Saturday, December 8, 2018

"Firecrackers" - the MFA Crowd

There's a group, a kind of collective, I guess. It's some kind of organization which supports female photographers through grants, by showcasing their work, and maybe some kind of collective work. Anyways, you can poke around the web site here: Firecracker and try to sort it out yourself if you like.

To be clear, I think this is a fantastic mission, and I support it wholeheartedly.

My job, though, as I see it, it to point out not only what is good, but what is a bit dicey, what is true as I see it, setting my personal support aside. I ran into this outfit through a book, entitled Firecrackers, which is an in-print collection of women photographers. Available at good bookstores everywhere, I suppose? It's been an interesting read, and interesting look.

If, as I do, you make a studious effort to read the front matter, there's a good chance you'll make it through this one without giving up. The remarks are fairly short and not too turgid. A remark that caught my eye was that the editors sought to expand their reach beyond Europe (where Firecracker is centered) and include a more international group of women, without simply "box-ticking" which is a really commendable goal. Later, if one recalls this, one wonders "why on earth do all there pictures look the same?"

Which isn't quite fair, because there is a lot of breadth here. But there is also much sameness.

If you attend to the little introductory remarks for each photographer, one soon realizes why. While it is true that these women are from all over the place they have, for the most part, gotten some sort of BFA, MFA, or other degree in Art Photography from some western school, or they have won some sort of recognition from Magnum, that self-licking ice cream cone of photographic influence. This last makes sense when you realize that the founder of Firecracker worked at Magnum for a while.

At the moment the first artist featured on their web site is Raphaela Rosella, with a photo essay about women in a small town in Australia, where she grew up (if I am reading the text right). This women are First Nations (which I guess we used to call Aborigines?) and they are having a tough time. Racism and poverty is No Fun and shit be awful. You might, naively, think that since the artist grew up there that she is part of this community and photographing, as it were, from the inside. But no, as near as I can tell she's a white girl who went to Art School (BA Photography, Queensland College of Art) and a social worker.

Now, this is not an indictment of the work, far from it. The point, though, is that this artist as far as I can tell literally has more in common with me than with her subjects. Ms. Rosella, whatever her virtues, and despite growing up in a small town in Australia, is not substantively adding to the diversity of voices represented by Firecracker.

This is, in the end, a small and insular group of photographers. They all know each other, or at least know people who know people. They all either went to Art School in the 2000s, or hang around with people who did, or at the very least have been thoroughly vetted by people who did. So of course there is much sameness here.

This doesn't mean that it's bad. It's quite variable, and there are a couple of pieces in the book that I found excellent. Which, as always, means that you, and you, and also you, will probably find a few of the pieces excellent as well, and not necessarily the ones I did.

There are basically two things I want to talk about here, the first is a set of stylistic tics that turn up (and which you can see for yourself on the web site), and the second is the actual work in the actual book. So, at some point in what follows, I will switch gears. Try to pay attention so you don't miss it!

I have argued in the past that perhaps there is no such thing as a "female gaze" but rather only the absence of a "male gaze", and here I am, in a way, proven wrong. In fact the Art Schools of the west have constructed a kind of female gaze, in the form of a couple of tics that women can use to indicate that they are Serious About Women Stuff. Men could roll these things out too, but it would take a certain amount of courage to engage in such poaching, and I dare say the establishment would punish you savagely.

The first tic is: women staring neutrally. They may, and often do, stare at the camera, but optionally they can stare into space. If you lard your portfolio up with a whole bunch of these, then you can say anything you like about women's issues, and it will "read." You can talk about oppression, repression, empowerment, whatever you like. Since the faces are blank, serious, and maybe a little mopey, you can project any and all of these onto them.

I guess you can't say "it's awesome being a woman!" and have it read against a sea of depressed stares, but this is not a grant-winning message anyways. MFA students only make depressing photo essays. Well, the world is a kind of depressing place, I guess.

The key here is that there women are not having a good time, no smiles are allowed. Of the 110-120 odd photographs that include a female figure, maybe a dozen evince some evidence of having a good time. You can intermix these things with pictures of whatever. Maybe local objects and scenes that are related, maybe pictures of nothing, random roads, buildings, hands, a chair.

The second tic is: dress yourself up in costumes and place yourself in contexts that can be read as some sort of comment on feminine stuff. One dresses up in hijab made out of candy, another paints herself in various brightly colored settings, another poses in a honeymoon suite. Again, these can be read as whatever you want to say, as long as you (the model) make sure to maintain a neutral expression and posture, and deploy a good 1000 yard stare.

Now, probably only about half of the book consists of this stuff. And, to be fair, these are just tics and sometimes they work just fine.

It is only a matter of time before some male photographer drags out the first of these tics under a female, or gender-neutral, name, wins some stuff, and then is outed to the horror of all. Many will quickly delete a lot of tweets and say they knew all along.

Onwards to the book itself. The bit I liked the best deploys tic #1 in spades, made by Endia Beal (MFA, Yale). This is a series of portraits of young black women who are finishing school and preparing to enter the workforce. Beal has them dress and present themselves as "professional" and the results are both fascinating and disheartening. While a few of the women genuinely look professional, more than half are wearing very tight clothing with skirts that hit above the knee. Every single one of them looks great and at least half of them have no idea what to wear at the office.

It's a powerful commentary that unpacks in a bunch of ways if you're attentive. On the one hand, I am a hell of a lot more like their likely hiring managers than they are, and I would substantially mark down a lot of these young women purely on their clothing choices. Am I right or wrong? Not only does this make me despair for young, educated, black women, it (on the other hand) makes me question myself. What, exactly, is wrong with tight dresses with hems above the knee, eh? So, that's all good! Good work, Ms. Beal!

Another piece, by Katrin Koenning, which I radically did not like in this book, but which I recognized as something I'd talked about before. This illustrates the problem with books like Firecrackers. Koenning's piece has exactly zero chance of working if you don't give us most of the pictures. Nine pictures selected from the project completely loses the flow of light to dark to light to dark, it loses the fucking point. It comes across like a handful of junky snapshots of nothing, which is exactly what it is. If you chop my arm off, it's just meat. I get their desire to include her, because BA, Photography, Queensland College of Art, which appears to be one of the nexii from which Firecracker draws its people.

There's a glorious profile of a Russian weatherman living alone at 69 degrees north, shot I think in summer but with the perfect flavor of the light of northern winters. Just beautiful, emotionally evocative, etc. And none of the "female gaze" tropes whatsoever to muddy things up, just a tender, light, touch, the kind of thing that is, while gender neutral, perhaps more likely to be shot by women. The artist even allows him to look happy. (surely she didn't go to Art School?!! But she DID, ICP, New York. How?!! What?) I will go so far as to suggest that you look up Evgenia Arbugaeva, as her work is at the very least beautiful to look at.

And then there's a handful of tic #2 (the Cindy Sherman trope) which mostly don't work, because Cindy can act and these woman can't do anything except stare vacantly, as they have been trained to do in Art School or by their Art Schooled peers. There's a few other things that look like a bunch of junky snaps of nothing which could, I suppose, but broken fragments of better work like Koenning's, but to be honest the book does not motivate me to go find out. Which is sort of sad.

The "For Birds' Sake" work appears, as noted previously, in this book. I'm honestly not sure if I like it or not, but it's pure gender neuutral MFA material. If you look at the copy online, over here and scroll down a bit, you will find a picture of a dirt road.

This is classic MFA "documentary" style. This road means nothing, it could be anywhere. It's stuffed in there to provide evidence of the Serious Documentary Nature of the work, and perhaps also to provide some sort of visual cue. It could have been shot in North Carolina. It is unexplained. It's supposed to suggest... well, a road (or a hole, or a chair, or whatever) can suggest anything, isolated like this.

What makes this photo interesting is that someone involved in making the book decided to put a copy of it up front, facing the opening essays.

Now, I am prepared to admit that I might be missing something. But from where I sit, my tentatively formed opinion, is that this shot is a bunch of bullshit signifying nothing, and that very mystery is why the editors(?) chose to lead with it.

Duchamp's "Fountain" appeared to be nothing, but was in fact making a bold and powerful statement. This seems, over the last century, to have been converted by the mysterious alchemy of human stupidity and postmodernism, into the notion that anything and everything which appears to be nothing just might be something, and if someone is standing behind it mugging wildly, it probably is something.

Sometimes a road is just a road.


  1. own Evgenia Arbugaeva‘s book ‘Tiksi’, and it is really beautiful work. I didn’t realise she had a second book published, my credit card is going to take another hit.

    Seems to me there’s a third tic at play here, although possibly more an editorial imposition . That is, that woman MFA photographers MUST only concern themselves with, as Private Eye would put it, “wimmin’s issues”. From a glance at the photographers list on the Firecrackers site, apart from Arbugaeva, the only photographer I could see whose work wasn’t in some way about women was Dornith Doherty.

    I don’t really see how Firecrackers addresses any kind of imbalance if it appears to almost entirely restrict women to photographing themselves or each other.

    1. I think there is a lot of pressure on female photographers to willingly climb into a very small box. Nobody is yellig at them, but that box is where many of the accolades and awards are.

      You can get awards and praise as "a photographer" for pretty much whatever, still, but if you want to be recognized as a "female photographer" there's a very limited set of things you can do that are likely to lead to that recognition.

      And god, many of them are just awful.

  2. The blank stare mode (which I call Art or “A” face) is not limited to female subjects or female photographers. I see it everywhere and it drives me crazy. It’s so affected. When everyone does it, it means nothing.

  3. An incredibly brave post. Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. Thank you, I think. I don't really *feel* particularly brave, though! Just sort of acerbic!