Julie. NY. 2017. Leica M6.
Juxtaposition as commentary
Ryan McGinley – Oliver (2005)
With how much I take the piss out of him, it would be easy for someone to conclude that I hold McGinley’s work in contempt.
It’s altogether more complicated than that–and the above image has shifted my opinion some.
He works primarily in color–and has a damn solid eye for it. For all that appears to be going on above and all that those appearance suggest and elide w/r/t what happened prior to this/after this moment, the more I look at it the more I’m convinced that the instinct behind this is the orange polish on her toe nails outset against the tiles.
McGinley is not just associated with color work–he work is entirely preoccupied with youth–which leads to a potent and frequent criticism of his work as an uncritical, inherently ageist and cliche celebration/commodification of younger being better if not at least more attractive.
It’s a critical tact with which I agree. However, I think my mixed feelings on his work up to this juncture, have more to do with the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever really felt the criticism is necessarily supported by the work and more that the work seemingly goes out of its way not to acknowledge that such a reading is possible.
It’s something that has always bugged the fuck out of me. I mean: I’ve always read it as McGinley’s work being about immediacy; photography is a medium heavily steeped in immediacy so what would you put in front of your camera if you wanted to focus laser-like on immediacy? What’s more immediate than being young?
However knee-jerk, it makes sense conceptually. But it feels to my as if an artist can grasp that, then he ought to also be able to preempt an obvious criticism by varying the work in such a way so as to complicate facile criticisms. And that just isn’t the case.
My reaction has always been–we’ll that’s lazy/sloppy. Except neither of those words really fit the work.
I also struggle with his editing. Once you’re attuned to his obsession with immediacy, his work clearly turns a very tight orbit around that fixed point. Beyond being in color, his photos/images almost always feature motion–which can run a gamut from 2011′s phenom Parakeets to pieces that seem haphazardly composed, poorly focused and motivated by capturing an unrepeatable moment.
That’s the other thing that I’ve had trouble working out–there are scads of photographers doing more groundbreaking things with color. I can’t think of anyone working with a body of work as thoroughly singular as McGinley. (And by that I was brought up that one of the things that makes a work of art such is a nearly impossible degree of difficulty in recreating it by a similarly able technician–for as much as I loathe the unrefined aspects of his work–I would not want to be tasked with recreating it.)
Back to the orange toenails for a minute: if you buy that the work hinges on immediacy then perhaps color is largely the impetus for the work–since working via photography and putting young people in front of your lens pretty much ensures the result will suggest something about immediacy of experience. (It also reconciles a lot more of the otherwise questionable editing choices.)
I recently encountered 2005′s Kiss Explosion for the first time. It’s almost certainly that prank where you take a swig of soda and then kiss someone while spitting the liquid out. The image definitely evokes that but it also evokes, well, snowballing. (It’s most likely not snowballing as that would be rather a lot of semen, methinks.)
And it occurred to me that perhaps the criticism about deification of youth is camouflage.. or perhaps, stated a better: a red herring?
It feels to me as if sex is always hovering just beyond the periphery of the work. Yet, when it does enter the work head on, it’s presented as interesting but no more privileged than anything else presented as interesting in the work. Further, sex as presented as sex regardless of the gender presentation/identification of the participants.
In other words: it’s all queer af.
But go back to the photo above: I’m arguing that it’s about the color of her toenails. The title is Oliver, though… and you sort of have to believe Oliver is holding the shower head against his abs. Is he getting ready to join in the action behind him? And if so, how? Or has he already participated? And if so, how has he participated? Or, is this all staged for the camera?
Either way it is interesting how often in his work, McGinley seems to be hiding queer coded sex positivity right there in plain sight.
Looking at this my first response isn’t to pedantically point out that it features backlighting.
As I am sitting here struggling to wrap my head around how to write about it, I am uncertain where else I might start.
See the problem isn’t noticing it’s backlit; the problem is focusing on the backlighting emphasizes technique over a more organic handling of the unity between concept and execution.
And what I want to talk about has more to do with the dynamics between the technical and the conceptual in this photograph.
Two days ago, Amandine spent a lovely day sharing time and space as well as practice our respective crafts–me trying to capture the interplay between color and fog along the coast, her drawing and painting dunes, people walking in the distance and the subtly variegated beach grasses.
Driving back we were talking about music. She asked me what I thought of Joanna Newsom. I said I had liked The Milk Eyed Mender. Then back-tracked that I was only really familiar enough with the track Sadie–which I adore.
My ex hated both Björk and Newsom because of their eccentric vocalizations. I felt the same way about the former–at least initially (she’s subsequently become one of my all-time favorite artists) but I wasn’t familiar enough with Newsom, so I sort of missed her work.
Amandine was telling me about how amazing she was and how I really should check her out. But she offered a caveat that one of her favorite of Newsom’s songs contains a mistake.
See the song Emily contains the following lyrics:
That the meteorite is a source of the light
And the meteor’s just what we see
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee
And the meteorite’s just what causes the light
And the meteor’s how it’s perceived
And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void
That lies quiet and offering to thee
She has it backwards, Amandine insisted. I mean it’s poetic and beautiful and brilliant but it’s the other way around, really.
I don’t know enough about it to comment but I do know–subsequently having listened to the album it’s on several times–it doesn’t matter, I don’t think.
Like maybe she created the lyrics based on being told it the wrong way around–which contributes to the meaning of the song, actually. Or it’s a John Donne-esque metaphysical metaphor of the soul–which again, contributes to the song. Or, it’s a rejection of science–again, something that fits with the song.
Whether it’s right or wrong, it works. And that’s kind of a rare and wonderful thing.
But it occurs to me that backlighting is the wrong thing to focus on in the photo about for the same reason it’s a mistake to get caught up in whether the rhyme about the difference between meteors and meteorites is right or wrong.
When I used to teach lighting workshops I would show kids how to set up a quick and dirty three point lighting setup. I’d explain that this is the key light, this is the fill light and this is the back/rim light. I’d then show them what each looked like independent of the others.
I’d then turn all the lights back on and explain the rationale behind this setup–it’s a stylization of how we experience light in the world around us. Like: if I’m standing in a field facing a camera and the lighting is behind the sun is behind the camera relative to my position–unless it’s straight on (a poor strategy if you’re trying for an aesthetically pleasing image because the light is too bright and people naturally squint when the light is in their eyes), then there’s one side that is incrementally brighter than the other. So natural light presents with a key and a fill light.
But light also falls on the ground behind where I am standing in said field. Yet, that light is like the fill light except it reflects enough light back towards the camera that because the body separates the light reflecting off the ground from the camera, it contributes a dimensionality to my body.
The point is–what we see we see only in relation to the way light interacts with it. The only source of light in this is presumably the window behind the shower curtain and the subject.
It’s interesting that backlighting combined with other lighting contributes dimensionality–yet we normally think of backlighting in terms of silhouetting. There’s a surprising amount of dimensionality in this. That’s partly due to the one point perspective imposed by the tile.
But the visibility of the mirror and the reflection of the hand, as well as the white sink gives a stark solidity to the image.
It’s a mistake to say: this is backlit and then just leave it at that because it’s how it’s backlit (how this is used formally and contextually to foster a sense of dynamic unity to between generally opposing elements).
An exquisitely refined work. Impressive and thoroughly unforgettable.
Emily White – Untitled (2016)
My life is so weird sometimes and the truth is I don’t even really think about it. It’s sort of like stepping onto a scale to check your weight everyday. If you do it–which I don’t recommend–then any weight loss or gain is gradual. You don’t think you’re making any progress, even though (over time) you are. (Similarly, when someone sees you in person and you haven’t seen them in a while and they’re like, gurl, you’re hair has grown so long! And you’re like, oh yeah, I guess it has… I see it every day so I lose track.)
(Bear with me, I’m taking the scenic route back to the above image.)
In the weird thing that is my big gay life I’m actually internet friends with my favorite photographer. Mostly she shares pictures of her adorbs daughter, we kvetch about sexist men/how much bullshit this patriarchal society is, etc. She’ll remind me that I still need to see that Diane Arbus documentary she’s been recommending to me for months. I make sure she doesn’t miss new Björk videos when they drop–we both are perpetually stumped on the question of whether we want to be Björk or be with her…
Anyway, I showed her Emily White’s work and overall she was underwhelmed/dismissive. We’re usually so in sync–it was strange to have such differing perspectives.
One of the things I’ve always been adept at is explaining why I appreciate something. It’s rare that I’m ever going to say: I don’t know why, I just love it. I can usually give you half a dozen extremely concrete reasons even if you put me on the spot about it.
With White–for example: there’s a sense of narrativity. A bit like Lauren Withrow–whose aesthetic I dig but the impetus in her work is always so unequivocally narrative driven that I often fell that the work is more aspirational than accomplished. Like it’s open ended. Withrow cultivates a young, haute and rebellious cast of characters because she’s hoping that the people she’s making her work for will relate and sort of super impose their experience and expectations upon the characters in an effort to relate to what they are seeing.
It’s a narrative tact. But is it a good one? I’m decidedly in the detractor camp. I have this idea that every story contains a moment where if that moment is photographed you can even though you only see a fraction of a second in time you can extend a cinematic timeline in your mind that reaches forward and backward. You can tell how you arrived here and discern a bit of what is going to happen next. It’s a bit like Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment–which I’m also a detractor from: it’s all too fatalistic for me. I prefer the latitude for various interpretations in Vermeer’s decisive moments that use universal tropes and familiar experiential anchor points to suggest a tonally cohesive narrative arc with multiple potential readings.
Withrow’s characters are effectively cardboard cutouts for what she feels are her audiences projections. Therefore it’s only narrative post-active engagement by the viewer. Whereas Vermeer is narrative to start.
Back to White: I find her work audacious because whether it intends to or not it presents a critique of both Withrow and Vermeer’s implementation. Intentional ambiguity and a range of universal and certain interpretations are replaced with uncertainty. (And I think there’s something that could be written on how she’s effectively deconstructing the Lynchian conflation of the surreal and the oneironautlical as interchangeable–they aren’t and shouldn’t be but Lynch has made a spectacular career out of playing fast and loose with the blurring of those boundaries.)
In her work, we know how we got up to the point in time we are asked to bear witness to. How? Well, if you’ve followed Deviant Art and Flickr famous young women photographers–the angst, alienation and efforts to exercise individual autonomy all resound. But what makes the work effect is that it avoids the ubiquitous exhibitionism for something that reminds me of something I read recently in a novel titled Black Mad Wheel (the second novel from Josh Malerman who wrote the incredible Bird Box–which I highly recommend; BMW, is largely and unfortunately execrable.)
Some cultures believe that when you take a photo, you’re saying this period, this phase, is over with, [s]o if you enjoy your life as it is, mourn.. Because now it will be as it was.
There’s this weird way that White’s images are cut off from the history which clearly informs their construction. And although there is not a sense within the image of anything sinister, the prevailing feeling of uncertainty with regards to where things go from here contribute both a beauty and terror to the bodies she trains her lens upon.
White’s work is–I’ll concede to my friend–not yet fully formed. And it does suffer from nearly a decade of angsty undergrad grrrl art. But if you can look past that, there is something ridiculous precocious in her work. Also, it’s nuttier than squirrel shit and probably has more to do with her going to a WASPy liberal arts college, but I swear to fucking Christ that I’ve been to several of the locations she’s uses in her more recent work. I know I haven’t but the sense of familiarity is utterly unnerving–and I like it very much, that feeling…
Source unknown – Title unknown (20XX)
Writing for this project, I frequently feel like my primary form of interacting with images is a this-isn’t-a-good-photo/image-but…
I mean beyond my generalized feeling that I am a bit of a broken record sometimes, this this is something about which I’m always very self-conscious.
I mean I think one of the disservices we do in teaching photography (or, hell, more broadly any creative discipline) is that there’s a laser-like focus on the canonical.
It’s not that I don’t think that shit is important. It absolutely is–indispensable, in fact.
It’s all sort of incestuous–in a biblical sense: the genealogies of influence flow in a clear, unbroken fashion back through history. It’s clean and full-up-to-the-gills with masterpieces of unadulterated genius.
So what’s the downside? I mean if one is trying to learn, the presumption is that one wants to learn from the best. Unfortunately, in my experience this has a limiting effect in a number of ways. If I study only greatness and my own work isn’t great (yet) then I either to be a total asshole narcissist or suffer from a certain degree of oblivion. (After all, when comparing your work with canonical masterpieces, your work begins at a stupendous disadvantage. And that disadvantage can cause you to lean on the work that’s already been done (I know so many emerging artists who view certain artists in such an uncritical light, that it’s almost as if their relationship with the work is less hippie looking to expand their mind and more blasted addict chasing the next crest.)
Truthfully, I’ve learned just as much from perusing shitty work as I have from obsessing over the greats. And it’s for that reason that I think every serious photographer should make a point to critically interrogate bad work in the same fashion they do good work.
I mean the above is not a good image. It’s been blown up far beyond the point of disintegration. It’s blotchy and ugly. Yet, even if I knew where it originated, the original is probably not that much better. Unless you’re going to go to the trouble of setting up highly precise, orchestrated lighting–or you’re one of those lucky shits with a bathroom that has a window (and therefore: some natural light)–then the light is going to look like shite.
Despite looking awful, this does do a number of things extraordinarily well. First, according to the letter of Instagram law, this is an image that is Instagram safe. (Though, I’ll admit it would probably be taken down.)
Whether or not the intention of the author was such is immaterial–and given how bad the image is, it’s unlikely that the motivations approached anything like I am about to suggest: but it doesn’t matter because if the images reads a particular way, it reads a particular way.
It reminds me of the line teachers always used to throw around to my classmates about dressing in a fashion to leave something to the imagination. the idea was you’ll be more attractive/alluring if you show off less instead of more. (The creepy implication being that how you dress is an open invitation for others to imagine things about your body.)
The same mentality is frequently utilized in distinguishing porn from erotica and erotica from art. Porn tends to leave little to the imagination; whereas erotica is somewhere closer to the middle and art allows for the assumption of chastity.
For the record, I’ve always instinctively objected to this framework. I think it’s all a great deal more muddy (and therefore more interesting) than that.
But there is something in the whole admonition to leave something to the imagination that does actually inform as to the essential nature of pornography: it’s like they teach you in Writing for the Screen 101–unless you can see it on the screen, it doesn’t go into the script.
This relates to the ‘visual’ nature of the ejaculatory orgasm (and why most porn centers around male arousal and sating)–it’s visibly demonstrable. (Here we run into the inverse of my previous argument that art students should study shitty images, pornographers should study art history, as well: because you can actually depict non-male ecstasy.)
(As a tangential note although I can’t find them now: there are a handful of popular tumblr porn gifs that I do think are exceptions to this notion: despite being close-ups–which I’m not especially fond of–they focus on the pulsing muscular contractions associated with orgasm. In one, a hand stimulates the clitoris of an Asian woman. She audibly squeals as her anus and perineum spasms. In others, ejaculatory contractions can be seen at the case of the erection.)
Now–lest anyone forgets–this isn’t a good picture but the decision to present it in such a way that it is both entirely clear what she is doing but the viewer is not afforded an unobstructed view of the typical erogenous zones. Also, the fact that we don’t do the coded porn thing of zooming in on the woman’s oh-face (a la Albert Pocej’s staid Orgasm series) and instead are presented with the tableau sans access to erogenous zones and within context, this scene is decidedly about female masturbation via orgasm.
In other words, there’s no way the viewers can make this about themselves. Unless they think that perhaps she is fantasizing about them–which is, in itself, radical as to do so demands the recognition that she is not an object and has her own individual agency, volition and inner life (to which the viewer has no immediate access.)
Penthouse – Presley Hart [de-saturated] (2014)
One of the most brilliant things I’ve ever heard about color vs B&W in image making was Mark Steinmetz’s observation that it’s like two sides of a street on a sunny afternoon: the side in the direct sunlight is ideal for B&W and the side in shade is ideal for color.
This image was originally in color. The former image is actually kind of heinous. The two tone cyan of the textured wall and the magenta skin tone–enormously overexposed by a strong overhead light source–renders the image positively garish.
However, some smarty loaded it into Photoshop, de-saturated it and the result emphasizes texture–falling water from the shower, water droplets on wet skin and the crater pocked wall. A simple edit that takes something that was crap and transforms it into something that is visually interesting as well as arresting.