I’m not quite sure if my ur-photograph really exists, or if it’s a story I’ve created to define my own history. I think we do this quite a bit, as differing views of childhood experience — pit against mothers, fathers, friends — are a theme in my life. Bad memory. I’ll forget your face, I’ll forget your name, unless I keep seeing you, or if I have a crush. Maybe I shouldn’t tell people that last part.
But one thing that has stuck with me is this photograph. I remember seeing it in my elementary school’s art room, walls of pale beige with the janky, reject desks pushed into 2×4 islands, onto which we’d drop clay or draw with charcoal or, on the best of days, discover something new. I must have been somewhere between the ages of 5 and 10, but I’m really not sure. The memory used to be of seeing it in a book, held high by a woman’s hand. (My mother, then a stay at home mom, often volunteered and invaded my classes. It very well may have been her Hungarian-mediterranean hand, augmented by summer sun.) Sometimes I remember seeing it on a computer screen in the “playroom” sunken half into the ground of my childhood home, but that memory always feels more constructed, less real.
It’s black and white. It’s bleak. A post war landscape — in the memory it feels like someone must be talking about WWII and the photography of it, maybe the first photography lecture I ever attended. I remember hills with a white road and black trees, stripped of all foliage. But the centerpiece (rather, slightly off center, to the right) is a stone church. An old church. A large circular stained glass window near the apex of the roof that no longer exists. I usually describe it as a bombed-out landscape, scarred and devoid of the signs of life. Renewal doesn’t even look possible.
It’s stuck with me. It’s stuck with me because it enabled the realization that beautiful art could be of ugly, horrible things. (As a teenager I would obsess over James Nachtwey, rewatching War Photographer as soon as my drive to be a war photographer faded. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more inspirational film, something that moved me to action and set the pace of my life so completely.) I was enamoured. It had never occurred to me before that ugly things could be anything but ugly, even in their representation. I remember, as excitable as I’ve ever been, peppering the lecturer (mom ?) with questions, though I don’t remember what those questions were. Just the visceral, emotional experience of not only engaging with a photograph on every level I then could (emotional, aesthetic), but figuring it out. Finding something new. Realizing with what depth photography could exist.
And that was it : I was hooked. I started carrying around an old Sony Mavica camera — the big square ones that used video camera CCDs and floppy disks to record 3 or 4 images at a staggering 640×320. For a long time I only had access to a few floppy disks, so on my photo walks around the block I’d carefully pick and choose which ones to delete to make room for the new photograph I’d found, out in the suburban landscape I inhabited. Maybe I took pictures of my dogs, but I strangely don’t remember taking pictures of people, though I must have. Eventually someone, probably my mother but also maybe my brother or grandmother, bought me a giant stack of rainbow-colored floppy disks. As now, my favorite color was orange, so I burned through those first before moving on to the rest. I wonder where they are. I think I threw them out as an angst-ridden teenager moving out of my childhood home, reflexively attempting to destroy the token reminders of my childhood, wishing to leave them only in my ineffective memory.
What kind of a fiction can you make from the assemblages of reality ? Brendan Hunt’s It, Phantasm is not quite reportage, documentary, fiction, or non-fiction. As someone prone to nighttime wanderings, I have great sympathy for the gumshoe flaneur searching for a story between all of these photographs. What I find is not a straightforward story, nor a mystery unfolding, but instead a long, meandering gaze into mythmaking. The stories, the pictures, all feel like a trance. They assemble into a dark lullaby bringing us to the liminal space between life and death. There is no heaven or hell, no sort of good or evil kind of ethics in these photographs. One of the final images, of guts on the ground, betrays that, ultimately, the myth is of life — there is no sort of judgment passed on the entrails. The unknown animal they once belonged to is part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, as it seemingly became food for something larger, and unseen — the predatory beast lurking in the space beyond the borders of the photographs.
Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Nursing subverts the iconography of the Western canon, manipulating the Madonna and Child icon in order to
criticize the societal and cultural context the photographer lives in. The complexity of this photograph lends it to multiple levels of analysis, each
pinned on subverting the traditional image of the Madonna and Child. There is, first, a question of femininity — the Madonna and Child has been used by
artists, mostly men, to normalize (if not literally canonize) specific, restrictive ideals of femininity, purity, and women’s role in society — and of how
Catherine Opie defines her own feminine ideal. Then, there is a question of power, as Opie reclaims a traditionally passive image into that of one of an
active participant through her dual roles as the subject/mother and photographer/creator. Finally, there is also a question of the role the genre of the
photograph plays, and how that influences the analysis of it — it is a portrait, but also a self-portrait. It also falls into the genre of an artistic nude,
though one that is not meant to be enticing. And is it, in a sense, a documentary photograph as well ? Is this photograph easily aligned into one specific
genre, and if it cannot be, does that lend more meaning to it ? First, though, what is the art historical context of the Madonna and Child iconography ?
1. “China’s rice bowl” : How Decontextualization Can Mitigate the Perceived Suffering in a Photograph
Figure 1, George Silk, Starving child holding out an empty rice bowl during famine. A copy of a print of the image as it appears in the Family of Man.
In part, the Family of Man is a reaction to what Steichen saw as the failure of the previous mode of photojournalism. Images of war and suffering were
termed, by him, to be a “negative approach” which at first affected a disgust or revulsion in the public, which would later turn to dismissal or
outright ignorance. Instead, Steichen wanted to use a “positive approach.” He wanted to get people’s emotions wrapped up in something larger than
themselves, something “made on the heart, not the head.” This means that, in both the exhibition and
the book, representations of war and suffering are relatively rare. The subject of the first part of this essay, George Silk’s photograph of a child
with an empty rice bowl, comes from one of these rare sections of suffering.
William Eggleston’s Guide, in essence, begins with a singular photograph. The book is not bound by a paper jacket, nor is it wrapped in a picture. Instead, the cover feels and looks like faux leather (something almost-but-not-quite real), a print seemingly pasted on. It is evocative of the old family album or yearbook with this mass-produced feel. But it is not a precious art-object; it does not draw one across a room to drag one’s fingers across the pages, thinking about the quality of the paper or the pleasure in some fine binding. It looks like it could, or would, fit well on a generic dark-stained coffee table, or on some shelf adorned with family photographs. Yet, it is unlike a family album in the content itself — the cover is a well-printed low-angle shot, as if a child or dog had photographed it, elegantly framing a rusting, cheap but potentially cherished, tricycle against some suburban scene, the sky somehow attaining a lavender hue. Who would put anything but portraits of the family themselves on the cover of an album ?