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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Crit: Being Inbetween, by Carolyn Mendelsohn

There is a trope in the land of feminist-ish photography: I will get a whole batch of women, or girls, and take photos of them. This will empower them.

The details of how the empowerment is supposed to happen are, like so much else in the land of Serious Photography, left unstated as if it was well known, which it is not. Nobody knows, but they assume everyone else does. This does not make the projects bad, but it is an inauspicious starting point. Here is one such project: Being Inbetween, Carolyn Mendelsohn, on The Guardian web site.

There is a second trope being deployed here, which is "let's photograph tweens" which we see rolled out quite often. Sally Mann made At Twelve in 1988, and we see it time and again. Here's a related project by Justine Kurland, again on The Guardian web site, and I dare say there are more. If I can think of two in a couple of minutes, surely there are.

Anyways, let's look at Mendelsohn's project.

One of the first thing that's likely to strike you is the sameness of the pictures. The same black background, hearkening back to awful 1980s retail photographs in the "formal" mode. The same expression, although a very slight smile sneaks in a couple times. The subjects are all girls, all roughly the same age. The framing is the same. The kids with taller hair are forced down in the frame, which strikes me as a peculiar choice, but whatever, it doesn't seem to mean anything. Whatever. There's a lot of sameness here.

At the same time, the nerds will notice that the lighting patterns change subtly. I am no strobist or portraiture expert, but the changes in lighting pattern don't seem to serve any purpose and a quick check suggests that she simply changed it up a little every year or so. The body postures vary, as does the clothing.

You can read a version of the secret decoder ring here. This is one of those projects where its meaning is related to us in text, rather than being particularly visible in the pictures themselves.

When you peel away the blather about empowerment and agency, you see that the girls had almost no agency here. They selected their clothing and stance, and they made a little personal statement, and that's it. Everything else ran on rails defined by Mendelsohn. While more collaborative than if Mendelsohn had roofied her subjects, it's not notably collaborative, and indeed leans away from that. The girls mostly look vaguely uncomfortable, closed down, and for what appears to be good reason.

The girls all look the same, have the same expression, because they have been directed to look that way. This sentence, from the Impressions Gallery link, is especially maddening: This careful and measured photographic approach bestows the girls with authority, granting them a certain power held within their gaze. This is literally saying "by taking away most of the choices, the girls are given authority" which is some fucking Orwellian double-talk.

The statements made by the girls, while in no way earth shaking, are fun to read. Tweens can be pretty cool. I am raising one my my own, and she says shit every day that delights me. Abigail, who wants to move to Romania and raise wolves, is awesome. I will contribute to that GoFundMe campaign.

So what is it, visually? It strikes me as not a lot more than a typology of tween fashion choices c. 2018. The kids are cute, and who doesn't like kids? The fact that they're emotionally closed (mostly) does rather drain the life out of the thing, though.

The meaning of the project is entirely imposed on it by the blathering that surrounds it, the claims of collaboration, empowerment, authority, etc, are all great intentions which happen to be utterly invisible in the pictures themselves, and which to be blunt I do not believe in for a second. Mendelsohn may genuinely believe these statements to be true, but they are not.

Is it good? Not really. It's a set of warmed over tropes, roughly shoved into a conceptual bag into which is doesn't really fit.

This is Art made for Artists and Art Critics who, by and large, may be relied upon to not look very closely at the work itself but will prefer to read about your process, your identity, you intentions, and so on, and then will elect to either project that material on to the work or not according, mostly, to whether or not they think their peers will.


  1. Done before, done better (see Rineke Dijkstra), these are glorified school yearbook photos. Whatevs.

    Good review.

  2. Here's how you take pictures of children and other human beings that aren't catatonic, so they look, you know, alive: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2021/jan/14/grace-robertson-pioneering-photographer-in-pictures