Anna CladoniaVarious Portraits* (2010-2015)

I’ve been thinking about Emily Dickinson a lot lately.

Not due to any connection between It Sifts From Leaden Sieves and the fact it’s snowing balls outside right now. (Although I am hardly oblivious to the synchronicity.)

But, on that note, why do we teach Dickinson to middle schoolers by introducing them to the myriad complexities and nearly infinite scope of her work via the aforementioned poem and A Narrow Fellow in the Grass? It’s no wonder I hated her work until I revisited it in my twenties and immediately fell in love with the work and the incredible woman who made it. (Seriously: the think-question you tend to get asked on first dates about what person living or dead you’d most want to have dinner with, yeah… Emily Dickinson all the way. Even if I have grown to strongly prefer Bishop’s body of work.)

I promise… this seemingly self-indulgent ramble does relate to Cladonia’s devastating photographs–bear with me a bit longer.

My objection to the way Dickinson tends to be taught is that it tends to emphasize the allegorical (nature imagery) over the more metaphorical work. You’d do much better to start with the exquisite, goth-before-goth-was-a-scene I Felt a Funeral in my Brain… Couple that with the fact that the window to Dickinson’s bedroom overlooked a cemetery and even twelve year-old’s can easily grasp the incisive eye which uses words to describe the landscape of a morbid imagination.

However, once you dig into Dickinson–I mean really dig in–one line of hers takes on profound resonance: “my business is circumference.”

It’s an odd claim–especially from a woman who never traveled further than a day away from the house in which she was born. Yet, the acuity of her perception and her openness to the world and experiences in her immediate surroundings taught her in a fashion not unlike that of a storied traveler.

Cladonia exhibits a similarly circumscribed scope. Her photos are ostensibly portraits–largely shot in ramshackle Moscow apartments. But within those narrow parameters there’s evidence of an encyclopedic familiarity with the history of photography.

Beyond the essential Russian-ness of her work, the astute viewer can easily recognize winking references to virtually every Russian image maker I’ve ever posted on this blog–but especially to Igor Mukhin and Evgeny Mokhorev.

But there’s also grace notes from David Hamilton and Duane Michals.

Having and wearing your influences on your shirt sleeve doesn’t necessarily make for good work, unfortunately. But what Cladonia manages is less homage than a point of loving departure–she takes a great idea that resonates strongly with her and makes it her own.

In and of itself–that’s the mark of a truly great photographer. But there’s also the way she embraces and eschews obtrusive image grain, her spare and gorgeous use of autochrome-esque color (I + II). And that’s not even getting into her revelatorily explicit handling of masturbation and sexual expression.

Source unknown – Title Unknown (198X)

I consider it a damn shame that I can’t trace exact attribution for this image. All I know is that it seems to have been a popular set shot in Russia circa the 1980s.

Its #skinnyframebullshit is so egregious it’s laughable. However, setting that point aside this and the rest of the images from the aforementioned set are disarmingly charming.

I love how he’s naked and she’s clothed. Her exposed labia are a little too dimly lit to comply with porn expectations–instead I read it as reading as the boy going down on her prior to the scene in the above image (which appears to be supported by the set).

I love how he’s stroking her hair and her visual preoccupation to the proceedings in the majority of photos from the set.

Taken together the set suggests a curiosity the mirrors the rapt, passionate explorations of the couples. Nothing about it feels staged, artificial or contrived.