In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag discusses several canonical war photographs, underscores that they were staged, and describes the surprise and disappointment one feels upon this realization. She considers the famous Robert Doisneau photograph of a Paris couple kissing on a sidewalk—it too, was staged. She explains, “A painting or drawing is judged a fake when it turns out not to be by the artist to whom it had been attributed. A photograph—or a filmed document available on television or the internet—is judged a fake when it turns out to be deceiving the viewer about the scene it purports to depict”. And, moreover, “No sophisticated sense of what photography is or can be will ever weaken the satisfactions of a picture of an unexpected event seized in mid-action by an alert photographer.” The line between documentary and staged photography is the starting point for Candid. This exhibition brings together four Manitoba-raised artists in consideration of the portrait as it intersects with ideas relating to gender, ethnicity, and class. Furthermore, this exhibition examines the nuanced relationship presented between photographer and subject.
The show came together very organically and somewhat accidentally. When visiting the Manitoba Art Bank’s collection at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in Brandon, I stumbled upon a series of early photographs taken by Laura Letinsky when she was still living and producing work in Winnipeg. They are totally unlike the work for which she has become known, but they resonated strongly with me and the current research I was doing about contemporary Winnipeg-based photography Letinsky’s early influences are clear and have a distinctly Winnipeg feel. Documentary in style, these works capture complex representations in subtle and sophisticated ways. Produced in the 1980’s, they are the first photographs selected to be included in this show and form a loose historical starting point for a consideration of work produced by younger artists from a contemporary perspective: Maya de Forest, Karen Asher, and Elaine Stocki.
The intention behind Maya de Forest’s project is straightforward and in this simplicity, or perhaps because of it, she is able to negotiate the complex ambiguities surrounding familial relationships, domestic space, and the passage of time. Her interest in photography is rooted in the desire to portray “subjects as honestly as possible.” She notes that “it’s easier if there is some kind of shared identity or history.”
The photographs in the exhibition were taken during the month of January when Maya was living back at home with her parents after being away from Winnipeg for an extended period. She describes her project:
“The initial motivation came from witnessing this weird juxtaposition of my Mom’s physical aging and this newfound passion for life. She was in her early seventies when she began intensely pursuing her interests like cooking and flamenco dancing. At the same time she was also immersing herself deeper into her own culture, reading and writing almost exclusively in Japanese to the point that I was noticing her spoken English deteriorate. I think what really motivated the project in the end were two things: the fear of our widening communication gap and recognizing her mortality.”
One can recognize a sense of trust that is developed between the mother and daughter. And the viewer is given the privilege to be a part of it. However, one wonders to what degree the mother and daughter perform for each other, each aware of the camera mediating and defining their relationship. There can sometimes be a dedication that exists between family members that is unlike our other relationships.
In contrast to the other artists in the exhibition, Maya approaches photography from an interest in personal documentary. Her photographs speak to a photographic tradition that believes in its ability to reveal something truly meaningful about its subject. And her work inspires us to believe in moments of authenticity. Each photograph is carefully framed. The shots reveal just enough information about the domestic space to hold the viewer in a state of wonder. We build a clearer portrait of this woman from her surroundings. Our homes reveal as much about who we are as who we want to be. They describe our future desires and what holds us back. Although her mother was aware of the camera, Maya believes that throughout the month her mother reached a point when she could ignore it. Maya does admit, however, there were times when her mother did “linger a few extra seconds in a moment.” In these moments, Maya has captured the soft, filtered light of Winnipeg’s winter, speaking to stillness, beauty, and the distance between the two women.
Karen Asher is equally concerned with capturing an authentic moment and is committed to creating images that reveal something about the human condition. As opposed to being an objective observer, Karen believes her role as a photographer is to “get right in there and make the moment more messy” with a desire to find “the subtlety in the spectacle.” Her photographs highlight awkward intimate moments, states of heightened emotion, and strange ambiguous gestures. Her subjects are pitted against solemn landscapes or idiosyncratic interiors. Her backgrounds give meaning and context to her subjects while undermining any coherent reading of who the subjects are, or what it is they are doing. Adding to this confusion is her close attention to texture, patterns, and her use of lighting. Her photographs echo with duplicity, patterns appear on subjects and reverberate in backgrounds. Uncertain coupling further confuses the viewer, leaving us the task of putting things together.
All the photographs by Karen in Candid were shot using a flash, because of her desire to freeze the action, in order to keep things “spontaneous and unpredictable.” She considers the flash her “co-pilot.” The flash has a unique way of seeing. It reveals to us what is in the shadows, and pins down details for future scrutiny. There is something disturbing about this ability for photography to see mechanically, its ability to reveal ourselves to ourselves in ways that our biology prevents us from doing. It is a photographic function that Karen exploits to considerable effect.
There is an unpredictability also present in the way Karen orchestrates her photo shoots. She notes, “I use movement and gesture to create an intriguing exchange. I find that capturing someone in motion before or after they’re really conscious of their pose helps to somehow expose their inner character.” Part of this process is giving direction to her subjects—in this exchange of activity, they perform for her as much as she performs for them. She explains:
“As soon as a subject knows they’re being photographed, there’s an element of performance. But this tendency gets more intense the more direction I give. My nerves, and equally my attempt to have the subjects feel at ease, create a bit of a ridiculous gong show atmosphere. I sometimes don’t know if I’m witnessing the performance, or if I’m actually part of the performance.”
Implicating herself directly in her work, she is unlike the other photographers in Candid. In Maya’s work, we get a feeling that she is an objective observer, whereas with Karen, we get the sense that she is present somehow in all of her photographs. The photographs chosen for this show are of her friends, and they speak to the relationship she has with them. As a result of this intimacy, the viewer is at ease when looking, knowing that her subjects have given permission to be looked at. One understands the necessary condition of subjects becoming objects as a result of the technology of photography, but in Karen’s work, possibly because of the way she implicates herself in the process, this is okay.
In contrast to the work of de Forest and Asher, Elaine Stocki’s work does not set out to represent a truth about her subjects. Nor does she photograph her friends or family. Combining studio shots with traditional street photography, she stumbles upon her subjects by taking day trips to rural fairs, through chance encounters with nude joggers at the beach, or by soliciting models from community bulletin boards. Instead of photographing a subject for the sake of revealing something meaningful about their subjectivity, Elaine explains, “I’ve never photographed anyone under the assumption that I was speaking for them, and the most responsibility I can take is being very clear with my photographic models that I am not attempting to represent their truth in any way.” Elaine’s photographs run counter to what she sees as “an unfortunate moralistic streak in photography.” In a very strange way, her subjects are often not the subject matter of her photographs at all. When her work functions best, her subjects confront the viewer, directing our attention away from their subjectivity. Acting as placeholders or gatekeepers, the subjects in Elaine’s work are present to probe more seriously the tradition of photography itself—the structures of power, reception, and interpretation that have willed it into being.
Elaine’s photographs in Candid are shot using black and white film, then hand printed on fibre-based paper in a traditional wet studio, and finally hand-coloured by the artist herself. This process reveals, in Elaine’s words, the “meaty part” part of photography, “the part that can convey the desire, pain, love, etc. of the artist who made it.” This hand-colouring recalls the vernacular studio portraiture tradition from the late nineteenth century. However, in contrast to the technique that was created to heighten the realism of a black and white print, Elaine’s brushstrokes add a layer of irrationality: the garishly pink-cream of the young man’s cheekbones in Cona function like crudely drawn makeup; the turquoise comb and pink lips in D destabilize the 50’s Greaser glamour shot; and the pink painted stripe in K functions as decorative ribbon, a boxing rope, or as Do Not Cross Tape. Elaine’s work also makes reference to the tradition of high art. Specifically, Nude moving an abstract painting 1 is an obvious nod to Klein’s blue female nudes. Curiously however, Elaine follows Klein’s lead—the nude women are still used as props at the artistic disposal of the artist orchestrating the work.
In unexpected ways, Elaine’s work enters the realm of artistic fantasy unique to the artist herself. It is imbued with a bizarre humour. She isn’t afraid to challenge the viewer, exploit qualities in her subjects, or question her own competence as a photographer. Vulnerably resting between the line of fiction and the consequences of real-life representation, there is an ambiguity present in the power relations negotiated by Elaine, and ultimately it is unclear how the viewer is implicated. Or more precisely, one may wonder what responsibility the viewer has in looking.
In our advanced age of digital technology we are constantly being surveyed, scanned, and inspected. With or without our consent, systems of dominance have made us internalize modes of self-censorship—we are not only constantly monitored and regulated, we are also constantly monitoring and regulating ourselves. One begins to wonder if a truly candid moment is possible, and if it is, what does it look like? Not surprisingly, all the artists in Candid created their work on traditional film. Perhaps being candid is mostly about being open to others: open to looking, and open to being looked at. Blurring the line between documentary and staged photography, and operating from intersecting and overlapping traditions, Maya, Karen, and Elaine each present a notion of portraiture that expresses something unique about their own experiences of class, ethnicity, and gender.
– Derek Dunlop