impetus of the image to the model.

Sally MannThe Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude (1987)

In my admittedly short lived travels in fine art photographic circles, Sally Mann tends to be merely tolerated in public while she is derided and/or dismissed for her ‘excessive sentimentality’ behind closed doors.

So it’s not surprising to witness her wondering aloud in HBO’s excellent documentary What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann whether or not she’ll be ‘pilloried’ by the critics when she exhibits her new project.

It’s a telling scene. Mann’s observation demonstrates a keen understanding of the disparity in her reputation between consumers of culture and the cultural gatekeepers/overlords.

The accusation of ‘excessive sentimentality’ is a palpable hit. The sentimental lies at the foundation of virtually everything she’s ever made. (Except maybe the cibochromes–which if you haven’t witnessed, you are truly missing out on some of the most staggering color work since Eggleston.) 

The cultural gatekeepers/overlords aren’t so patient with sentimentality given their unquestioning adherence to the syllogism dictating that the sentimental is to art as Kryptonite is to Superman.

It all strikes me as too convenient. Yes, Mann’s chosen medium is photography. But that doesn’t mean her lineage can only be traced back through Gowin to Callahan and the Bauhaus movement. Mann belongs equally to the tradition of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau both of whom are comparable sentimental and adored for the fact.

A better criticism might be to draw attention to her blemished, unnecessarily dark printmaking.

Or better yet, acknowledge that–as the aforementioned scene illustrates-even when anxiously doubting herself and her work, she plays the conceptual art shell game masterfully.

What makes her work great is she always predicts criticisms that will arise from the work and uses the work to refute them in advance.

What makes Immediate Family the greatest work she’s ever likely to produce, is its naive, unblinking curiosity that didn’t manage to see the snake until it had already stepped on it and still somehow avoided getting bitten.

It’s impossible for me to narrow that work down to a single favorite image. But this image of Emmett is easily one of the top five.

Scarlett Hooft GraaflandTurtle (2013)

While in Amsterdam, I ended up at Huis Marseille instead of FOAM. (If this seems improbable, let me reiterate “while in Amsterdam…”)

My mistake turned out to be fortuitous.

The entire gallery was taken up by The Rediscovery of the World, a group show featuring work from up-&-coming Dutch image makers.

Huis Marseille is a sprawling, disjointed space. Despite this, the work was arranged to ensure each of the fourteen artists had their own space & that the work flowed logically from one space the next. Intrusions of the curatorial hand were minimal and always concise. Any accompanying information set aside from the work and limited to pertinent biographic details, conceptual/process related notes only.

I love the photographic medium but I am not always enamored with ‘fine art’ photography. Not the case here. I preferred some work more than the rest (In particular: Juul Kraijer, whose work gave my goosebumps goosebumpy and made me feel all light-headed & tingly), but a facet of each of the artists work managed to resonated with me.

For example: I can’t pretend I understand Scarlett Hooft Graafland’s work. Her schtick seems to be going to exotic locals (in this case Madagascar) & using naturally occurring material to create oneric imagery. She definitely has mad chops when it comes to capturing supersaturated color color: the consistency of her blue skies is wild and the yellow in We are not your Enemies is fucking insane.

Turtle stuck out like a sore thumb next to the rest of the work, though. When everything else is about color intervention in the landscape, the appearance of what seems the photographer herself, nude and kneeling next to a muddy river with a tortoise shell on her back.

The image isn’t entirely out of character with the rest of the works in the exhibit; but it’s hardly in line with them, either. Seeing it as relating to the other work, suggested a narcissism–the Westerner who travels to foreign lands and in a well-meaning effort to present the indigenous people’s as they are, ends up co-opting a culture to which she has no right.

I am not sure my instinct was off, so much as it jumped three to five steps further than it should have. Graafland made photos of herself nude, bent over the peak of roofs in Iceland almost a decade ago. Turtle like represents a continuation of that practice.

I feel like there’s a trap here, in a way. Seeing a bare ass, there’s a tendency to see the frame through a lens of sexuality. I am pretty sure that is not what the work is about; still, there is an undeniable element of narcissism. And that complicates things further–making the question of the sexualized body inescapable for this image.

Interesting enough, this image passed across my dash maybe a week ago. Echoing Turtle’s pose it seems strangely less sexual than the above, at least to my eye. I am not sure why that is, but I think it’s probably not just me.