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Monday, September 17, 2018

Identity and Photography

There is a whole class of people who argue that ones Identity must inevitably shape ones Photography. Women photograph one way, People of Color photograph in accordance with their ethnicity, and so on, White Men photograph their own way (which is generally Bad but let us set that aside), and so on.

As with most claims that come out of Identity Politics, it's not entirely clear what the claim is. On the one hand, obviously an artist can make their Identity as a woman, an LGBQT person, and so on, central to their work. Cindy Sherman has done a lot of overtly Feminist work, and it is perfectly reasonable to say that her Identity As A Woman strongly informs her body of work. Is the claim simply that some women might do this? If so, well, obvious, but not very interesting. Also, there is the problem that anyone -- even a man -- could lift Sherman's tropes and grind out more work in the same vein. You could pretend that, as a man, it wouldn't "read" but I think that is nonsense. If it has not already happened, someone will surely produce a body of work under an assumed Identity, as a piece of performance art.

No, the claim feels, albeit vaguely, as if the notion is that Women's Photography taken as a whole ought to "read" as somehow feminine. While some women might produce distinctly masculine work, taken as a whole the overall shape of the body of work made by women should have a detectable character. Ditto African American, Transgender, Gay, and so on.

This is a very attractive notion. It is one that I feel attracted to, it seems as it it ought to be true. And yet, it appears to be generally false. I should note that while I find the notion attractive, at the same time I find it offensive. Replace the phrase "Women's Photography" with "Negro Photography" and see how that works for you. Less well, I think, and not entirely because of the exact word choice.

I can see that ones Identity shapes much of what one does, what one thinks, what one feels. There is no question in my mind that "lived experience" colors a great deal. Women are socialized (at least) in certain ways that lead, I am reliably informed, to different approaches to teamwork, different approaches to problem solving. There is more basic stuff: I have heard tell of a health tracker app that had no way to track menstrual cycles. Too many bros, not enough, umm, women on that design team. And so on. I do not think there is any way to conveniently enumerate the ways in which ones Identity, and ones Lived Experience are likely to pop up and affect something about you, about what and how and why you do what you do.

When you're talking to people, interacting with people, I believe that your core, your experience, your (as it were) true self tends to come through. You can fake it, an introvert can playact the extrovert, the feminist could playact the misogynist, but it's acting. It requires constant labor to keep up the facade. In other walks of life, photography let us say, the default position is reversed -- the easy thing to do is to simply copy other people's stuff whereas what is hard is to produce something that reflects that true self.

Even if you, as a photographer, are not merely aping someone else's work, your work will be shaped by myriad influences. You will tend to borrow a visual trope from here, get a subject from there (maybe an editor, maybe a client, or maybe something you saw on instagram). Certainly also your true self in all its facets, including any Identities you have, will also color the work.

The question, though, is whether that true self, and in particular those Identities, will be consistently visible across the work of a bunch of people.

The answer appears to largely be in the negative, "no," and the question is "why?"

Imagine, if you will, that your team leader at work is gay. Some such leaders would be very up front about their sexual Identity, telling you on day one. Others might be deeply closeted, and you might never find out. In between, and this covers most of the gay people I have worked for, it's not important, but eventually you know. It comes out, organically, somehow. This reflects, I think, a normal range of attitudes. A Gay Artist might choose to center their work around that Identity. Many Gay Artists, on the other hand, might simply have other things they'd like to explore. Some will try very hard to hide that Identity.

I think in the end we all have a tendency to fake it in all our interactions. We try to come across as smarter, more pleasant, more fun to be with than we truly are. We try to make photographs that look like something else excellent. And so on.

The difference is that when you're leading a team at work, or having a long conversation, the act just doesn't work, it's simply too hard to keep up a facade in these situations where there are 1000 ways your true self can leak out. When you're taking pictures and printing them out, or putting them online, it's dead easy to fake it. You can hide behind your copies of Ansel Adams, or Garry Winogrand, or your pastiche of Arbus, Sherman, and Gurksy, or whatever. You can hide behind your use of the wet plate process. Rather than 10000 ways your Identity can leak out and be noticed, there are a 1000 ways to conceal it.

Even when we are ostensibly trying to reveal ourselves, we inevitably produce an edited version, the bits we secretly don't want to share are carefully elided, the bits we like best are exaggerated. We can see this in all the overwrought confessional work we're seeing these days. It reads patently, obviously, false in spite of its supposed openness.

Because of the great distance between Me and You when I am communicating with a photograph, or a photobook, whatever facade I want will serve perfectly well. Indeed, I am going to have a hard time selling even the facade. The true me is surely absolutely inaccessible.

Getting my Identity out there, visible in the final product, is going to be very very hard. And, generally, it's not likely to "read" that well.

1 comment:

  1. Although a bit wordy, your point about Identity Photography is well made.

    Photography is art, and art is an honest interpretation of what the photographer sees and feels and then writes with light. Photography is not about hiding; it's about creating.

    Thanks for the read.