The photographic medium has become a cultural facet in which artists and non-artists alike explore their lived experiences and the lives around them, as well as the ways in which the camera and the photograph expose identities particular to their environment. Winnipeg-based photographer, Karen Asher, discovers a collective identity that parallels her city’s character with that of the people it contains. Her work touches upon the continual state of shifting identity in which Winnipeg – a city that never escapes a state of flux – finds itself. In Asher’s debut exhibition, No Cause for Concern, at first glance the work resembles a collection of b-sides, the images that would not be found in an album or displayed along a family’s staircase. Yet there is an unexpected beauty.
“I immediately envision the setting and their attire, and can only relax once I have shot them and then can finally cross them off the list.” -Asher
It would seem that for Asher, her work is an aesthetic and cultural interplay that challenges people’s expectations in reference to portraiture. The concrete or barren urban landscapes act as counterpoint to the often sterile, constructed and idiosyncratic interior environments that provide the backdrop for her portraits. Representations are influenced by culture and, in much the same way, have the capacity to shape culture and mould society’s perceptions, along with the expectations of portraiture and of who is a worthy subject. These photographs by Asher cause the viewer to contemplate the culturally constructed idea of what constitutes a portrait and an appropriate setting (public or private/urban or domestic). The images produced become a projection of the photographer and what she chooses to disseminate and, in doing so, add up to a series of images with harsh lighting and peculiar expressions in seemingly fictitious environments. Ultimately, Asher constructs a narrative in a disjunctive or even unknowable story. Seemingly banal moments are made intriguing through Asher’s photographs as she acts as a pseudo-photojournalist, prodding the unique and peculiar characters living within her city.
“I’m like the bewildered child, [whisper!] ‘Oh my god, look.’ Not in a way that I’m judging or making fun, but in a way that I’m enamoured and in awe.” -Asher
Asher utilizes traditional photographic conventions and formal qualities, and then shifts these conventions with her use of lighting, and in her strategy for posing people. Once the subject has been posed, prior to depressing the shutter she waits for them to lose – even if only for a moment- their awareness of the camera. The contrast between personalities and settings, the subjects and the context of their portrait are subtly jarring. There is something rather intimate resonating in her work, a certain vulnerability. The ordinary becomes surreal. The environment and subject is staged yet the expressions that ensue are deliberate and uncontrived, resulting in an unlikely orchestrated spontaneity. Asher awaits her snapshot: the moment when the subjects are no longer performing, stripped of their stage, revealing their character albeit always controlled by the artist/recorder.
“Out of awkwardness I always laugh at the wrong times.” -Asher
We are fascinated by beauty yet more so with the bizarre. These mundane moments metamorphose themselves into something peculiarly remarkable: they add up to something other than the normal and desirable recordings of the everyday life. This constructedness segues throughout Asher’s photographs, whether it is the contrast between subject and environments or the expressions recorded in these portraits.
“I’m not against pretty.” -Asher
With this collection, Asher allows the viewer to linger slightly. Time and again, non-sequiturs reveal themselves in otherwise ordinary moments. At first sight these images might seem like typical portraits. The subtlety is what is so striking. The awkward facial expressions. The awkward environments. The awkward poses. The awkward introductions.
“Oh. I can’t stop staring.” -Asher
– Natasha Peterson