Archive for the ‘Iconography’ Category
The front cover of the newest issue of Time Magazine shows a mother breastfeeding a boy who appears old enough to make himself a sandwich. The caption on the bottom right hand corner of the photograph seeks to clarify the boy’s age as it reads “Jamie Lynne Grumet, 26, and her 3-year-old son”. The assumption that the boy is too old to be breastfed is the taboo that the magazine is addressing head on with this photograph by Martin Schoeller. The Washington Post writes, rather cunningly, ‘Time cover milks shocking image’.
The Time cover is of course not the first product of visual culture that seeks to provoke the viewer in such fashion: the Australian hit TV show ‘The Slap’ similarly portrayed a young mother feeding her 4-year-old boy. The boy’s constant nagging for his mother’s breast milk creates an intriguing subplot in which the husband feels increasingly ostracised and alienated from his wife. The alcoholic father seeks to overcome his jealousy with a different type of oral fixation by continuously drinking beer throughout the entire eight part series. Crucially, in a brilliant portrayal of the deeply psychoanalytical (and Freudian) conditions unfolding in the show, the father is drinking beer straight from the bottle, not too unlike a child drinking milk from a bottle.
In contrast to the quasi-documentary style of ‘The Slap’ however, the Time cover is more ‘shocking’. But how? Firstly, the photograph seeks to confuse the viewer with regards to the boy’s age with one crucial detail: the boy is standing on a chair. The boy thus appears taller, and by extension, he appears older than he actually is. To illustrate that point I would suggest that the knowledge of the boy’s age is far less provocative than the photograph. In addition to that, rather than having his eyes closed or looking at his mother, the boy, rather creepily, looks towards the camera. This gaze back to the viewer implies an awareness of the camera, an awareness of a person looking at himself, and ultimately, an awareness of a person looking at himself sucking his mother’s breast. The boy’s gaze implies so many layers of looking that it could easily be confused with the gaze of an adult. This is the visual trickery in this image, that even though the boy is only 3-years-old, his height and his knowing gaze make him appear much older. His army style trousers and grey top, clothing perhaps associated with a teenager, further confuse a perception of his age.
I would suggest that the ‘shock’ lies less in the boy sucking his mother’s breast than it lies in the mother. The clue for this can be found in the headline of a blog on the Slate website: ‘Why Is This Attractive Woman Breast-Feeding This Giant Child?’ The headline implies that if the the woman was ‘unattractive’ then perhaps we wouldn’t be wondering why she is breastfeeding her child. The way the photograph was taken ultimately feeds into the perception that this woman is not simply a woman, but she is an attractive woman: her clothes accentuate her slim body, she hold her right hand on her hips much like a model in a fashion shoot, and, like her son, she looks knowingly straight into the camera.
Three behind the scenes photographs from the shoot supplied by Time’s Lightbox blog indicate that the magazine and the photographer studied classical representations of breast feeding. In spite of the visual references taped on the wall of the photo studio, the photograph that was eventually chosen for the cover has few similarities with any previous form of representation: the mother does not look lovingly at her child, she does not hold her child, nor does the child hold her mother. Standing tall, the mother does not adopt a bodily position associated with nursing a child. Ignoring all these signifiers of motherhood, in the photograph, the mother does not look like a mother. This is perhaps the real ‘shock’ in the photograph: it lacks a history of representation, a history of visual references or precedents. The photograph is, in the true sense of the word, iconoclastic: it metaphorically breaks the classical and idealistic image of mother and child.
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‘Have I seen these images before?’ one might wonder while looking at Stan Douglas’ new series of photographs currently on display at the Victoria Miro gallery. Presented under the title ‘Midcentury Studio’, the meticulously constructed black and white photographs appear to be taken in the 1940s and 50s by using old-fashioned photographic equipment and techniques. Despite being photographed in the last couple of years, the luscious digital fibre prints presented in this exhibition effectively allude to a bygone era.
In carefully constructed mise-en-scène, Douglas assumes the role of an anonymous (and obviously very gifted) press photographer covering subjects as diverse as film stars, the underworld, sports, fashion and other newsworthy items. Rather than being linked by their diverse subjects, the photographs in this series are linked, firstly, in the way that they are constructed and produced, and secondly, in the way the photographs appear to tap into the viewer’s collective memory. Although Douglas presents entirely manufactured scenes from his imagination, one cannot help but connect many of the photographs with real life events, and, by extension, with photographs of such events. In this psychological trickery, Douglas apparently borrows from well-known American ‘masters’ of photography such as Irving Penn or the illustrious Weegee.
In these imagined scenes, Douglas’ attention to detail is staggering. This becomes most apparent in the photograph ‘Hockey Fight, 1951’ which depicts two men brawling as they are surrounded by various onlookers in a hockey stadium. The photograph was taken from a high vantage point alluding to the privileged viewpoint of a sports photographer witnessing the incident from the press box. This quasi-voyeuristic viewpoint into the audience reveals a surprising number of narratives within the image: a little boy, undeterred from the fight, attempts to pick up a bag of popcorn lying on the floor, a young woman’s calm facial expression stands in contrast to the violence she is witnessing, the presence of another woman, though absent in the image, is signified by an unfinished knitting project resting on a bench. From the convincingly old-fashioned clothing of the various people in the photograph to the design of the popcorn bag, Douglas appears to indulge in details that could easily be taken for granted.
In many ways, ‘Hockey Fight’ stands out from the ‘Midcentury Studio’ series as a metaphor for Douglas’ body of work as a whole. Here, the hockey fight refers to Douglas’ cultural background as a Canadian, though more specifically, his cultural background as a Black-Canadian and the potential tension of growing up in a largely white middle-class environment. Apart from such a literal interpretation, ‘Hockey Fight’ also alludes to a slippage between the observer and the observed. Importantly, in the photograph it is two members of the audience who become the spectacle on the sidelines of the hockey game. In addition to that, by incorporating the onlookers’ gaze in the image, Douglas turns the observer of the fight into the observed in the photograph. The image functions as a powerful allegory for the exchange of gazes a spectacle (or a spectacle within a spectacle) entails.
Many of the photographs on display in this multi-facetted exhibition incorporate notions of play, game, trickery, even magic. In the first instance, the games in Douglas’ work relate to the ability to ‘fool’ the viewer in believing that the images on display are historically, politically and culturally accurate representations of the past. Yet the game also refers to a broader agenda as many of Douglas’ photographs appear to represent social microcosms governed by specific conventions, which can easily be disrupted and subverted.
Stan Douglas: Midcentury Studio is available as book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
Catherine Opie’s photographs of the lesbian, gay and transgender community, recently on display at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, are meant to challenge the viewer: at the very least they put into question stereotypes about gender, identity and sexuality. Yet inasmuch as the comparably small black and white prints from the ‘Girlfriend’ series exhibited in the front room of the gallery appear to challenge preconceived ideas about gender, Opie also taps into a lineage, or a heritage of images from a surprising number of sources.
Amongst photographs that show Opie’s friends in various stages of undress, there is one image, titled ‘Pig Pen (Crown of Thorns), 1995′, of a young woman whose head is punctuated by, what looks like syringes while small drops of blood pour down her face. The portrait has a startling resemblance to a representation of Jesus Christ, blood streaming down his face from the Crown of Thorns. Opie’s photograph is a brutal contemporary reference to Christ’s suffering. Unlike religious iconography however, in which Christ’s suffering is inflicted by others, the pain endured by Opie’s subject is self-inflicted.
The desire for self-harm is also evident in ‘Julie (Play Piercing), 1994′ in which a young woman tilts her head back as her face is punctuated by needles. Rather than looking in despair, Opie’s subject appears to enjoy the pain, the head tilted back even signifies a level of ecstasy. In other words, pain is pleasure and vice versa. Other photographs, too, seek to challenge any preconceived ideas about (sexual) pleasure, pain, aggression, lust and desire.
‘Angela (Crotch Grab) 1992′ for instance is a smart visual allegory on the clichéd image of male sexuality: here it is not a man, but a woman, who is grabbing into a tight pair of jeans, evoking the classic Rolling Stones album cover for ‘Sticky Fingers’. While the subject’s legs are slightly apart and her hand aggressively reaches down her jeans, the viewer would be forgiven to assume that the level of aggression more closely represents a male form of sexual dominance. This is, I assume, precisely Opie’s point: she plays a visual game with the viewer, tricks him or her to revert to assumed forms of representations, while flipping these assumptions upside down. Much like pain turns into pleasure, equally, man turns into woman in Opie’s photographs.
A more recent body of work, titled ‘Twelve Miles to the Horizon: Sunrises and Sunsets’ and on display at the back of the gallery, is physically, conceptually and even aesthetically somewhat removed from the provocative images Opie is best-known for. Commissioned by the shipping company Hanjin, Opie photographed sunrises and sunsets while at sea on a cargo ship traveling from South Korea to California. Misleadingly referred to in the press release as ‘landscape photography’ (despite the lack of ‘land’ itself), Opie followed a precise methodology: all photographs on display are in vertical format, in colour and with the horizon line in the centre of the image. While Hiroshi Sugimoto’s well-known series of photographs ‘Seascapes’ might share an aesthetic proximity with this body of work, I believe Opie’s ‘Twelve Miles to the Horizon’ is conceptually closer located to Allan Sekula’s epic project ‘Fish Story’. Like Sekula’s seminal work, Opie’s project can be read as a critical investigation into consumption, global commerce and trade. Neatly placed at the top and bottom end of the gallery space, only two photographs actually show a part of the ship itself. This has the effect that the rectangular gallery space alludes to the structure of the ship, while the viewer is invited to gaze at the horizon line as universal signifier for the sublime.
Catherine Opie: American Photographer is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.