Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Photographing Artifice

I'm mildly obsessed with photography versus what is real, true. As a consequence, much of what I talk about presupposes that whatever you're pointing the camera at is real, true. As a general rule, though, this is obviously false. Lots and lots of photos are of some sort of artifice. A still life, an advertising shot, photographs of a play, or of performance art, virtually everything anyone posts on social media, and so on.

Consider a play. There's probably a story, a literal narrative. There might be a moral, or some sort of life lessons, or some other larger art-like experience in the play. A play, being built around dialog and motion, is not likely to translate particularly well to photographs. Your photographs will, if well done, accurately illustrate what the play looks like and convey in some way the experience of watching the play, but they are unlikely to reveal the narrative or larger meaning of the play. The story that we might find in the photos is different from the story we might find in the play itself. The photograph is, as it were, a picture of a mask, you cannot see the person behind the mask.

On the other hand, consider Gregory Crewdson, who arguably stages things that look a lot like a scene in a play. His set pieces are designed to be photographed, there is no dialog, no action. They look like a moment pulled out of a play, or a film, but are distinctly not -- specifically because you can read the underlying psychodrama in the photograph itself. You can, as it were, deduce the absence of dialog and action from the very fact that you can see the underlying story in the photograph. Crewdson gives us a transparent mask, allowing us to see past the notional play to the underlying story.

Take these are two endpoints.

An advertising photograph strives to be Crewdson-esque, in that you are supposed to see the story in the scene. You are supposed to see a photograph of a beautiful woman and a fast car, and to feel that story, to imagine yourself with them, driving very fast and having a great deal of fun. You are not supposed to see it as a photograph of a set, in the manner one might see a photograph of a play. Sometimes these things work, sometimes they do not.

Cindy Sherman also comes to mind, and again with mixed results. Her original work, of Untitled Film Stills was very much in the mode of Crewdson, except that instead of imagining something ambiguous -- maybe a play, maybe a film, maybe real people -- she specifically insists that we imagine a film. Later work becomes more ambiguous on this axis, we are to imagine some abstract larger story, and yet we recognize Cindy and know therefore that it is artifice.

In terms of larger meaning, this gives us a number of possibilities.

You might photograph a play in order to tell the story of going to the play. Or, if you are in Austin, perhaps you do it because apparently all theater actors in Austin are ludicrously beautiful people. Anyways, the story of attending a play is a perfectly reasonable story in the larger sense to tell. You could critique the play with photos, you could react to the play. All of this is quite separate from the story the play itself embodies.

More difficult is the game Crewdson and Sherman play. The artifice is clear, but they want you to see through the photograph, and then again through the artifice, to see a single underlying story (again, in the larger sense). Cultural criticism, feminist theory, whatever. They need to guide the viewer through not one but two separate layers of translation. They succeed, I think, because of the maniacal singularity and intensity of their underlying idea. Like a nova, if shines through layers of interpretation and nails the viewer between the eyes. Advertising seems to be to succeed or fail on roughly the same grounds, the intensity of vision in play, with a side serving of ability also required.

This brings us around to the item that triggered this whole thought process, a book reviewed by Colberg, which you can look at in its entirety by watching the video at the book's web page, or directly on Vimeo. Jörg's review is lightweight, of course; he sees a female photographer doing sexuality stuff and falls over himself, because, academia.

This is a book of pictures of performance art, of artifice. If you think any of this is remotely spontaneous, look at the colors. These are intensely styled pictures. In particular, the picture the book and Jörg both lead with, the nipple pinch, count a) the total number of colors in the frame, and b) the number of patches of color that match her shoes. For all its snapshot/selfie aesthetic, this shot (and most of the rest of the book) is styled with the intensity of a Gucci advert. Look at the labels hanging from the blinds.

So the question is, are we able to read through the artifice to an underlying story? Well. To my eye, not really. Sure, there's some muddled ideas of sexuality in here, quite a few of the pictures seem to be mining some "submissive man" motif, but by no means all. There's a lot material that seems to have been included simply because it's odd, or fun. While I agree with Jörg that it looks like fun, that is rather spoiled by the insistence of the actors on staring, dead-eyed, at the camera. The overall sensation that these are boring people with no ideas, who are nonetheless Deadly Serious About Their Art does this book no favors. It is possible that the thing is a wall of cultural references that I am simply not getting, but if so that makes the book mostly an in-joke, which is just another kind of boring.

If these is some radiant blaze of an idea in there someplace, it is buried under the Yoko Ono mannered weirdness flavored with a demand to be taken seriously.

If this were presented specifically as a bunch of pictures of performance art, that would be one thing. Pixy Liao seems, unfortunately, to be striving for more of a Crewdson/Sherman "through-reading" and not hitting it. Instead she's substituting in a bunch of modern tropes and hoping simple minded reviewers will assign profound thoughts to her.

I will say that while the content is pretty dull (this stuff hasn't been transgressive in decades, even in the USA, move on, Art Students) the styling is excellent. The consistency of look, the use of color, all these things are pretty great.

1 comment:

  1. Whichever way I look at it, I think this book is a bit of a bore. A one-browse wonder. Mostly silly photos lightly flavoured with gender/age-role-reversal sauce and a east Asian cutesiness. At least boyfriend gets to take a number of the photos himself (on command, one imagines).