Archive for the ‘Photography and Visual Culture’ tag
We all know this feeling: you need to scratch your back but neither your left nor your right hand can reach the itchy spot. In an attempt to soothe the itching, you are involuntarily contorting your body into a position that is appears desperate and awkward. Such acts of corporal contortionism are running throughout the work of the Japanese photographer based in New York Satomi Shirai. Shirai’s references to bodies in a twisted position draws comparisons to the American photographer Bill Durgin. Both Shirai and Durgin appear to break from traditions of representation in their unusual, sometimes comical, depiction of the human form. While Shirai photographs her subjects (quite possibly herself) in the familiar environment of her New York apartment, Durgin, on the other hand, choses the clinical space of a studio. It is due to the barren surroundings that Durgin’s representation of the body appears almost pseudo-scientific, as if to test what is photographically and humanly possible. Durgin’s photographs are a visual continuation of a small but distinct photographic project that began with John Coplans, Joel Peter Witkin, or maybe even Andre Kertesz.
Beyond the confines of the studio, Shirai’s representation of the body tells a larger narrative that also incorporates aspects of gender identification. In one photograph a young women can be seen on weighing scales, her body leaning forward as she holds on to a sink and a door knob. The resulting effect of this contortion is that the subject’s weight is partially suspended. The pink and the baby blue plastic bag hanging off the wall are neatly mirrored by, what appears to be, two pregnancy test packs in the same colour next to the sink. Is the subject weighing herself after realizing that she is pregnant? Is she disavowing her bodily transformation by suspending her increased weight? Unlike the male photographers before her, Shirai confronts us with a complex narrative that also addresses the politics of a representation of gender.
Above all, Shirai’s photographs are about her own experience as a Japanese expat living in New York. Here, the contorting body signifies the struggle of fitting into a vastly different culture. In one photograph this struggle is represented in a balancing act in a kitchen interior. The books leaning over to one side on the top shelf in the kitchen are reminiscent of the movement in a ship. In a sense, the subject fails to control the environment around herself.
Another photograph depicts in an almost violent matter a topsy turvy world of visual paradoxes. Only on closer inspection does it become apparent that the subject’s elbow is actually bent in the opposite direction of what the viewer might first assume. The dichotomy between appearance and actuality referred to in Shirai’s photographs of the body signifies a type of cultural contortionism only an outsider could identify with.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
A consistent theme running through Hellen van Meene’s photographs is gravity, or, as it appears, its lack thereof. In one particular image by the Dutch art photographer, a young girl appears to levitate as it leans against a wall. The harsh sunlight coming through the windows falls on the girl’s white gown, resulting in the photograph being overexposed at her feet touching the ground. The visual effect of levitation is caused by the lack of visual information in the overexposure, but also, because the girl appears taller than her childish facial features might first suggest. Yet van Meene quickly debunks the perception that this is a girl in a woman’s body by also depicting the edge of a door frame to the side of the image as a reference point. It is within this framework that the viewer gets an understanding of the child in relation to the rather decrepit surroundings of an attic. In the photograph van Meene appears to tap into the visual iconography of the classic horror film ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), where, in a key scene, a girl possessed by the devil is floating above her bed. The levitating body in the attic, despite the bright warm light shining through the window, ads a haunted aura to van Meene’s photograph.
The seemingly dated and unkept interiors in many of van Meene’s photographs of the body also establishes a binary opposition between the ‘old’ surroundings and the ‘young’ age of her female models. It is in relation to the surroundings that the juvenility of the subjects is further emphasized. The raw interiors and the dramatic light falling through the windows also creates a form of visual realism similar to that by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Many photographers make use of such a visual device: the British photographer Tom Hunter amongst others uses a Vermeeresque style of lighting in his photographs. It appears, that van Meene is alluding to a type of ‘Dutchness’ established in art and visual culture.
The lighting in van Meene’s photographs, also with a reference to the double meaning of the word ‘light’, further underlines the central trope of levitation and defiance of gravity. Here, gravity and the lack of gravity helps to situate the young models in the context of teenage identification and a coming-of-age. Levitation in van Meene’s work further signifies the condition of the bodies that she photographs: developing, awkward, growing, not yet complete.
An inevitable comparison can be made with the American photographer Anna Gaskell who also appears to play with gravity as a visual allegory for the ambiguous stages of growing up. While Gaskell’s photographs are situated in the dreamlike condition of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’, van Meene’s photographs are situated in a more realistic circumstance of the everyday. A number of van Meene’s photographs thus allude to (real) bodily sensations: a girl holds her head under a hand dryer, another girl lets her hair float in a bucket of water.
These photographs of the body and of a corporeal experience have the uncanny effect of grounding van Meene’s levitating bodies in the realm of the real. This relationship between a humanly impossible condition of floating in midair, and, at the same time, bodily sensations of the everyday, creates a tension that runs throughout van Meene’s body of work. On one hand, her subjects appear to defy the logics of gravity, and on the other, they are engulfed in the seemingly most banal earthly sensations – sensations that equally tap into our very own childhood memories.
Hellen Van Meene: Tout Va Disparaitre is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
In Nadav Kander’s photographic series ‘Yangtze, The Long River’, depicting China’s largest and culturally most important river, bridges are a re-occurring theme. In above photograph the huge but yet unfinished structure of a bridge represents China’s economic emergence. The two sides of the bridge also signifies two ideologies, communist and capitalist, the meeting point of which is yet to be discovered. And while the state is seeking for an agreeable convergence for such paradoxical ideologies, it is the people, throughout Kander’s work, that appear overwhelmed by the (state) structures they are surrounded by. Here, Kander also appears to focus on an encounter between ‘new’ and ‘old’ China: the wires hanging off the giant bridge are mirrored by the fishing lines held by the people below.
The structure of the bridge also evokes the proscenium arch located above a theatre stage. Following this visual allegory, the people standing below become performers to Kander’s camera further underlining the dominant trope of grandeur explored in the photographs. The Long River, as the Yangtze is called, requires structures that can cope with the unpredictability of nature. The bridge thus appears to represent the desire of the state to control nature, but also, to control its people. The most extreme form of such control can be seen in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest electricity producing dam in the world. The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky already photographed the surroundings of the Yangtze in his photographic series ‘Three Gorges Dam Project’ in 2002. While Burtynksy concentrated on the destruction of communities and the subsequent displacement of people caused by the building of the dam, Kander, on the other hand, chooses to depict a landscape that is yet to be completed.
Despite Kander’s fascination with the built environment which, in turn, vigorously expresses China’s economic might and aspirations, the photographs represent a fragile world. In above photograph, a bridge segment appears to balance precariously on a single pillar at a few hundred meters altitude. The scaffolding similarly suggests that these structures, as enormous they might be, are built on fragile ground. The folkloristic powers ascribed to the Long River threaten the very structures built by the state. It is perhaps a pessimistic interpretation of Kander’s Yangtze, that the bridging of ideologies will require more than concrete and steel.
Nadav Kander: Yangtze, The Long River is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.