Review by Irene Bindi in BlackFlash magazine (2016 Issue 33.2).
I am sitting in Winnipeg-based photographer Karen Asher’s dining room. She is describing to me the experience of a shoot for her new series of photographs “The Full Catastrophe” (2016).
She begins to speak more rapidly, her breathing becoming erratic. What she is describing is how her breathing becomes irregular during the shoot, that her heart starts beating crazily, and that before the moment of capture she stops breathing. In her effort to convey this to me, she is living it, and her ability to draw people in to her experience becomes obvious.
An intensely social artist, Asher’s work is centred on people: people whom she has encountered casually, people she knows well, and virtual strangers. One can hardly talk about her work without at least acknowledging this innate connection and where it begins. Eschewing conventional photographer/subject roles, her shoots are a kind of social stew where she guides the action through interaction, exploring and embellishing specific character or visual elements that draw her in. What results are photographs with a density of narrative and an intensely personal, seductive atmosphere; lovely, horrifying, ridiculous.
In his 2007 article for October “What’s in a Face”, Julian Stallabrass identifies the ethnographic re-emergence in contemporary photography as possessing “an apparently objective manner of viewing [that] shuns lyricism, overt identification with the subject, and compositional effort on the part of the photographer”. The ethnographic element in contemporary portraiture is typically enforced in part by a separation of the subject from their surroundings, their focus generally a blank gaze directed into the lens, their surroundings forgotten or never there.
Asher’s photography bears an aesthetic similarity to some of the photographers Stallabrass explores, notably Rieneke Dijkstra. Asher’s subjects however, are either deeply engaged in their surroundings or, if their minds appear elsewhere, are still an integral part of them. Stallabrass points out that in ethnographic and fashion photography, “constitutional vices and virtue, character, abilities—a person’s very being—are written on the skin.”
This readability or “knowability” of the subject via their surface is thoroughly thwarted in Asher’s new series. Her camera suggests complexities by partially obscuring faces and readable expressions. By capturing moments of social illegibility, Asher thus depicts spaces and figures that defy singular interpretation.
As works that emphasize immediacy in person and in scale, they nonetheless transcend the moment of capture through a set of ambiguities and atmospheric manipulations of light, colour and object—which seem to align Asher more closely with the surrealism of Boris Mikhailov and Roger Ballen, and the documentary altered states of Nan Goldin and Bertien van Manen. Ambiguities are the magical thread of this work; these “awkward imbalances and perplexities” function formally and thematically to intensify a series of questions for the viewer.
Asher’s statement that she is “thrilled to be able to capture a surreal image from an ordinary moment” speaks to her comfort with the creation of an image as a non-interpretive gesture. If a surreal or bizarre tonality emerges from a moment that did not (or did not seem to) possess this quality at the time of capture, a fiction emerges. This fiction is not separable nor comparable to the “documentary” moment of capture. More importantly, it need not be at odds with it either.
In one of the photographs in “Catastrophe” entitled Purple Martin (2015), a man is reclined in profile with his head draped over the back of a chair (or not a chair). He is outdoors, and the puzzling light communicates an indeterminable time of day. He wears an unreadable expression. The space that surrounds him is dreamlike, and the beautiful birthmark on the side of his face appears between aesthetic interest, documentary realism and metaphorical possibility. Is this fantasy? The intimate portrait of a friend? The visual expression of a moment of exhaustion, or of joy? These ongoing questions allow the photograph to act, for me, in the way a film does: spanning time without measure and emptying my own experience of surrounding interference. Nothing is given definitively, and for a curious viewer, this is very exciting.
The photographs in “Catastrophe” contain elements both candid and staged. Alongside staged elements, intimacy is retained as a product of Asher’s rapport with her subjects. Simply stated, Asher
loves people, and that love permeates our viewing experience. These photographs seem far less concerned with representation (and its attendant responsibilities) than they are with the subjects themselves and an expression of Asher’s connection to them, that expression being inseparable from the reason for her original attraction to them as a subject.
It is worth noting that the subjects of Asher’s photographs are often ballasted by her own psychological states. In “Catastrophe”, they are used as a way of exploring the essence of crisis. Developed after being confronted by an undiagnosed illness, Asher describes the series as her attempt to create “images depicting the mental noise of an overwhelming preoccupation with sickness”, an idea that evolved to “recognize[s] the ‘full catastrophe’ in everybody’s everyday life.”
After months of attempting to negotiate her illness, Asher became drawn to the concept of “the full catastrophe” after she came across the phrase when reading self-help guru Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living (2005). In the book, Kabat-Zinn evokes a scene from the film Zorba the Greek (1964) where in re-sponse to being questioned as to whether he has been married, Zorba responds: “Of course I have been married. Wife, house, kids, everything… the full catastrophe”. Asher was particularly drawn to Kabat-Zinn’s assertion that Zorba’s statement “…was not meant to be a lament, nor does it mean that being married or having children is a catastrophe. Zorba’s response embodies a supreme appreciation for the richness of life, and the inevitability of all its dilemmas, sorrows, tragedies and ironies.”
Asher became interested in how her illness reframed her own notion of the catastrophic, and how the catastrophic could be re-interpreted in minimal and maximal ways in the lives of others. In her words, the full catastrophe encompasses “the all-consuming chaos of life”, a kind of “delirious absurdity” that embraces emotional extremes.
The 25-by-25-inch scale of these works is both large enough to be striking and small enough to feel approachable and contain-able. Asher feels that the square format lends itself to the encapsulation of a world like a sort of snow globe. This is a strange encompassing, for the worlds in these photographs do not negate an exterior—many objects are cropped by the frame’s finality—but spaces clearly continue beyond the frame’s borders. What is contained is enough to spark curiosity, seemingly enclosed while open to potentialities.
Many of the photographs in the series unfold in bedrooms, those intimate spaces of self-celebration and annihilation. In them (and for the first time in Asher’s work) bodies and objects are treated similarly, at times sharing equal status in evoking comfort, humour or distress. To the author there is something cinematic in these in-between views, the detailed mise-en-scène, the excess of narrative material in photographs like Blanket (2015) and Pantyhose (2015). In Asher’s own language there are some snatches of the cinematic. The images, she says, “capture moments in time that play out like absurd daydreams, bizarre fantasies and delirious nightmares.” She speaks in temporal terms: images that “play out” suggest a drift that we are being invited into. To me, daydreams, fantasies and nightmares are all films.
After laughing (hard) and crying (not so hard), I am sitting with Asher, still listening as she describes the tension in the room during the shoot, the thrill of shooting with film, of “not knowing what you are going to get, not knowing if it’s even working”. There is a joy and tumult in her description, and I wonder if a part of her thrill comes from participating in her own vision of the full catastrophe. The result will be catastrophic regardless. The shoot will fail—catastrophe. The shoot will succeed—catastrophe.
— Irene Bindi is an artist and film programmer living in Winnipeg, MB. She received her master’s degree in Film & Video from York University and was a programmer for the WNDX Festival of Moving Image from 2011-2015. In her visual art practice she works in collage, film, and sound.