Thursday, March 26, 2020

Rania Mater

When a fellow tells you that he hires assistants based on competence and skill, but seems always to wind up with a lissome blonde, one might justifiably speculate that the stated job description does not perfectly match the actual job description. We find this a lot in artist's statements, which frequently seem more aspirational than descriptive. Now, I don't mind an artist's statement that's a bit of a jumble. If you can say it all with words, you could have skipped the art portion entirely, so it's no surprise when the words are not up to the task.

Still, sometimes artist's statements just don't seem to match the work.

I invite you to examine Rania Mater's portfolio SHE: Femme-Fleur here.

These are very beautiful photographs, very well made to my eye. The subject matter is appealing, who after all does not like looking at young women?

The styling is frequently remarkable, with matching colors across the frame, and a really lush palette. This is very beautiful stuff, and even among these uniformly excellent frames there are some real standouts. So let me be clear: I quite like these pictures, and would be surprised if you didn't as well. Take some time with them, they are lovely and fun to look at.

But. Of course there's a but. You knew I was going to say "but" didn't you?

I have two points of difficulty with this project. The first is the artist's statement, which says, among other things:

I want to portray the raw beauty of their age, their individuality, their physicality, their mystery, and the organic relationship they create with their environment, being in the lush landscapes of rural Ohio, or the textured backdrops of Beirut. I want to photograph them, the way I, a woman and a mother, see them: beautiful, alive. I want to create a personal narrative with them. The process is about collaboration and empowerment, and the photo session always evolves organically as the women become active participants in the image-making process.

I am willing to buy the collaboration part. The notion that these pictures are taken in their environment, or that that portray their individuality is patently absurd. This is aspirational, not real. Mater has turned all these young women in to ciphers, and they are all to a large degree the same cipher. She has selected the environment, at least, to match the woman's colors and the woman's clothing's colors. These are set pieces designed by someone with a very strong sense of color. If they are in any meaningful way the subject's environment, except in the most superficial "fairly near where they live", it is purely accidental.

This is not to denigrate the work, there's definitely a thing going on. This is not even to reject the entire statement, there's a lot of raw beauty and also physicality on display here, for instance. But the conceit that this is somehow about the individual is just a conceit.

This leads naturally to me second difficulty, which is the way in which the women are rendered ciphers. At first glance, these look like well made fashion-styled photographs. Upon closer inspection, though, we see that the subjects are not emoting in the way that fashion models do.

Fashion models are more or less famous for being dead-eyed clothes racks, but that's not quite true. There is a certain blankness there, but there's a subtle flair of attitude more often than not. Fashion photography is fashion-forward, but it relies on the model to emote and help set a mood. Often we see a sort of sullen (not blank, sullen) body language, but Dolce and Gabbana tend to go for fun or arrogant. Balanciaga's models are anything but dead-eyed ciphers.

In contrast, Mater's subjects are all dead-eyed in the same way. Each woman seems slightly awkward, slightly out of place. One imagines that each woman is filled with emotion, but those emotions are fully suppressed. They seem almost on the verge of flight, sometimes. Silent, attentive, waiting for something. As an essay on what it's like to be a young, beautiful, woman, always subject to examination, subject to judgement, subject to not necessarily desired attention, always protectively closed and distant, this would certainly make a lot of sense.

Part of the problem here is, I diagnose, a particular identifiable trope of "female gaze" styled photography in which, presumably to impart an air of seriousness, the subjects are required to stare glumly, eyes focused on middle distance, in a vaguely serious looking posture. No fun allowed, nor rage, nor flirtatiousness.

I imagine there may even be a conscious notion in play here, a mission to avoid criticism. As we all know, a visibly angry woman is all-too-often seen as "losing it", a flirt is "a slut", a cheerful woman is perhaps "superficial." So the safest role is to assume a bland seriousness.

On the one hand, this is the reality. On the other, it sucks, and maybe should be pushed back against rather than submitted to, especially in work of this kind that seeks to promote a woman-forward image.

These pictures seem to be to reduce the woman to very beautiful, but ultimately bland, objects. The pictures are wonderous, the subjects uninteresting as people, which is perhaps the opposite of what's intended here.

The women in these pictures feel altogether too much like beautiful props, stuck in the frame by the artist, notionally to represent femininity, or womanhood, or womankind, or something. The result is lovely, and even meaningful, but it at the same time flies in the face of the artist's statement.

I don't know which one to believe, here.


  1. Yeah I'm getting a strong Gustav Klimt vibe off this body of work.

  2. It took too long to load the damn pictures.

  3. See also

    The same lack of expression in her young subjects, but here the trick is to let them pose themselves in front of a one-way mirror through which Pannack takes her photos. From her artist's statement:

    "I asked my subjects all aged between 7 and 17 to really see themselves; spend time with their reflection and confront and accept their appearance. The informal and wild environment of the outdoors created a relaxed and atmospheric setting that encouraged my subjects to feel present as I took the pictures from the other side. I asked the young people to concentrate on areas of their reflection intensely and meditatively let their attention flow around their features. The gaze that is revealed is both present and distant, internal yet revealing. Their expressions make us wonder what they are thinking as they truly gaze at themselves devoid of technology or judgement."

    1. That's interesting. I flipped through it and asked myself "is that yuong person thinking 'is she done yet? has she taken the picture?'" and came up with about 3 or 4 of them.

      There's genuine introspection, to my eye, in most of them, to one degree or another, but also a lot of "ugh, this is weird, when can I leave?"