A Guided Tour
by Susan Bright
With the rise of digital photography one stylized fact that reverberates around photography circles is that the traditional commercial studio is dying. While it may certainly be true that there are fewer of them around, and our need to visit them perhaps less regular, there is still an important place for them. However many snapshots you take of your family (and by this I mean children specifically) there is still an urge to get a “proper photograph” done for many and proudly place it on the mantel piece at home. For this to happen a visit to the studio is necessary. Added to this, these studios specializing in family photography have a lot of preschools, kindergartens, high schools and college graduations to visit. Commercially speaking, the family is imperative to its success. There are also times when this kind of vernacular commercial photography can have an interesting place in the art gallery and is used to arresting effect in the hands of artists.
Artistically, the home, domesticity, the family and the familial everyday are a richly mined seam for artists and photographers. It’s easy to reel off a long list of great bodies of work that concern themselves with these themes that have made an important impact in the history of photography. Approaches and intentions differ but the need to consider the idea of the family and home, and thus in turn your place in it, is irresistible to many. Worth mentioning, in amongst a long list, are the British photographer Richard Bellingham and his controversial Ray’s a Laugh (2002); the autobiographical journeys by Mexican artist Ana Casas Broda in her brilliantly complex Album (2000), which combines family snapshots, studio photographs and her own art work to suggest signs and symptoms of traumas long repressed; Mitch Epstein’s Family Business (2003) saw him return to photograph his father resulting in a body of work that also works metaphorically to suggest larger universal overtures; and the funny and empathetic Suburbia by Bill Owens which enjoyed a recent revival (first published in 1973 and again in 1999).
Theorists, critics and psychoanalysts (needless to say) have also been drawn to similar subject matter. In the case of the French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Boudieu and his collaborators it was not the subject matter per se but the family’s use of the camera which made it a “middle-brow art” and as such a definition for photography. They based their theories not on some intrinsic photographic DNA but on the fact that it had become a mass social practice. One wonders what he would make of the use of photography now, and in particular its applications on social networking sites, perhaps downgrading it to a “lowbrow art” and love the illicit opportunities it can offer.
The lowbrow chatroulette.com enables you to flick through people sitting in front of their computers and engage (or not) for however long you want. It’s a place for extroverts and introverts alike. A space for the curious and bored, and one to masturbate to, it would seem. It is evidence indeed that the computer has an integral place in the home now and how embedded a certain kind of photography (and video) is – one that was unimaginable when Bourdieu’s book was released.
It was interesting to note that at the time Photography: A Middle-brow Art was reprinted in 1990, two large and important exhibitions about the family and the home were in production. These were “Who’s Looking a the Family” curated by Val Williams shown at the Barbican Art Gallery, London in 1994, and “Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort” curated by Peter Galassi for the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1991. Although drastically different in approach and intent (where Galassi focused on high art with a prevalence for narrative and the dramatic, Williams had a more expanded view of photography dealing with the surrealistic everyday and included a selection of vernacular photographs including forensic photography, studio portraits and family snapshots) neither could have ever predicted how much domestic photography would have changed in the last 15 years and the role that technology now has in the home.
But it is exactly photography’s technology and inherent lowliness that is part of its charm and is an ongoing attraction for many artists. References to “applied” photography such as still life (Kathryn Parker Almanas), fashion (Peter Stanglmayr) and surveillance (David Deutsch) can be seen in the exhibition “Housed,” curated by artists Joseph Maida and Katie Murray.
The work of Peter Stanglmayr, Born a Wicked Child (2005) is a contemporary nod to Alice Austen and traditions of gender. The series was originally commissioned for a small women's knitwear company called Spring and Clifton. In an attempt to make their twin sets raunchier he decided to shoot boys in them instead of girls. At the time of the shoot the boy pictured was fifteen—an edgy, and some would say controversial move to photograph a model officially “underage” in the fashion business. It is, however, an age when the dichotomy between feminine and masculine is at its most acute and the tensions of awkwardness/grace and vulnerability/composure are apparent in the photographs and give them their strange and slightly unsettling charge. The work hints at the secret space of the home, a space where young boys can dress up in their mother’s clothes whilst she is at work and be liberated by such an experience. It is such ordinary suburban boys experimenting with the feel of nylon when they pull on a pair of tights or relish the electric shock of desire as they run their hands through beautiful fabrics and enjoy the quietly subversive thrill of putting on nail polish and who may well be inside the homes that David Deutsch photographs.
Technology plays an important part in David Deutsch’s series Mail (2000). It is not just the subject of his work but also the key to his photographic technique. Made before the intrusive Google Earth, Deutsch took aerial shots of suburbia from a helicopter. They have the coolness of conceptual art taxonomy mixed in with work-a-day army reconnaissance but conversely let the imagination run free as you envision what’s happening in these generic, clumsy boxes that people call home. In a review of his work in ArtForum in 2001, Margaret Sundell described them as a place where “autonomy tends to slide into isolation and voyeurism increasingly usurps more meaningful forms of human contact.” However, as much of the other work in the show demonstrates, voyeurism (and with it a new kind of isolation) is meaningful contact for many.
Much of the work in the show brings to mind the work of Edward Ruscha, Lewis Baltz or the legendary work of the New Topographics more than the much-sited Edward Hopper who is often the default artist of choice for those dealing with issues of suburban alienation. There is a distance to much of the work rather than an emphasis on suggested narrative. Theoretically too, one feels that the reference may not relate as much to Boudieu but perhaps more to Jean Baudrillard’s America (1986). Exhilarating and provocative, this text abandons academic formal argument and analysis and is instead in a more languid and opinionated survey. The ideas considered in this book share similarities to the work of Lewis Baltz, Deutsch and another artist featured in the show, Victoria Sambunaris, in that the huge, epic scale of consumerist America (when transferred into a domestic setting) makes for an alienating and depersonalized place.
Where Deutsch dives in, Sambunaris pans out. Their work neatly becomes a counterpoint for one another especially in her 2007 piece, Untitled, Wendoever, UT, which shows a tiny town of “cookie cutter” houses in the middle of barren land isolated and dwarfed by mountains and impossible to get to without a car. This landscape may well fall neatly into the lineage of conceptual art that Baltz heralded so concisely but it is also worth considering within the larger history of American photography and in particular the 19th century topographical photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan. A comparison with Desert San Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada (1868) is interesting. O’Sullivan’s photograph feels ironic and knowing, two traits which are unusual at such a time, especially for “record” photography. The photographers’ wagon has done a U turn in the desert and the photographers’ footprints are legible in the sand. We can see where he has walked up hill carrying his heavy camera to take the picture. But there is no view. Any vista is obstructed by a large sand dune that dominates the centre of the picture and as such gives the whole scene, and the efforts to photograph it, a sense of futility. With the Sambunaris photograph a similar mound dominates, although her vantage point is much higher and further back to enable a view. The sad houses act in the same way as Sullivan’s cart does in order to give scale. They are stuck in Utah however, unable to move like the wagon on its way out of the inhospitable land. Futility is apparent in Untitled, Wendoever, UT as the landscape swallows up the houses showing that man is far from ever-conquering nature—an American pioneering dream as so eagerly illustrated by other early topographical photographers such as William Henry Jackson has turned into something all together more pathetic.
On first appearances Peter Garfield’s Harsh Reality (1998) seems to show what these little houses in Utah might look like if a huge twister came to town. However, the photographs are an elaborate layering of truth and fiction. Presented to the world in 1998 as real houses that had been airlifted out to open fields and blown up in a similar vein to the monolithic and monumental earthworks and macho gestures of artists such as Michael Heizer and Chris Burden, they are in fact small maquettes which are digitally manipulated. The backstory was a hoax directed at the art world. Over 10 years on, with digital technology what it is today and a complete lack of belief in the veracity of photography the story seems sort of sweet and even irrelevant. What hasn’t changed though is the strange beauty of the pieces that seems to owe a strange postmodern, somewhat delirious, debt to both the old and new Topographics.
The consumerism mentioned in reference to Jean Baudriard’s America can be seen as the main subject matter in the work of Penelope Umbrico and as a subtext for Kyle Ganson’s moving video Thanksgiving (2007). Umbrico takes pictures of mirrors from mail order catalogues and fills them with images of other home decorating features for sale in Mirrors (from catalogs) (2002 – 2007). As such they become signifiers for empty consumerist desire, reflecting back at the viewer an “ideal home.” She has said of these images stuffed into our mailboxes, “These catalogs are obviously made to sell objects but they present such idyllic, clean lifestyles that they also seem to be made for escaping from our own imperfect, messy lives. This escape is intensified by the potential ownership of any of the objects presented there. There is an illusion of control, of choice to determine the "look" of your life. I started searching for instances of self-reflection and escape (mirrors, windows, doors) in the catalogues to address these notions of self and escape as they pertain to the viewer of the catalog.” It is as if a real life is replaced by historical, faux simulacra within these objects of desire with the wider implications of not just the self trying to escape, but also a nation—but to what? And where is the authenticity?
A very real American history and tradition is by contrast the main subject matter for Thanksgiving. The gluttony, excess, pressure and emphasis on food rather than family show the artist’s disgust at this yearly get together and his personal revulsion as his family gorge on food that becomes almost unrecognizable with the close up shots and DIY shooting techniques. The fact that the artist suffers from anorexia is left unsaid but once again points to family secrets, hidden histories and painful memories that bind families together and is implied in much of these works in “Housed.”
The deconstruction and metaphors that food can carry are also the subject matter for Kathryn Parker Almanas. Where Ganson gorges the senses with a turkey and sweet potato overload Parker Almanas gets clinical. She continues the long art historical tradition in still life where food symbolizes a demise and eventual death with its inevitable decay. However, she updates it to a society where the body is not a corporal and visceral thing symbolized by oozing fruit but a sanitized, disinfected and dissected thing in the shape of a Danish pastry. The seventeenth century masters of the still life genre reveled in decay but Parker Almanas prefers the snap of surgical gloves and her personal fascination and repulsion with the subject matter are apparent in equal measure. This push/pull technique is also used to great ironic (and comic) effect in the series Newscasters (2002) by Matt Ducklo.
Over half of the American population has three or more televisions per household and according to the Nielsen Company the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day. With this statistic in mind, a 65 year old will have spent nine years in front of the television. Ducklo takes newscasters as his subject matter and removes them from the contextual box so what we have instead are strange made up automatons with their smiles that are not really smiles staring transfixed into the distance. The falsity, performance and blandness of their appearance is such a regular feature in most homes that the absurdity of their appearance becomes almost unnoticed and it is only when it is brought out of context does the ridiculousness of the scenarios come to fore belying the seriousness of their reporting.
The quotidian everyday is also seen in the work of Jessica Watson and Abby Robinson. Watson shows adroit skill in taking photographs of the simplest everyday objects and manages to transform them into something special. This is a special skill of a photographer and one that seems misleadingly simple. A lamp, some uncooked fish, a knife and fork become modern day still lives with a touch of Eggleston color and a twist of diaristic framing so deftly handled by Japanese artists such as Rinko Kawauchi. These influences combined with her own hand become something quintessentially American, and scale and juxtaposition in the works gives them enough visual charge to be interesting but not dazzling. It is the quietness of them that is their strength. It’s as if they shouldn’t really work but they do and you just can’t quite put your finger on why. They are like photographic haikus—elusive and profound at the same time.
Messier, more personal and altogether more obsessive is the work of Abby Robinson. For over 30 years she has been making self-portraits that act like staccato notes in her life. They show daily routines, visits to the dentist, vacations and time with her family—the very stuff that makes up life inside and outside the home. She has said of the work, “…the images parallel memory itself—quirky, circular, paradoxical, ironic, sly and funny. The effect is to honor both time and truth as well as to deconstruct them. The series is lucid without being linear; the sequencing swirls through time without losing its storytelling thread.” In a similar way Christopher Miner truncates time and memory in his video The Best Decision I Ever Made (2004) as he returns to his deceased grandparents’ house and tours the empty site with a laconic ambivalence. His aimless voiceover tells the viewer about his grandfather’s stable life and how different it is from his own. The piece is not without humour and pathos however as he recounts how he used to masturbate over a picture of an unknown young Hawaiian woman who was in a tourist photograph with his grandparents.
The body, as an expressive tool in which questions of identity, from the very personal to the highly abstract and philosophical, is a common vehicle for artists and in Catherine Opie’s Self Portrait (1993), her sexuality and physical objection to the heterosexual nuclear family literally expressed in her skin. The soreness of her skin contrasts with the childlike illustration that has been carved there and sets up an oppositional dynamic between the medium and the subject matter. The portrait could also be read as a metaphorical turning of her back on monogamous relationships. The picture is part of a series of three synoptic self portraits that highlight the physicality of her body—be that through scarification, extreme piercing or most recently with the nursing of her young son. They continue to resonate as much as when they were made and the place of her body in this exhibition is a powerful punch to remind mainstream America of alternative possibilities to ideas around domesticity and concepts of the home.
These works show, or tell, how the body, in all its corporeal glory, is a vital part of domesticity in a similar way that the alienating, cool and distancing aspects of technology that are coming to dominate the home. It is these two apparently opposing elements that are two main curatorial touchstones for the exhibition. Sometimes they are at opposite sides of the spectrum and at other times they coalesce. Either way they are both very contemporary debates that the curators deftly highlight, and as such bring issues around the American home right up to date.
© Susan Bright, May 2010
This piece was commissioned by Dear Dave, and is excerpted from a critical essay written in conjunction with the exhibition Housed, curated by Katie Murray and Joseph Maida at the Alice Austen House.