Archive for January, 2013
Olivia Arthur’s photobook Jeddah Diary is a fascinating insight into the role of women in Saudi society. Photographed over a period of two years, Arthur reveals aspects of this culture which usually remain hidden from the West and indeed within Saudi Arabia as well. In that regard, the first image immediately sets the tone for the rest of the book. It shows a huge wall built next to a swimming pool of a private property. In the accompanying text Arthur writes: ‘The first thing I saw in Saudi were the big empty roads and houses with impossibly high walls. Everything seemed to be happening somewhere else, out of sight, behind closed doors.’ In the book Arthur thus metaphorically climbed behind this wall to depict lives that would otherwise remain out of sight.
In the first instance, Arthur photographs women, sometimes by themselves, sometimes in a group with other women who mostly wear variations of the abaya, the black cloth that covers the body, and the hijab which covers the face. In these photographs, their individuality is signified by various fashion accessories that are visible: sunglasses, handbags, or perhaps the shoes. The marginalized role of women is dramatically symbolized in a photograph that shows the packaging of an inflatable swimming pool. The package design, aimed at a Western market, depicts a white middle class couple happily playing with their children. Yet on the shelf of a Saudi store, the woman (bikini-clad one must assume) has been painted over with thick black paint. The recent scandal in which all women featured in an Ikea catalogue were digitally erased is part of this complex discourse.
Beneath the veneer of strict laws that seek to socially and physically separate men and women, Arthur equally represents a culture that creatively adapts to these laws. As the accompanying text explains, one photograph shows the digits of a phone number flashing in the window of a car. Whenever the male driver passes a car driven by a woman, the digits light up, encouraging total strangers to call the number and meet up. Behind the tall walls of private properties, Arthur is thus witness to parties and social gatherings were women wear Western-style clothes for a night out, dance and socialize with their friends from both genders. The colourful lights from a disco ball and the bare legs of a woman dancing stand in complete contrast to the mythical conception that these things do not exist in this culture.
Arthur’s role as photographer becomes that of an agent: switching between a medium format and a small format camera (depending on the accessibility of the subject), she frequents exclusive parties, girls’ bedrooms, social gatherings or private beaches. Inasmuch as Arthur reveals elements that would otherwise remain hidden, she is extremely careful in protecting people’s identities. While photographing sometimes-spontaneous reactions and perhaps revealing a little too much of a subject’s face, a number of photographs are actually re-photographed at a slight angle.
Similar to Jorma Puranen’s series Shadows and Reflections, the light reflecting on the surface of the re-photographed print neatly disguises the female subject’s face. Yet here the subjects are not hidden or metaphorically painted over, but rather, their physical presence and their individualistic identify constitute the very subject of the photograph. III Originally published on photomonitor.co.uk.
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Happy New Year to all my readers. As a recap of 2012, allow me to self-indulgently list the ten most visited posts on the Visual Culture Blog.
By far the most visited post was my article on the controversial TIME Magazine cover photograph, depicting Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her three-year-old son. Jeff Miller, a regular reader of this blog, contributed a nuanced and thought-provoking additional reading of the image in the comment box.
This post analyses a set of images by the legendary photojournalist James Nachtwey who was commissioned by Vogue Magazine to photograph the Assad family. Since Syrian opposition groups were brutally massacred by Assad’s regime, the ill-conceived Vogue article and it’s propagandistic images have magically vanished from the archives.
Written in response to a series of American Apparel ads that were banned because they were deemed ‘amateurish’, this post seeks to investigate the relationship between vernacularism and sexualization in advertisement. This is a topic I habitually return to as advertisements continue to push against the boundaries of cultural and social taboos.
The post deconstructs a photography by Samuel Aranda who was awarded the prestigious World Press Photo award. The image shows a Yemeni woman holding her injured son.
Hisaji Hara’s highly voyeuristic photographs are a visual response to the work of the French Polish painter Balthus. The post seeks to deconstruct the work of Hara not only in relation to Balthus, but also in relation to very specific visual (e.g. optical) aspects of the photographic apparatus.
The post highlights an ‘attack’ which took place at a Larry Clarke exhibition in Berlin. The image in question, printed on canvas and hanging high above the entrance of the ℅ Gallery, shows a woman’s pubic area – or ‘shame zone’ as it is called in German. With reference to Germany’s complex and troubled history, the post highlights the fact that Berlin has always been at the forefront of interrogating cultural norms of taboos.
The irony of a top ten list featured in a top ten list. As part of the New York Art Book Fair, I was amongst a group of ten online curators who were asked to highlight ten Japanese photobooks.
This post is an in-depth critique of the much visited Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican in London. Photography, one of the key artistic mediums at the Bauhaus, embraced because it stood for modernity and renewal, did not receive nearly enough recognition in this exhibition.
This exhibition review highlights the magnificent work of the young Swiss-Guinean artist Namsa Leuba. Straddling the boundary between photography, art and anthropology, Leuba’s images are self-referential, mythical and highly ambigious.
Last but not least is another exhibition review, investigating the large-scale photographic works of Massimo Vitali. His super large and extremely detailed photographs of people bathing in the sun are as much voyeuristic as they represent a type of fetishism – the fetishism of focus, detail and photographic accuracy.
I am looking forward to provide you with many more blog posts in 2013.
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