photoparley

discussing photographic art

Tag: new york

Jonas Cuénin

Jonas Cuénin is the editor-in-chief of Camera Magazine, a bilingual (French and English) publication first founded in 1922. Born in France he currently works in New York. Here he talks to us about his writing style, the importance of feeling and touch in art, his influences and the difference between the New York and European photography scenes. He is also a photographer and you can see his work (editorial and personal) here.

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Can you tell us about how and why you became a writer?

Originally, my first writings appeared on a blog when I went traveling in Asia about 10 years ago. My parents said my writing was good and I decided to start studies in journalism. As for writing about photography, it began 5 years ago when I started to contribute to the specialized website L’Oeil de la Photographie (The Eye of Photography), founded by the great editor and journalist Jean-Jacques Naudet. He’s one of the last people to have met and been friends with lots of masters of the 60ies to the 90ies, such as Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton and more. In the photography circle, especially the New York one, he’s a highly respected person for his generous methods and humour. He’s the one that gave me a career by offering me the chance to fully express myself through writing.

Why photography?

I don’t really know. I think a bug hit me at some point. I was born in an artistic environment and when I arrived in New York 6 years ago it naturally became the art form to embrace. I first became a photographer, which I still am, and later a writer of photography. Though I remember one decisive moment: MoMA was having a Cartier-Bresson retrospective and I wrote an article about it. I interviewed Peter Galassi, former head of the photo department at MoMA and photographer Elliott Erwitt. These were my first interviews in the photography world. When I came back to the office of the magazine I was working for at that time, it just came to me that I wanted exactly to do this: write about photographers and their work, be close to them, help them, give them exposure.

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Your writing, while informative, feels fictional and poetic. How did you develop this style and what does it mean to you? Who are your influences?

As you point out, I try to mix facts, a bit of fiction and humble poetry. Why? Because I believe touch is the most important thing in art. If you don’t touch the audience with art, you’re useless. And if the intended audience is small, you’re just a bit less useless. Photography has become a language spoken by almost the entire planet, if you don’t make yourself understandable by everyone, in a simple way, even if your ideas are complex, then you’re useless. I mostly believe in authenticity, empathy, rawness, political engagement, intimacy, accessibility and memory. So when I write about a photographer or his work, my obsessions are both to make the reader discover the artist’s personality and make him feel the work without seeing it. It demands to develop a strong proximity with both the photographer and the photographs. There’s a wonderful writer called Thomas Burgel, that writes about music in the French magazine Les Inrocks. I remember one of his articles about an album by Animal Collective where I could feel my body want to dance on the electro minimalist music he was describing. You could imagine him dancing himself and writing at the same time. I try to do the same when I describe photographs and I like to write while listening to music, it develops my sensitivity. It depends on the work I’m writing about, usually the type of music goes with it: new wave on a Nan Goldin article, jazz on a Jill Freedman one, classical on a Dirk Braeckman one. Fiction? I also have a passion for the fantastic, science fiction and the invisible. My absolute reference in fantastic photography is Chris Marker’s photo novel La Jetée. It’s unusual to put fiction in a journalistic article but if it makes the reader imagine, I’ll take this liberty. As for other influences in photo writing: Hervé Guibert, a photo critic for Le Monde who use to write only with feeling and atmosphere, Brigitte Ollier from Libération, Vince Aletti from the New Yorker. And other writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Boris Vian, Baudelaire, Salinger etc. To finish with touch, I’d like to quote this sentence told by photographer Duane Michals to Hervé Guibert in a 1978 article entitled The necessity of contact: “We must touch each other to stay human. Touch is the only thing that can save us. Usually the most important sentences have only two words or less: I want, I love, excuse me, touch me, I need, thank you.”

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What kind of photography do you personally enjoy? Does this determine the work you feature in Camera magazine?

I like pretty much every type of photography. Diversity is a leitmotiv and it directs the editorial line of Camera. Historically, the magazine had this identity since its foundation in 1922 and I try to keep it. We build issues around specific themes such as intimacy in photography, documentary and new technologies, the influence of surrealism in photography etc. Camera can present traditional humanistic work in one issue and complex contemporary artists in the next.

One specification of the new version of Camera is that we dedicate about 30 to 40 pages to only one photographer, with a long article and a small retrospective. So I try to pick up one established photographer that has an exhibition or a book, or a photographer I found who is not recognized enough, and then this type of photography directs the rest of the issue.

How do you write about the old photographers that a lot of people already know about? (Walker Evans, Diane Arbus etc) What are the aims and ambitions of Camera?

We don’t usually write about the established masters (especially dead ones) unless there’s a big event, like with Nan Goldin. In that situation, I would feature the new pictures and try, in the article, to go beyond all that has already been said. I’ll try to discover anecdotes or describe their daily life, their tastes, their habits, their home, their emotions, for example. Camera’s main ambition is to discover the photographers “better”, make the reader enter deeply into their world.

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Can you describe the current photography / art scene in New York for us?

I think the photography scene in New York is, in the structure, similar to the European one: exhibiting both vintage and new things. But it’s certain that there is, due to the artistic emulation of the city and the number of photographers living here, a bit more of freshness. There are certain things I don’t see that much in Europe, such as humour, fun or eccentricity. In New York, it’s omnipresent. There’s this obsession to be more and more creative, to push the boundaries of the medium. But the main difference is the debate of ideas: in Europe, debates tend to be more and more intellectualized and they can become boring. Though I always find the conferences at Le Bal, in Paris, very useful: talking about contemporary work but in a simple way, with historical points, descriptions and poetry, thanks to its wonderful director Diane Dufour. In New York, debates are now about things that touch every photographer, amateur or professional, and there’s this awareness of the image world we’re living in. The New York photo world knows that something needs to be done. People talk about new technologies, new forms of expressions, museum curators sit at the same table as Instagram or Snapchat developers, social media sociologists, other image specialist or entrepreneurs. Everyone tries to find compromises, learn from each other, to be productive. The Tech Photo world is already hitting the art world and I have the feeling that the Europeans need to wake up and talk to these people. Millions of images, some as good as ones made by pros or established artists, are being sent every day and it’s a data to understand and take care of.

How would you advise artists to write about their work?

I usually like to read essays that are very personal. I need to feel something deep in the words attached to photographs. More formality is fine but words can be used to make the photographs stronger, so you better use them entirely to add something. Poems or short stories are good additions. But it has to be good of course, it’s a risk.


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Images by Jonas Cuénin

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Angela Kelly

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From the series Sundays at Sea by Angela Kelly.

Angela Kelly is a photographer, lecturer and a well regarded writer on photography.  Originally from Belfast she is currently based in New York where she is Associate Professor in Photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY.

This interview takes us through her experience of re-thinking documentary photography as well as speaking in depth about a few of her projects.  Considering her position one might be forgiven to presume she would do this in a detached and academic manner, however she confronts us with disarming honesty in a personal and tragic family history.   Angela has used photography to bring elements of the past into the present, to make the political personal and to help make sense of certain events. By entwining different ‘languages’ Angela’s research engages immediately with reality yet retains ambiguity and the fictional qualities of an artist.

Sharon Boothroyd:  Conceptual Documentary is a term currently used to describe a new kind of documentary.  I was interested to find you define some of your work in the category The Conceptual Document.  Could you describe what this term means to you?

Angela Kelly:  Let me begin by backing up a bit to give you a sense of the trajectory I’ve traveled as a photographer working towards this idea of the conceptual document.  My earliest instinct as a fine art photographer in the 70’s was to question the validity of a documentary photograph as a simple transparent reflection of reality. In the series of street photography images made between 1972- 1992 for example, I made work that was conscious of the gap between what lies in front of the camera and its manifestation as an image on paper. In early work, I addressed the question as a female street photographer of how I might engage with that genre differently. Street photography then as a genre was male orientated and often voyeuristic.  I embarked on a journey reveling in the pleasure of the formal image as both a printed surface made complicated by shadow, reflection, framing and depth of field, as well as engaging with the idea of what it means to interact in a public space as a female photographer.   My desire was to push and pull the shift from the so-called ‘real’ towards the illusionary and back again, all the while maintaining a practice on the ‘edge’ of documentary language and fine art photography.

Documentary photography as a practice for which I have tremendous respect was singularly frustrating to me since it presupposed a conceit of the photograph as an objective window onto the world.  The question I asked myself was, can I create work that both recognizes the indexical power of photography while framing the subject within a visual language that contests those assumptions?   I could default towards pure abstraction but instead chose to maintain one foot on the ground between the poetic and the documentary.  My ambivalence towards objectivity in photography led me to seek out not only theories of representation, but to attempt to build upon my own knowledge based not only on an awareness of theory and conceptual art practices in general but on my actual visual practice.  By the end of the 70’s, I had thrown myself into questioning documentary practice while desiring to reframe it and to bring it to another place. My first public attempt to do this was through a major curatorial project for the Hayward Gallery in London in 1979.  As a member of the photography panel of the Arts council of Gt. Britain, I researched and developed a thesis for my contribution to the exhibition, Three Perspectives on Photography co-curated with Paul Hill and John Tagg. I was eager to bring into focus some of the pertinent work made by women photographers who were not only addressing the concrete lives of women as subject but also whose methodology offered up a more complex way to understand the nature of documentary language. As such, my curatorial selection for the exhibit included a conceptual book maker, a feminist-Marxist filmmaker, a working photojournalist, a feminist activist whose use of vernacular family photography brought both boos and hisses and great acclaim from the art press, and a portrait photographer who grew up in the East end of London observing her working class friends transform into heroic icons based on images drawn from popular women’s weepies of 50’s and 60’s.  The language of postmodern deconstruction was not yet the vital part of British cultural discourse in photography departments in universities it was to become.  Victor Burgin was instrumental in leading that change with his work in the late 70’s. There was a great deal of anxiety expressed both in response to the critique of the loss of documentary value of the image, and the newly emerging (mostly un-critical) fine art practice for which there was also a great deal of hostility.  This shift away from the documentary towards fine art in British photography coincided with a new beginning in my art and teaching career. In 1980, I accepted a position at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago where the only rule was there are no rules.

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From the series Chrysalis by Angela Kelly.

Experimentation drove both students and faculty work there alike but there was little or no interest in engaging in the subject of the critical document or the politics of representation at that time.  My frustration concerning the document continued to surface.  I taught a class inspired by Allan Sekula’s writings, which I titled, ‘Re-inventing Documentary.’ It was another step on the long journey towards articulating my vision as an artist of a new critical practice that was grounded in both a theoretical understanding of the power and limitation of the documentary image and incorporated strategies of collaboration with the subject with particular attention given to the concept of installation and display.  I made a large body of work titled, Chrysalis which began as my Master’s thesis at Columbia College. This work was an attempt to engage in a critique of documentary within a fine art context.  The resulting work led to a 75 print exhibition comprised of a series of intimate environmental portraits of a feminist community of young women at an alternative school or learning center in Chicago. I juxtaposed their poetry and my work to engage the audience in the discourse on the fragmentary nature of the document.  This approach was exemplified through the construction of an installation, which placed less intimate small vernacular images of the school environment under the intimate portraits; these additional smaller images were to be read not so much as photographs in themselves but as visual texts serving to inform the larger portraits. The resulting questions about engaging with a community, incorporating their voices through collaboration as raised through the installation were important to me as a practitioner. Several other projects followed in a similar vein where I placed different kinds of work together in an installation context raising more questions than answers.

A later example is the work, Aftermath, which represents my attempt to work again with the documentary mode after a long period of working only with digital collage and image-text. Like the former series of photographs made about homeless teens in Chicago for an exhibit, At the Edge of Shelter curated by David Travis, I wanted to see if it was possible to respond to a well- worn clichéd subject and create something other than a cliché. I traveled to New Orleans to be a Visiting Artists at the university of NOLA, to witness for myself how three years after Katrina; New Orleans neighborhoods were still in shambles. For Aftermath, I photographed three neighborhoods: The ninth ward, an inner city public houses project and a wealthy white suburb. I met with local activists who welcomed me into their homes and asked me to promise not to forget them or their neighborhoods. The week I photographed the Ninth ward, a crew from the NY times was there in full force. I began to question how to create a personal response that wasn’t journalism.  The final concept for the work was to create a street party bringing together the various neighbors around glowing light-boxes on an empty street. However, this was not fully realized. In seeking out support to continue the work, I encountered a common refrain in the art world that there were too many images already of post- Katrina and it was time to move on, which is the opposite to the local community response.

I have come to see the work I produced in this vein, as a conceptual documentary process, rather than simply as fine art documentary work.  This term conceptual document addresses more closely the practice I have evolved over the years, one that engages in larger questions of the meaning of the document itself, as well as directs the viewer’s attention to the complexity of documentary with its legacy of social justice. I want viewers to remain on their toes, to recognize the meaning of the work exists in a space between the fine art and the document, my perception and theirs.  Such work asks more questions than provides answers.  In several of the conceptual documentary projects, I employ vernacular images in concert with fine prints, text or collage. Topics I have addressed include growing up female, home and homelessness, identity and the vernacular image, the family album, history and memory and a sense of place.

On the Edge of Shelter: Homelessness in Chicago

From the series On the Edge of Shelter: Homelessness in Chicago by Angela Kelly.  

Can you tell us more about Sundays at Sea?

‘Sundays at Sea’ is a very personal project. It evolved out a tragedy in my family.

In March 1988, my father, Patrick, my mother Mary and my ten year old niece, Sarah died in a fire in my family home.  One of the few items saved was my father’s sea trunk. Within 24 hours of the fire, I stood within the shell of the burned out house and took photographs. I put them away and couldn’t bear to develop the film until years later. I began to collage the few family photographs I had into these burned -out rooms creating large oversized bxw mural, which I made in the darkroom.  I developed a class, “Beyond the Family Album: the Family Album as Art” in homage to the exhibition, I had worked on with Jo Spence earlier, and in homage to my family.  Eight years passed before I felt ready to go ‘home’ again.  My brother saved my father’s sea trunk like a sacred relic.  I decided to make a body of work using material from the trunk. This included letters I had written to my father at sea, articles of clothing, maps, charts, my father’s notebooks, and family album photographs. The title came from a notebook found in the trunk in which my father made a list of all the Sundays he was on duty at sea, presumably to note his overtime.

The work just evolved from there. I was pretty adept at digital image processing by then, having moved on from the darkroom mural work to using both Photoshop and Illustrator. I scanned family photographs on a flat bed scanner and combined these with the vernacular detritus found in the trunk.  For my exhibit, Sundays at Sea at the Harnett Gallery in Rochester of this work I wrote a short statement:

I grew up in Belfast, N. Ireland where I observed my handsome uniformed father sail in and out of my mother’s domestic life. His appearance provoked a ritual. We rushed to see who would be the first to open his sea trunk. Here the promise of exotic trinkets lay among a travel shaving kit, sewing supplies, a wallet of photographs and the crumpled white naval uniform worn in the tropics.  Through out my childhood, my father would mark these occasions by photographing us. By the time he retired, and finally came home, my mother, siblings and I had drifted on to our own lives.

By the time I had completed this work, I was also seriously developing research into the family album in a more scholarly sense. I developed a love of not only vernacular images but also for what artists might do with them.  The process of making this work was profoundly influential on future projects though aesthetically I moved back towards examining the notion of a document, this time in concert with my own family photographs but for a different purpose.

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The merging of maps with the family photos provides a feeling of absence and almost displacement for me.  Photographs speaking of absence is such an interesting idea because we often mistake them as a kind of presence.  How do you view this dichotomy?

This dichotomy was a perfect one to explore within Sundays at Sea and with the work that came after.  My interest in mapping goes back to my childhood where I poured over maps of the world tracing my father’s journeys at sea. As a merchant naval officer, he was more often ‘ not there’ than ‘there’ His presence was always followed by his absence as inevitably he left for longer and longer journeys.  Further, my own pursuit of photography has led me to leave home and to assume a new identity, which I see as ‘neither here nor there.’  I no longer succumb to the daily rituals of life in N. Ireland in all its subtleties and past stresses, as I knew it, and with each passing year it no longer knows me.  This suggests to me both a loss of identity and a fear of further erasure of the past.

The use of maps and later mapping elements such as the compass rose, lines of longitude or GPS coordinates is both evidential and metaphorical.  Mapping elements on the surface reference a certain kind of factual knowledge, but as Tim Robinson suggests in his divine book, Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara and Other Writings, maps are really works of art and map- making itself a political act. [1]  My desire was to intimate what the map doesn’t reveal or purports to show in contrast to the very information a map provides.

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In ‘Women and Children First,’ (above) the narrative behind the work is only partly accessible and must be decoded through historical knowledge about Irish immigration.  In this piece, I juxtapose a family group photograph over a map of the shallows of the Liverpool estuary of the river Mersey. Liverpool was a common site for Irish immigration in the 19c. In this image, family members stand in a shallow river in Ireland that runs through my great grandfather’s land; the fishing rights of this river having been transferred in the 17c to the landed gentry who occupy the adjacent property. In this photograph, we are all standing both in water and on water; and like the immigrants who came before and after us, acknowledge the fate of those including myself who leave home.

In Catharsis what was it like walking around finding locations when this place has many mixed memories for you and so many people?

Catharsis grew out my interest in exploring Belfast’s post-conflict sites, which are now tourist sites along the peace walls. This itself is a fascinating phenomenon.  I deliberately choose to walk along the Protestant side of the peace walls in a sense to reclaim a space that was not available to me as a Catholic, in the past. Growing up in N. Ireland and living through occupation, curfews and political strife can only be described as traumatic; the residue of which still lingers.  My recent essay, Catharsis: Images of Post-Conflict Belfast for the journal Photographies 2013, addresses how I walked through one particular working class Protestant neighborhood as an insider/outsider adapting the guise of a contemporary flâneur. By adding the GPS coordinates to each photograph,the work also speaks to an absent military presence, a site that is marked by a painful history.

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Shankill Road Peace Wall with Album Image of my Mother Mary, her sisters Kathleen and Rita in our Belfast  living room.

What do these places mean to you now?

I rarely photographed Belfast in the past; it was just too painful and difficult for me to engage with it.  Not only was it a dangerous and difficult negotiation, I didn’t want to fall into the photo journalistic trap of the hit and run photography I associated with Belfast. (We used to make fun of the journalists who came to Belfast to report on it but who strayed no further than the martini bar at the Europa hotel downtown.) When I return now, I am relieved by the positive changes that have taken place.  However, I am also very aware of how fragile the peace process really is and how much more is to be done in terms of building trust between the communities.

Was it a cathartic experience?  What impact did it have on you?

As I walked around the Protestant neighborhoods to photograph, I saw the remnants of a brutal legacy but also I felt deeply moved by the Protestant community’s sense of loss, too. This was unexpected. Growing up in the Catholic enclaves of west Belfast, there was a sense that history was on our side and that peace and justice would eventually prevail.  While I had the idea to walk along the Protestant side of the peace walls, I didn’t initially intend to juxtapose my family photographs made by my father with these new street photographs.  However, the resulting work created a richer more cathartic process, a leap over the void, by filling a gap between small family snapshots and the larger street images, to be read as a metaphor for healing the two communities. I further expanded my interest in the family album work to reflect on the multiple dualities in the work; the use of scale such as the juxtaposition of tiny intimate snapshots against large- scale seemingly objective street photographs; and the photographing of former conflict sites which are now tourist sites etc.  What this points to me as an artist is how the notion of a document cannot be contained but is subject to perpetual scrutiny and shifts of meaning.

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Thompson Graving Dock, built to house the Titanic with Album Image of Grandfather William John Somerville, Dockworker, and Tony and Angela posing at the window.

Throughout the process of making Catharsis, I borrowed the filmic strategies of establishing shot, close-up and medium shot which provided a contrast to the intimate family album images, bringing the work closer to an analytical realm. But what really impacted me the most while traveling through neighborhoods,was how much my own story of return was a universal one.

Image and text have been working together for a long time.  Roland Barthes warned us against anchoring an image too much by words and the potential that can be released by adopting a ‘relay’ method, where text is used as a way to enhance or complement images, making the text as much an image as the photograph.  Can you tell us what excites you most about how image and text complement each other in your work and how you make this happen?

 I love the idea that images and text, which seem to operate solely within discrete language systems, find a way to slip into each other’s territory. Just as there are multiple ways to use the written word to upend various conventions, so too can images be thought of as another system of representation that need not be solely dependent on a single internal visual logic.  Photographs are marked through and through by context, ideology and conventions. I am interested less in using text to illustrate an image, though there are times when this too is appropriate, rather, I enjoy the playfully intellectual challenge of combining text and images to push the meaning of both. I also now think less in terms of the image and text as simply complementing each other, but to go further, I want to know how far I can go to dissolve one into the other, to create a visual/ textual commentary about the nature of language itself.  Despite the pre-planning of certain pieces such as the typewriter work, the process of using text and images together has been fairly intuitive.  I didn’t initially plan to do an image- text series but the work kept coming.   For example I collect ‘words’ related to various subjects of interest, such as ‘the language of war’ which led the piece, Trauma. Here the word, trauma is seen as if in a mirror, like catching the word Ambulance in a rear view mirror. Other pieces are inspired by literary favorites of mine, such as John Keats and Virginia Woolf.

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In the piece, Song for Roland Barthes, (above) I ask the viewer to become a reader and a viewer at one and the same time. The piece poses the questions, ‘how do you read an image or understand a text?’ 

The piece comprises a photographic scan of a music scroll for a player piano. The hole-punch card spells out computer-like code that translates it into song lyrics with a sound component. The placement of the text coincides with the code but in order to read the text within the images, you have to re -think how you usually read a picture. To understand the fragmented text, you read this image from bottom to top, against the usual western style of reading from left to right and top to bottom. On reading the text, the viewer discovers the fragment of the song is about a romantic moment as a couple steal one more waltz before the morning light. This homage to Barthes’ Image, Music, Text references three mediums in one. It is a photographic image, a text and a piece of music.  It is a sly nod to my desire to play with language whether visual or textual in the same moment.

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The piece, Letter to R. G. (Rodney Graham) is one a series of works using the outmoded technology of the typewriter to speak to how digital technology by itself is not a substitute for the conceptual in photography. The triptych shows a close up of typewriter keys covered in snow with a companion image with the following text: “ No images were found containing conceptual.”  I created the piece in 2009. The text was the result of a Google search I did on the Magnum website for conceptual documentary. I enjoyed the results since it confirmed my sense at the time of how little attention a major influential documentary archive gave to conceptual work. The actual title followed later when I discovered the piece Rodney Graham, the Canadian conceptual artist had made, filming a typewriter in the snow.  I liked the coincidence and decided to title the piece, ‘A letter to R.G.’

The image-text work brings out my imaginative side and provides a place for me to experiment – to push the boundaries – something I am always eager to do.


[1] Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara and Other Writings, p. 3. Tim Robinson, Lilliput Press Dublin, 1997

Susan Bright: On Mothers. Interview

Ana Casas Broda from the series Kinderwunsch.

Susan Bright is a photography curator currently based in New York.  She has become a prominent figurehead in her contribution to photography by showcasing artists who are pushing the boundaries of the medium.  In doing so she highlights exciting movements within photography and keeps the bar high for the next generation of artists.  You may have some of her books on your bookshelf, they include Art Photography Now, Auto Focus, Face of Fashion and How we are: Photographing Britain, the show she co-curated with Val Williams, which was the first major photography exhibition ever held at Tate Britain.

She is currently researching representations of motherhood for a practice led PhD in curating.

Sharon Boothroyd: Why did you first become interested in how motherhood is represented in art and the media?

Susan Bright: My daughter was born in 2008. At this time I had an established career as a photography curator and writer and knew little of childbirth and childrearing. Like many of my female contemporaries I had established my identity through my career (not my family) and as such had little experience around children. I reached for books, photographs, magazines and journals to help me through a tumultuous shift in my personal identity and was surprised by what I read and saw. It is important to note here that I gave birth in New York, where I continue to live and work. It was here that the other two main factors that drove me to this investigation became apparent. Firstly, I began to notice the increased imaging of mothers in celebrity culture and with this what seemed like a subliminal messages that becoming a mother was the ‘right thing to do’ as apposed to having a career. The irony seemed to be lost that the only reason these women were of interest to the public was because of their careers. Parallel to that much of the literature I read seemed to place impossible demands on a mother in pursuit of perfection. Becoming a ‘perfect mother’ seemed to me, like a national American obsession, bolstered by images of happy mothers smiling from the front covers of the ‘Red Top’s’ in print media. I found this retrograde and far from my reality. But photographically I was fascinated by the  sheer quantity of magazines and websites dedicated to celebrity mothers. I kept seeing the same poses repeated again and again.  I immediately wanted to investigate why there seemed to be such a thirst for  mothering in the media. So, in the spirit of personal exploration and intellectual contribution I decided to investigate the images I saw and the messages they sent out through pursuing  a practice based PhD. in Curating (through Goldsmiths College). Writing and exhibition making is my profession and it seemed both timely and vital to extend, and challenge, myself with subject matter that was so personal.

What have been your discoveries?

Well first and foremost that in the early Twenty First century the presence of the mother figure has moved from the margins to the mainstream – be that in literature (with the advent of ‘chick lit’ and indeed more serious literature); pornography (with the ever expanding MILF genre) or in mainstream television. In American politics the status of the mother in both the campaigns of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were highly visible and central to their political identity.  In Britain the anxiety over Kate Middleton’s fecundity consumes tabloid space illustrating both poles of culpability.  Journalistic and popular books on the subject are on the increase and the online versions of celebrity magazines are dedicating whole sections to the cycles of mothering – from conception to an intense focus on the children of the famous. Hollywood has naturally followed (or lead) the trend with an increasing number of films with Motherhood (and parenting) as the central plotline.

Apart from the ideological messages mentioned briefly above in much of the media I also noticed how little pregnancy is imaged in fine art and how it has become increasingly sexualized in the media. I am enjoying delving into 19th Century photographs of pregnancy and seeing how complicated they are. There is too much to go into here (I dedicate a chapter to it in my thesis). The historiography is important and somewhat hidden. Breast feeding is still pretty much hidden in the media although the recent TIME cover which shows a three year old being breast fed may have visual repercussions. I am not so sure though… it may actually set the imaging of this aspect of mothering backwards as everything will be compared to that.

I also discovered a genuine anxiety about aging and am curious to find out how representations of mothers fits into this.

What is the main assertion of your research and exhibition?

In terms of my thesis research what I have found lacking, in regard to analyzing the making and reception of images of mothers, is a coherent critical approach or stance to fully understand the implications of this phenomenon and its historical precedents which is not reliant upon psychoanalysis. Personally I feel that much of the art making and theory surrounding the Mother figure has been hijacked by psychoanalysis and this is not of interest to me and my investigations.

I have turned to body of work commonly understood as ‘Postfeminism’ to help me to articulate my ideas. The term is contested, provocative, troubling, perplexing, contradictory and disconnected. There is no unified origin and it has often come to be understood as a buzzword in mainstream media. It often identifies itself with youth and an anxiety of aging and can be superficial. For me there is nothing superficial about mothering and nothing ‘post’ about feminism (if  we are taking ‘post’ to mean that which has gone before to be redundant). The term, its knotted definition and the impact in therms of the Mother figure can only work up to a point and then there is an estrangement, or disjuncture, between theory and practice. I am attempting to lay the foundations for a new way of considering contemporary photographic images of mothering within a postfeminst discourse (however contested that term is) and in turn aim to contribute a radical corrective to the lack of critical examinations in early Twenty First Century postfeminist critical writing.

The exhibition has a slightly different emphasis than the bulk of the thesis. I turn to fine art photography in order to articulate my ideas. It takes as its inspiration and genesis Mary Kelly’s lesser-known photographic piece Primapara (1974) which together with Post Partum Document (1973-1979) demonstrated in a powerful and groundbreaking way, that the mother-child motif could be addressed in a completely new way. As an important touchstone in the second wave of Feminism of the 1970s, the work, and the concurrent critical debates around the subject, came from a highly psychoanalytic point of view.  This exhibition, however, comes at a time when contemporary photography is no longer marginalized, but is at the center of visual culture, and theoretical and feminist debates have moved on. With this in mind the work featured here is highly personal, often documentary and is subject driven rather than theoretically motivated.

My curatatorial standpoint is to present bodies of work by different artists and articulate viewpoints work compliments and complicates in order to avoid a didactic and monolithic view of mothering. All the work challenges and agitates traditional passive views of Motherhood. The work tends to be intensely personal or autobiographical in focus, which doesn’t mean it can’t connect to wider universal themes, articulate metaphorical messages and be intellectually rigorous. It presents an interpretation of the subject that highlights the complexity of the subject and does not shy away from emotional or emotive subjects. The photographers I have selected tend to work on large uncompromising bodies of work over many years and as such some are still on-going.  I hope this exhibition is a rare opportunity to explore new interpretations and insights on an ancient theme in a thorough and contemporary manner.

The central argument of the exhibition will be the investigation of the complex and demanding experience of motherhood through the transitions that occur to a woman’s identity by becoming or being a mother.  These transitions and the way they affect identity is explored by not only concentrating on the mother figure herself but by focusing on how it effects those around her. It shows mothers to be both blessed and bound with a simultaneous need to escape and connect. It investigates what it means to have a personal identity become one that is associated with another person. It focuses on the transitions and the importance of those shifts in identity and the effect this has on partners, friends and children.

It will be shown at The Photographers’ Gallery at the end of 2013 and will tour through Europe and the USA.

How have other art forms and their theories influenced your research?

I am concentrating on photography in fine art and the media. I have found that I have had to look very closely at the history of the Madonna and of course this means painting, but over all my concentration is photography. This has turned out to be both a stumbling block and a liberation in terms of turning to photo theory. I have always found photo theory to be limiting, self referential and restrictive to the endless ways of understanding photography. Plus it can be dull and badly written.

Within my investigations there are two pertinent factors that are directly relevant to my relationship to photo theory worth mentioning here. Firstly, is the significant lack of research and sophisticated analysis of commercial and advertising photography within the literature. The lack of critical writing regarding the representation of commercial photography beyond seeing it as an ‘ideological text’ is a serious lack in the wealth of literature on photography, but also a liberation as it allows room for me to use more interdisciplinary approaches.

And secondly, it can be argued, what really drives the main focus of photo theory (and indeed much of its histories) is an ‘ontological desire’ to understand the essence of photography.  This ontological desire at the very core of photo theory is not of interest to me. It is not what drives my investigations into the medium and certainly not the thesis. It is for these reasons I want to claim some relative autonomy from my predecessors and precedents and engage in other disciplines.

Finally, I have always found photo theory to be intrinsically hostile to a ‘simple’ historical (I use that term with full knowledge that history is never simple) or subject lead readings of images and has feared it may be associated with revisionism of Modernism. I, however, believe looking at a relatively new medium such as photography, especially when it is concerned with a very ancient subject matter, charting the changing representations and entomology is vital. This doesn’t mean to say I reject photo theory entirely. I use it up to a point and then turn to other ideas when it can no longer be useful for me.

For this reason (and others) I found that postfemist theories are the most relevant and challenging for me, but I also pull on writing that is most commonly associated with literature, art history, media studies, celebrity studies and fashion theory. Thinkers and writers that I am finding useful include: Diane Negra, Nina Power, Yvonne Tasker, Angela McRobbie, Su Holmes, Stephanie Genz, Benjamin A Brabon, Chris Rojek, Sean Redmond, Kathleen Woodward and Paul Frosh (who writes on stock photography. His book is quite old now but still very useful for me). I was also very surprised to find the writing of Mary Shelly and Martin Amis insightful in ways I could never have imagined.  I am sure there will be more as I progress.

Which artists are you particularly interested in and why?

I am interested in fine artists that offer a real alternative to the repetition of iconography you see in the media and that is my rational behind choosing the artists I have for the exhibition. I believe they offer a real challenge to the way mothering is represented. The artists which will be featured in my exhibition next year are:

·       Janine Antoni (USA)

·       Elina Brotherus (Finland)

·       Elinor Carucci (Israel)   (Photoparley Interview)

·       Ana Casas Broda (Mexico)

·       Fred Huning (Germany)

·       Leigh LeDare (USA)

·       Hanna Putz (Austria)

This is not to say there aren’t other artists that offer fascinating conundrums and grapple with the complexities of  motherhood (either being a mother or work around their own mothers and family). Great examples include (and this is in no way an exhaustive list just some that come to mind who are working today around the subject): Justine Kurland, Diana Scherer, Renee Cox, Tierney Gearon, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Moyra Davey, Diana Scherer, Trish Morrisey,  Rineke Dijstra,  Jonathan Torgovnik – Intended Consequence: Rwandan Children Born of Rape (2006), Toni Wilkinson, Judith Jockel, Jessica Ingram, Veronique Rolland, Metta Tronville, Gay Block,  Tatsumi Orimoto, LaToya  Ruby Fraizer,  Miyako Ishiuchi , Zineb Sedira, Carol Flax, Dinu Li, Malerie Marder, Yuri Nagashima, Annelies Strba, Polixeni Papapetrou, Julie Blackmon, Martine Fougeron, Nan Goldin and many, many more.  I recently came across the work of Geraldine Kang, which I didn’t know, and absolutely love.

And although she would never be considered in the breath as those mentioned above I talk about Anne Geddes in my thesis. Her impact on vernacular practices is huge. I have never read anything critical about her work. She is probably one of the most popular photographers in the world when it comes to photographing pregnant women and babies. I find it fascinating (but not at all surprising) that she has been totally ignored in terms of critical thinking around this subject.

What are your hopes for the future representation of mothers within photography and the vernacular?

My thesis is not an examination into Maternal Practices in fine art making. There is a distinct, and important, difference between Maternal Practices and my interest in representation of Mothers in the media.  By Maternal Practices I am referring to feminist artists dealing with Motherhood  and who represent the range and complexity of the mothering experience – one far removed from an idea of clichéd selflessness. Artists like Mary Kelly, Sally Mann, Susan Hiller, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Renne Cox, Catherine Opie and more recently Tierney Gearon who are conceptually rigorous and crucial to this history.

My exhibition aims to expand what the term ‘Mother’ can mean and its effects on an artist’s identity. I see the work I have chosen sitting slightly outside of this trajectory.

In terms of vernacular photography I am seeing more and more how celebrity images are being copied and fed into a familiar lexicon. The most obvious and striking example of this is the famous pose which Demi Moore adopted on the front cover of Vanity Fair in 1991 with a photograph by Annie Leibovitz. Go to flickr, or any other similar photo sharing site and you will see what I mean. Pregnancy was long hidden both privately and publicly in photo history. This image changed that.

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Images in consecutive order by Ana Casas Broda (x3), Trish Morissey (x4), Toni Wilkinson (x2), Justine Kurland (x1), Geraldine Kang (x2), Julie Blackmon (x5).

Shared Vision: A collection by Celso Gonzalez-Falla and Sondra Gilman. Interview.

The Drummer by Loretta Lux.

I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.  The place being New York, more specifically Aperture Gallery in New York City, at the time of the Shared Vision collection being shown.  Collectors Celso Gonzalez-Falla and Sondra Gilman have been collecting together for the last 25 years and are ranked among the world’s top ten photography collectors. Their eloquent collection spans over a century and includes some of the most prominent photographers we have known like Walker Evans, Eugene Atget, Joel Meyerowitz, Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Their aims for their collection are:

…to acquire works of major importance by leading photographers of their generation and to focus on vintage prints. Although each of the collectors brings a different point of view to the photography—Gonzalez-Falla analyzes color and form, while Gilman responds to images on a more visceral level—these distinct approaches merge into a single, shared vision and emanate from the same goal: to collect photographs that move and inspire them.

From the Introduction, Shared Vision.

With the collection being so extensive the curators (Ben Thompson from Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville and Assistant Professor of Photography Paul Karabinis from University of North Florida) had the luxury of selecting iconic images that reflect the diversity of photography over the last century.  The gallery walked us through early 1900’s street scenes, groundbreaking landscapes and the human form and mis-en-scene and narrative based colour photography amongst others.  One section that particularly appealed to me was the area devoted to images of childhood.

The collectors want to collect images that haunt them, that stay with them. Many of their choices have stayed with me too.  The images within this genre of childhood are more than standard pictures of children.  They have a quality which moves you, which says something profound about the nature of childhood, whether it be about innocence and purity (or loss of) or the uncertain ground of adolescence or which simply arouses the maternal yearning to protect and nurture.

Part of the blurb stayed with me too; “Photography portrays idealised versions and realised fears.”  In fact I think this is why photographic images of children have often caused controversy.  The photograph, a supposed record of reality, becomes something other than reality.  It is a polemic of our worst fears and our highest dreams and as such it is a challenge to what is real.  Painting is always removed from a direct link to the real world and as such has got away with a lot of the criticism that photography has had to deal with, like being a legitimate art form or having a reputation as a document and no more.  For me this was the most exciting thing about Shared Vision, the celebration of the photograph as art.  That and the exquisite aesthetic and intelligent cohesiveness.

Image by Andrea Modica.

Sharon Boothroyd: When and why did you first begin collecting photography?

Sondra: I started collecting photography about 35 years ago, after I saw the first Atget show at the Museum of Modern Art.  I had an epiphany.  I spent three days on the floor of John Szarkowski’s office, (the renown curator) and said “Tell me about photography.”  He did and I bought three photographs. This led to the start of my collection, as well as the collection of Gilman Paper Company. The Gilman Paper Collection is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Celso: Before I met Sondra I did not collect, I took photographs; in Cuba, of cattle and horses my father sold to South America, after for my University’s newspaper in Havana, and afterwards in Texas of my Arabian horses.  I have collected with Sondra for the last 25 years, and the first photo we bought together was Mapplethorpe’s Bill T. Jones.

Sondra: We believe in photography as an art form.  But we only buy what we love.  We don’t have an outside curator or consultant.  We look, look and look and then we both decide which image to acquire. Although each one of us has a veto power on the other we rarely have to use it.

What interests you most about images of children and why did you decide to make part of your collection solely dedicated to this subject?

Sondra: In our collection we have photos of children, but we don’t limit our collection to one subject matter.  We acquire the images that move us; that we can’t forget. We have photos of children by diverse photographers, like Helen Levitt, Sally Mann, Andrea Modica, Loretta Lux, Emmet Gowin, Bruce Davidson, Nick Wapligton, Giacomelli, Eugene Meatyard, Cravo Neto, Flor Garduno, Wynn Bullock, Clark and Pognaud, Rineka Dijkstra, Misrach and Julie Blackmon.

Celso: A few of these artists only concentrated on children: Levitt, Mann, Modica, and Lux.  Others included children, but did not specialize in “children’s images” like Gowin, with his wife and child; Davidson, with 110 Street and the gang, Bullock, his nude daughter resting on the ground of a primeval forest; W. Eugene Smith, his children walking hand in hand; Meatyard, children playing with masks; Giacomelli, a child as the center of a group in his Scano series.

Levitt, because her images are the best example of street photography covering children at play.  Andrea Modica, because she followed a child and covered her life and there is an intimacy that cannot be obtained if it was “street photography”. Loretta Lux, because her images are remarkable; as her children look “different”, they have lost their “innocence”, they are attractive, hermetic, and full of a mysterious quality that would be lost in a “candid photo”.

In the case of Sally Mann, because her children are in their “natural state”: “Nudity equals innocence”.  There is no prurient motive.  She shows how her children lived, played, and moved. In some images, like “Candy Cigarette”, there is a hint of “grown up posing”, as if the child wanted to show that she could be a “glamour girl” and not a young child playing with her sisters.  The images are beautiful, innocent, and they talk to you.  You become a part of their exclusive “clan”; you are invited to become a visitor in their farm.

Julie Blackmon, because of her large family in a suburban setting, they are as highly posed as a “Norman Rockwell” cover for the Saturday Evening Post.

Of all the images you have collected for this section which ones have impacted you most and why?

Sondra and Celso: We love all of our pictures, but we have pieces that haunt you:  “Virginia at Four”, and “Candy Cigarette” (see below). Virginia, because the way she stands: peacefully, confidently, unaware of what other people are going to say. She is looking at her mother and trusting her.  In the “Candy Cigarette” Sally’s oldest daughter, Jessie, is playing it out, but we know it is not true, as the cigarette is chocolate.  There is also an image of Helen Levitt that we love. A girl with two bottles of milk with happiness reflected in her face as she passes a young pregnant girl, showing disdain. The expression on the girl carrying the milk bottles is reminiscent of Cartier Bresson’s “Rue Mouffetard”: of the young boy and his two bottles of wine.

Image by Helen Levitt.

How do you think childhood photography has moved forward in recent years?

Sondra: I think there is more interest in children and family dynamics. I have recently seen this development at art fairs.

Celso: I don’t know if there is any real change.  Maybe you have more images taken of the family, but they are less controversial.

What do you observe are the biggest issues facing photographers making images of children in today’s society?

Sondra: I think the fine line separating the so called “exploitation” of children may have affected some photographers and they have gone into more of the psychological or mental exploration of a child’s being; Loretta Lux, with the secrets her children hold, Andrea Modica, with her teenage friendships and again Julie Blackmon, with her recreation of the humor and humanity of family life.

Celso: I don’t see issues.  I only see that the photographer has to be able to find his “theme”, his or her “vision”. If not the images will be another set of snapshots of family members.

What are your hopes for the future of childhood photography?

Sondra: The scope of childhood is huge, and there can be many new ways of seeing and interpreting this.  The photographer, as artist, has the challenge to fill in the blanks.

Celso: That the photographers continue to take risks developing their own particular style, and be able to communicate how they see “childhood”. If they show areas of danger, abuse and exploitation of children those images should create awareness of the problems and ask for change. Lewis Hine did it before. His images eliminated child labor in the United States.

Virginia at Four, 1989 by Sally Mann.

Candy Cigarette, 1989 by Sally Mann.
 

Elinor Carucci Interview

Elinor Carucci has become synonymous with the private turned public.  Her revealing and intimate images of motherhood make a family album that subverts the cliché.  Born in Israel and currently living in New York, Carucci’s work has graced the establishments of MoMA, Houston Museum of Fine Art and has been featured in the New York Times and Aperture.  Her awards list includes the International Centre of Photography’s Infinity Award for Young Photographer and she was generous enough to answer the questions that trouble me every day.

SB: Obviously children come first, but as a photographer sometimes photography has to come first.  How do you manage to strike this balance as a committed mother and a professional and serious photographer?

EC:  It is tough and requires a lot of hard work, and managing my time well. I decided to devote all my time only to the children and work.  I had to give up my social life entirely until the kids are a little older, and other things.  I just make my life about those two really major things.

In what ways do you think these two ‘jobs’ work well together? And what is the biggest difficulty in making it work?

You have to REALLY love those two jobs and have the motivation to find the energy to do both.  The biggest difficulty is making sure I get enough sleep… if I do, then everything feels more possible.

As a mother, my children are good at helping me to see things differently.  How does your role of being a mother help your creativity?

I feel that as a mother the realization of how short our time is in this life gets much stronger and clearer, and makes me feel like I need to say what is really important to me right now.   Also, everything feels 10 times stronger…the love, the worry, the notion of time, the pain, the compassion…so there are much more emotions to put into my work…and this is a good thing!