Thursday, December 29, 2016

Criticism: Elizabeth Hosking

As if to prove me wrong, Chris Gampat and his ever-changing cast of helpers have dug up someone I actually like. Elizabeth Hosking, web site here. Looking through her online portfolio will only take a few minutes.

The first thing that struck me about this body of work is the coherent visual aesthetic applied across a wide variety of subjects. She loves the high contrast, and many pictures are a wash of black, or a wash of white, usually with "the important bit" in a relatively small region of the opposing tone. I admire the ability to successfully deploy the same set of visual ideas in many ways, and she manages it. I think.

It's possible I like her work largely because she buries masses of the frame in black or in white, leaving only small areas with much actual content. My own visual aesthetic, to the trivial extent that I possess one, is to bury as much as possible in a sort of gruesome mud. So, prejudices no doubt apply.

In general, her work seems to strive for, and produce, a sensation of what it is like to be there. I don't feel any deep philosophical message, or any particular narrative. She seems to me to be purely interested in helping us to feel as if we are there. This aligns with her self-description as "documentary" but I appreciate that she takes an allegorical approach rather than a literal one. She shows us slices, bits and pieces, that stand in for the larger thing rather than shooting a naive head-on document.

I find her projects and collections slightly repetitious, a little too long.

"The Actor's Center" uses perhaps too many frames of people rehearsing than is necessary, but the marked up scholarly script she includes is wonderful. This theme of the "odd man out" frame appears in a couple of other places. "These Hands of Mine" includes what I think is a photograph in a little folio, re-photographed by Hosking. Then, in a minor stroke of genius, another little photograph re-photographed on one of the subject's hands. Well done to connect the object to the theme and to the subjects.

In "The Actor's Center", in contrast to her street photographs, Hosking focuses often on the faces of the subjects, showing us the intensity of what's going on. The marked script strikes me really as the foundation of the work, though. It's scholarly, with a ton of footnotes and some serious notes hand-written, suggesting a degree of seriousness and intensity which is well-supported by the pictures of the people. There are also doodles, speaking to a certain whimsy and sense of fun, which also reads in the other pictures.

If it were my work, I'd have tried to get a little more visual variety in the series, possibly photographing the empty space, props, that sort of thing. It's not my work, though. It is, I think, successful as is.

"These Hands of Mine" seems to me to be well balanced and satisfying, as well as containing the aforementioned bit of genius. It might be the strongest work here. Still, it's hard to judge, since it's also got the most emotionally intense subject matter.

"Daily Rider" also includes an odd-man-out picture, an empty train seat. Traces of a person, without the actual person, just their marks. This series also stands out as a good use of the trope of shooting people from behind. While Hosking may be, like so many "street photographers" too shy to photograph strangers from the front, she does it better than most here. She embraces the anonymization her angle of view creates, and gives us fragments of people. Whatever her motivation for shooting from behind, she uses other visual ideas to support the idea of making the subjects anonymous, generic, everyman figures, and so is able to sell the idea better. I'm still not 100% comfortable with it, but it's well done.

The empty train seat functions in much the same was as the marked up script. It's a little slice, an allegorical bit standing in for a larger thing. I read this as the anonymity of the commute, the human mass and the trains that move it, all like a colony of ants in motion. Again, I think this is quite successful.

"Street Singles" is maybe the weakest of the lot, it reads like spot news photography done by someone without the courage to shoot people except from behind. It's workmanlike, but not terrific. I like the pictures, but mainly because I love photos of LGBT folks flying their flags, being happy, and getting their voices heard.

Finally, her "Land" series. These resemble in many ways a series of photographs my father shot and printed and gave me a framed set of, many years ago. So, again, prejudices surely apply. I find them quite lovely and arresting. This is where we see the artist applying her visual aesthetic to radically different subject matter, and where she inverts the dark-with-spots-of-light to give us white-with-spots-of-dark, which is a strong move on her part. Still distinctly Hosking, but definitely a different thing.

This series lacks an "odd man out" frame, but still has that allegorical feel. That flavor of what it is like to be standing here on this land, cold, austere, remote, but revealed in a handful of nearly abstract frames which surely look, literally, almost nothing like what they are pictures of. This feels like a work in progress to me, rather than a completed thing.

I like this photographer. She's not my favorite, but I think she does solid work.

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