Source unknown – Title unknown (201X)

The ubiquity of built in flash systems (point and shoot devices, smart phones, prosumer dSLRs, et al.) has fostered an understanding of the flash as a tool to increase illumination in low-light situations.

A clearer way of putting it might be to say that a flash is increasingly treated as a key light thus relegating ambient light to the function of a fill light.

This is in keeping with magnesium flash lamps of the late 19th century and the flashbulbs of the early-to-mid 20th century. Slowly, studio photography appropriated the flash in service of painstakingly orchestrated lighting design. There are and will continue to be outliers–Diane Arbus, for example, used a flash in a great deal of her exterior shots as a means of separating the subject from the background.

But strictly speaking if the purpose of a photograph is to freeze time, then a flash is meant to freeze motion. (Consider that most flashes have a maximum shutter sync (on the slow end) of 1/250th of a second. For those who aren’t die hard shutter bugs: ignoring film speed and aperture, it’s usually only possible to take a picture hand-held–without camera shake–down to about 1/30th of a second with an SLR type system. Rangefinders give you a bit deeper of a basement; I can operate handheld sans noticeable shake with a rangefinder down to about 1/8th of a second.)

I’m being overly persnickety and pedantic on this point because the flash here is not only the key light in this scene. It’s a motivated key light–it’s easy to think that there’s a lamp overhead and that’s the source of the light (even if an overhead lamp would never give off that much or that sharp of a reflected illumination).

The motion that is being frozen is not a sudden, dynamic motion–stretching the languid, perhaps even somewhat tender moment of this pulling of foreskin into the realm of the timeless and infinite.

It also reminds me of William Eggleston’s The Red Ceiling due to the similarities in the way the use of flash interacts with the composition and the way in which how what is seen (it’s aesthetic) is emphasized over what is seen.

insidefleshartificial pleasure (2018)

At present, my brain is a hectic, swirling mass of chaos–my first semester as a graduate art student is spinning up and I’m not as lucid as I would prefer. (As a result: things with this project will be fairly scattered for a couple of weeks–thank you all so much for bearing with me.)

I don’t have a clear piece to offer you about this image. I mean: I freaking love it. But as I’m looking at it trying to figure out what about it I want to point to as being the thing or things that draw me to it–it’s the usual: a simple, straight-forward conceit, executed in a matter-of-fact fashion; also, I both wish it was an image I made; or, even better: I wish it was an image of myself.

Looking at it the only place my brain keeps returning is to a point a member of the sculpture faculty made about how he feels that one of the biggest hang-ups contemporary artists have with struggling to fit their concept within a particular form–when the concept would become for less complicated if it were perhaps applied to a more complimentary form.

His point was that there’s a natural tendency to play to our strengths as creative folks. But there are times when our ideas will be expressed more clearly in a form with which we are perhaps not so well versed.

And I think the inverse of that notion applies to insideflesh–I would be very hard pressed to point to work with a better synergy between concept and execution (form, aesthetic, tone, resonance of meaning).

Özlem Altin – Untitled (Opression) from Glow in the dark installation (2014)

One thing folks who interact with me AFK know about me is that I’m rarely at a loss to explain my impression of something and to explain in excruciating detail why I had such a response.

I suspect this is something by which frequent readers will be less than surprised… however, the truth is while I generally do know whether I dig something or not, I’m not always correct in my initial classifications (for example: last year’s stand out funeral doom release Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper was something I didn’t like until I suddenly did and then I was total enamored with it) and I’m not always able to offer as definitive of an explanation as to why I like something than I would prefer (that’s one of the reasons I’ve kept up this project–to force myself to do something that isn’t always easy or comfortable).

I like this. A lot. I’m not exactly sure how to explain that reaction though…

The harsh flash is definitely suited to this sort of scene. If you’ve got a good TTL setup that’ll do the flash math for you so you don’t have to think about it working in low/limited/difficult lighting situations in monochrome will generally always look appealing. (There is the fact that the flash is properly metered off of the subjects back instead of the floor–which makes the floor look even more dingy.)

I’m typically not fond of the inclusion of distracting detritus in a the frame either (the boxes in the upper portion of the frame and the chair leg protruding into the upper right corner are a touch distracting).

I think it’s the gloves resting on the subject’s shoulder that are what I keep tripping over. They seem flat–almost like patches or bandages. Then there’s the discoloration: you might think it’s some kind of pattern except that it doesn’t match between the gloves; suggesting the gloves are wet or otherwise soiled.

There’s also the configuration. It could be that there are two right hands pressing into her shoulder–two folks comforting? Or: two folks holding/trying to push her down?

Also: it could be one person–left hand palm up resting knuckles down on the skin while the right hand is palm down. (A configuration which suggests both intimacy and control–which feels to be especially in keeping with the duality of the specific absence of a title and a parenthetical contextual addendum.)

I’m not sure I know how to connect all the dots between this impression and what commentator Lieneke Hulshof has written about Altin’s work:

The installations of Özlem Altin are based on her extensive photographic
archives. She presents her own photographs alongside those of other
artists, her own drawings alongside objects she has found and her own
videos alongside photocopied pages. The collection exposes her
fascination for representations of the human body. ‘In fact I am always
searching for the moment at which a sort of transformation or change
takes place, for instance, when a body no longer represents an
individual, but has become more abstract, almost object-like.’ These are
images of people who cannot be recognised, who are hiding behind
something: an averted gaze, a body that has almost dissolved into its
environment or become one with its shadow. Altin’s work emphasises how
our perspective is never permanent, but always fluid, reproduced by
means of constantly repeated re-interpretations of past events. She
shows how all of us constantly re-interpret our own memories.

But it does feel like the mix of intimacy and oppression is actually very much what this piece is interrogating.

Alex SothUntitled from Looking for Love (1996)

I saw Blue Velvet for the first time over the summer of 1997; I was 19 and I HATED it.

I was somewhat familiar with Maestro Lynch at that point; I’d seen The Elephant Man, Dune and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me–I enjoyed the former, was underwhelmed by the second and the sequence from the latter in The Pink Room is one of my favorite scenes in any Lynch film.

And even though I disliked Blue Velvet, I could admit that my issue with it had less to do with it’s quality and more to do with it’s tropes.

The primary reason I loathed was more a function of my perception than anything on the part of the film itself. By that I mean: I saw Pulp Fiction something like seven times while it was in theaters. It had thrust me deeper into ‘art house’ fare and I watched everything (not an exaggeration) that had any sort of link to either Tarantino himself or was categorized as being Tarantino-esque. (I spent a lot of time watching a lot of rubbish.)

My quarrel with Blue Velvet was that I had seen almost everything in it in other things. I felt that it was unoriginal.

I know, I know… it was partly because it looked so thoroughly modern and fantastic, I failed to realize it predated most of the stuff I thought it was ripping off by almost a full decade.

Luckily, I was forced to watch Eraserhead for a class and was thoroughly transfixed by both how weird it was/how beautifully it was made to look. I saw Wild at Heart (mixed feelings), The Straight Story (I feel like this and Eraserhead are the most truly Lynchian as far as it pertains to aesthetic vision), Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. (LH and MD both share the same structural form–a Möbius strip and I’ve always felt like in the context of the latter that Adam Kesher is a stand-in for Lynch himself and that LH is the movie that The Cowboy insists Kesher make but MD is the film he really wanted to make in its place.)

(We don’t discuss Inland Empire–I have interacted with Lynch twice in my life and both times I’ve started arguments with him; the second time I may have told him the second hour of IE was entirely unnecessary and that had he still shot on film he would’ve made a better project for having to make decisions instead of throwing things at the wall and then leaving it up to the audience to decide whether or not they stick…)

Anyway–and I swear this all pertains to Soth (which he says rhymes with ‘both’ but why would you not say rhymes with ‘oath’, I mean really…)–I actually did go back and watch Blue Velvet again. The second time I was blown away by it. I may be partial to Eraserhead and Mulholland Dr. will likely go down as his crowning achievement but really, Blue Velvet is a cinematic masterpiece of truly rare acuity.

How all this relates to Soth is: I am not a fan of his work. But I try to remain mostly civil as far as this project–like I despise the work of Gregory Crewdson (spoiler alert: he’s not particularly well liked by those who had a hand in training him or who are his ostensible peers) and Fox Harvard and Brooke Shaden are godawful… but mostly I keep it constructive.

I have actually changed my opinion on Soth. He work doesn’t especially resonate with me but I now see that what I read before as vapid vacuity, is actually much closer to the form of fine art photography rendering meditations on disaffection and loneliness banal. I don’t really think this is exactly the best tact but it is a code I can read now.

And I think that’s really what I’m getting at: if you are doing the work you are supposed to be done correctly, i.e. with the appropriate degree of rigor and attention, then you are going to realize frequently that you’re wrong more than you are right.

I know this blog comes across as persnickety and I realize there are things I say that seem preposterous–but this is a way I’ve found of pushing myself to do the work.

I was wrong about Soth. It doesn’t mean I’m gonna rush out and buy his work it just means that I had not yet found the right photo to draw me into his work. The photo above was what I needed.

9mouthUntitled from Instax Love series (201X)

The Sino photographer identifiable by the moniker 9mouth is hugely problematic. (I won’t repeat myself: you can read my previous thoughts on his process here.)

Still he does manage to produce some truly breathtaking photos–seemingly in spite of his galling misogynist bombast.

Here the interplay between the flash and the semi-reflective wallpaper renders an incrementally overexposed skin tone–not only flattering but also steeped in an almost tonal patina of late night in a seedy love motel vibe.

The model’s expression is an inscrutable defensive wall–is she bored? annoyed/impatient? judgmental (of the photographer? Or the viewer? Little of column A, little of column B?)

I get the sense that this is very much front loaded with ambiguity. There is a very compelling feeling of intimacy; yet, also a sense that the intimacy is forced–not exactly contrived or coerced but conditional somehow.

That conditional consideration and that it is effectively what makes this image so successful is more than a little discomfiting. (At least to me.) So while I am willing to acknowledge that this is an astute image–I think it functions in a fashion that operates in a sort of beyond good and evil approach to broader issues of consent and visual representation. Another way to say it might be to say that if mainstream porn shifted its model to produce art, it would likely come off much like this.

Julie van der VaartUntitled (2015)

A good percentage of folks reading this likelyknow that almost a month ago (at this writing) Ren Hang–one of the most ‘internet famous’ photographers–took his own life.

Now, I’m not now nor have I ever been a Ren Hang apologist. However, as–ostensibly a fellow photographer–who also suffers from fairly debilitating depression, the knowing in this case has not been exactly easy to process.

What I know of the man behind the work suggests he would vigorously disagree with my characterization of his work as ‘audacious’ and ‘brash’. It seemed very much like he was struggling to feel some sort of connection, any sort of connection (however ephemeral) to the world around him.

And on those grounds, he certainly succeeded–insofar as his photos presented a seamless stylistic imperative of casual confrontation and conceptual extremity.

My gut feeling is that history will likely not be especially kind to his work. And I would be fine with that were it not for a handful of things I think he did that were of crucial importance.

I can’t look at his work and not think of Terry Richardson’s bright strobe with the subject frozen against a milk white background. Hang unquestionably ‘wore’ it better and to more stunning/less predatory effect–harnessing the immediacy of a snapshot and anchoring it to a fine art formalism.

It’s unlikely that he intended to comment on questions of pornography vs art but there’s a way in which his work bucks the trend to which Rebecca Solnit points about how the balance between highlight and shadow is–in pornography–skewed away from the more typical human experience of sexual intimacy.

I have no way of knowing definitively but there are a handful of up-and-coming image makers that seem to have internalized the fetishized conceptualization of technique in Hang’s work and applied it exquisitely to their own work.

I’m thinking here primarily of Ao Kim Ngân [aka yatender], who for my money is one of the best upstarts actively making new work. But also van der Vaart. The hyper-bright, edging on over-exposure vibe is reminiscent of Hang–especially given his exterior, night work. However, the technique folds together seamlessly with the concept. The pose is at once confrontational and demurely modest–hiding as a sort of revelation.

Although I have objections to cutting off body parts with the frame edges and think there are far better ways to preserve anonymity without decapitation–this actually is an exception to that rule. There’s a logical consistency to the presentation here.

The point is I think Hang’s work is a long way from done with the world of fine art photography and the milieu of internet famous image making.

Sebastián GherrëFirework cum (2016)

Revisiting the first instance of Gherrë’s work I posted, I realize I equivocated a bit too much.

Further encounters with his work have caused me to warm to his so-blunt you can only call it heavy-handed and acontextual style.

I’m not usually a fan of the throw everything at the wall and see what sticks approach. (My nemesis when I was a photography MFA student had exactly such an approach–in the interest of full disclosure, she’s one of two people in a class of 17 that is paying her bills with her creative endeavors.) But with Gherrë there’s a sense of both openness to experimentation that is damn near playful more often than not wed to a commitment to an unflinching and omnivorous eye.

It’s a little too pat to compare his work to someone like Ren Hang–an artist whose is equally out and who works with similar prolific profusion. (In fact, lately I find myself rather put off by what I feel are Hang’s tendency to be casually shallow, mean-spirited and cruel in his work.)

But it is an interesting comparison, in so far as Gherrë‘s photos show ever sign of becoming less focused on provocation and more focused the inherent provocation in moments presented without context and therefore rely upon success or failure with what the convey about immediacy.

The above print is actually enormously clever in it’s composition. The viewers eye follows the boys white inner right thigh down into the frame at a diagonal. A lesser talent would’ve sought a bilateral top-to-bottom symmetry, but they inner left leg juts off at a different angle, pulling the dick in hand off a rigid top-to-bottom mid-line. (The frame is bottom heavy, but the angle of the blanket manages to tie everything together so that it doesn’t feel unbalanced.)

There’s also the way the slight curve of the boys erection and the way it forms a sort of ever so subtle s curve from the base of the cock through the spurting line of ejaculate–allowing for one of those serendipitous moments where things line up almost magically and the lead semen globule floats perfectly aligned with the boy’s suprasternal notch.

And honestly, this is the closest I’ve seen to a photo I’ve been trying to make for almost a decade now.