the limits of photographic character: images you thought never existed

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.
–diane arbus

so i lied earlier, when i said that photography hadn’t done anything for me lately.

i have seen quite a bit of art in the last year, and in several genres that are not my focus, especially: dance, performance, theater and new media. like my experiences with photography, some of it has been morbidly bad. some of it sublime (heiner goebbel’s eraritjaritjaka springs immediately to mind for the latter category). photography though, for all its hits and misses, is the mistress i return to, and will continue to write of.

there are images that once seen, you know will follow you; that certain ideas you maintain will be punctuated now by this new collective visual unconscious. that the word which sprung into your mind when you saw this image will be recalled by you whenever the image appears suddenly and unbidden. that such images are what form each of our highly personal and subjective inner galleries.

i would imagine that the images which fill my private gallery space contain a single continuous thread: those images which i’d like to imagine some other version of myself might have taken. which is not to say: images i wish i had taken or images that i wish i had the capacity to take. no, i mean the images which, given a different set of priorities or choices made, are those that i (perhaps delusionally) know are things i could have seen myself seeing. as if these images, when i encounter them, are an aha! moment of negated destiny.

alack and alas, we all choose (and keep choosing) who it is to be and who it is we want to become. and in the choosing, so many paths-not-taken fall to the side. this notion of self-identity and awareness of that self has got me thinking about a schematic construct i once encountered, thought was incredibly important, and over the succeeding years had nearly forgotten all about. considering my abiding interest in art, art-making and art-makers, it was alarming to me that it had nearly slipped through the cracks. i’ll get on more about it later, but as an initial tease-of-thought the idea i’m speaking about is that of photographic character.

it goes something like this:

Projects + Ideology + Temperament + Social Group + Psycho-biography
photographic character

to understand photographic character is to (1) enter a similar frame of mind [as the photographer’s]; (2) experience their photographic experience, and (3) understand it [them] in a total way. once you understand what a photographer would never do (e.g. walker evans would never make a nude), you can begin to understand the parameters of a given artist’s photographic character.

diane arbus. self-portrait, pregnant, nyc, 1945.

it seems like that at a certain age it is very fashionable to like the work of diane arbus. and that age would be a young, coming-of-age age, when her raw inquiry and love of a gritty new york–which arguably doesn’t exist anymore–finds in your impressionable youth a receptive and captivated audience member. if, as you age, you further develop an interest/practice in photography, the bell curve will complete itself and it will become equally fashionable to dislike the work of diane arbus. to claim her output as that of an exploitive, voyeuristic depressive, and to attribute her status among the art-elite as having something to do with how still, to this day, culture is intoxicated with the myth of the mad genius, the maker-of things. your attitude of her may fall within this framework, outside of it, or be of the persuasion to have simply never given the matter much thought.

my conception of arbus changed when i encountered the above photograph. i’d like to imagine that what i find in it goes beyond my own photograph-as-confession voyeurism, and that it isn’t simply the peak into the obvious personal that gives me pause. beyond my first flush of shock and thinking that this is a photograph i’d never imagined she’d make, i have come instead to see that this image is really a prelude to all the other photographs that i have come to know as arbus’s–touching, vulnerable, a little skewed–as if she made this one imprint of herself before she went out seeking the same in the world over the next twenty-odd years.

arbus is 22. pregnant with her first child, doon. her husband is in military service in india. it is 1945, and she is living with her parents. this will be one of a series of images that she will make and send to her absent spouse, and one of the only self-portraits of diane arbus that i’ve ever known.

the words that come to mind in looking at this image: tender. vulnerable. uncertain. firsts. spare. and that head of hers, cocked over to one side, as if in appraisal of herself, the fact of her first pregnancy, the oddity of taking a photograph of oneself naked in front of a mirror. as if in that look she gives herself she’s trying to get at some essential core, some thingness that differentiates her, or this moment, or herself in this moment, apart from all others and all other moments. this going within to extract and reveal something that will remain occluded, fantastic and a quiet secret. and i realized in looking at this that it’s the same feeling i get as her intention in any photograph that i had ever seen that she had taken of someone else.

Our baby is a girl…curious and even a little funny. I simply stare at her. I expected to feel a deep recognition but I don’t. She isn’t like either of us but lovely: very alive with very beautiful shoulders. I love our lack of connection: that she doesn’t feel anything towards me and i feel such an odd, separate way about her.

I expected great changes (first, I expected it from pregnancy, then when it didn’t come, I expected it from birth), but I’m glad I didn’t change or at least feel changed. I trust myself better as I am. It was very simple–I have forgotten most of the bad part because of the anesthetic–but I still know it was simple. I guess events are always simpler than people–which is good.
–letter from Arbus to Alfred Stieglitz

the retrospective show where I saw this image has been hailed as everything from landmark to overtly worshipful (“why are we in her panty drawer?” critic David Spiher wrote of the MOMA show). While I can appreciate the sentiment driving the latter criticism–that of turning the spectacle of photography into the spectacle of personality (or, more precisely, maximizing the dollar potential of the former by elevating the latter)–I believe that it is too easy to dismiss the value of the inclusion of the personal in a show such as this. Whatever the intentions of the curators–displaying cameras, collage-walls, notebooks and even a recreation of her studio–the inclusion does end up lending some insight to a particularly hard-to-get-at aspect of both the photographer and the critical process. having the ability to peruse this at leisure lends us fodder to contemplate arbus’s psychological biography, which in turn could further inform us about her work, processes, artistic project via her artistic boundary conditions. one could argue that the gallery or museum is no place for such inner critique, but i think that would be a mistake. for all that we have projected onto the work of diane arbus and what we think from that we can assume about her, having a sustained moment with her letters, diaries, jotted-down-dreams et al. lets her speak her psychology back at our projections.

it seems there has always been the argument of “appreciate the art and keep the artist out of it,” but is that really viable? to consider the character of any given photographer seems hopelessly outmoded, anachronistic, but i would argue for this practice in any genre where we would exercise a critical model or mode of thinking. even of (perhaps especially of) critics themselves.

douglas nickel‘s notion of photography and photo-history as being a discursive, social practice based on an entire set of discourses and commentaries in our lifetimes can serve as a basis for understanding how to approach the notion of photographic character. photographic projects should be viewed with these questions in the back of our pockets: what were they trying to do with photography here? what of their character is evinced in their photography–what have they put of their person in here? what was their attitude? what was their disposition?

where one points the camera is where your psyche pointed it. if a photographer does not deal with that thing the psyche is putting forth, the psyche will in turn relentlessly keep pointing them there. an artist that is aware of what they are doing and what motivates their actions are serving the rest of us with tasks and life-lessons to follow: Know Thyself. ideally: be able to speak cogently about what it is you do and why, without having critics and curators proffer meaning in your stead. often when an artist fails at this, it is motivated by two cross-purpose actions: deferral and denial: defer the meaning and realization of what it is being sought in the work, and deny the reasons why it is being done through photography. noble projects versus neurotic ones.

a noble project can simply mean one in which the photographer is self aware to the degree that she knows what her tastes and predilections are and why, makes no apologies for them, and makes images based on what conceptual visions interest her. sometimes this can involve an agenda, sometimes not. either way, the approach will be open-ended in terms of strategy, with no pre-conceived notion as to what the final product will be. ideally, the work will not be viewed as a “product” at all, but in terms of a means by which to better understand something.

the image above of arbus pregnant is not such an image. it is instead a photograph taken by someone so known to my image-repertoire that the existence of this image stretched my understanding of what i thought i knew about her work. it actually ended up expanding it. the pregnant artist is not the culminating work of an open-ended teleology or practice, but this particular image is, i would argue, the beginning of her starting to think like one who could posses such a thing.

influences and confluences

to have the knowledge that you seek a particular vein of something is to be aware of not only your tastes, but what influences you, creates bias and division, separates one set of concerns from another. connoisseurship, perhaps, but also a little bit of greek wisdom: to know why you are drawn to specific things, people, situations or a kind of aesthetics is a form of knowing thyself.

i have been swayed by a particular kind of representation of birds. for years i’ve been made aware of this imagistic longing which i posses. it is very specific. when i say to someone, “i’m interested in making photographs of birds,” to the addressee that immediately creates some presumptions that become harder to correct if the conversation goes much deeper than this. “oh, so you’re into landscape photography then?” no, not exactly. not the way you perceive what that genre is, nor, probably, the way that i do.

when i search for ways to describe this, even to myself, the vocabulary comes up lacking. the best way i can find to describe what i mean and to describe it absolutely is to pull a photograph or a book from somewhere and physically give it and then in turn my meaning to someone. to you. my clumsy visual lexicon:

a certain awareness of grace:

camille solygua


michael ackerman

a love of form and play with space:

katsushika hokusai

masao yamamoto

smallness. delicacy:



jim dine : birds

from multiple sensibilities i become aware and attuned to my own. i define what bird is to my own eye, and i redefine each adjective i found to describe each form; meaning becomes expanded and at the same time compressed. i also define by negation what the image i seek is not. a healthy respect for both these image makers and what they pulled from within them begins to emerge within me. awe is balanced by fright which is balanced by play which is balanced by tea-stained memories that never were. the influences become confluences when i take my camera into a scene with a mind full of birds.

these were taken a much warmer season ago, in a much warmer clime than i inhabit now. before i left the south:

these are sketches of thoughts, really. the diet of one who intends to make more images which will evoke the lexicon she’s using to go by for the moment, and then expand the meanings she had previously described. more work in the works. both the written and the seen.

what little girls want: the art of miwa yanagi

A woman
who loves a woman
is forever young.
The mentor
and the student
feed off each other.
Many a girl
had an old aunt
who locked her in the study
to keep the boys away.
They would play rummy
or lie on the couch
and touch and touch
old breast against young breast.

–Anne Sexton, “Rapunzel,” Transformations

miwa yanagi, rapunzel, 2005.

miwa yanagi creeps me out–in all the good kinds of ways. her images carry the capacity to go from surface to psychological in lightning-quick speed, and what lay in the subconscious afterwards folds into complex unease with a lingering, distinct aftertaste. cursory on-line research into her newest body of work provides three titles describing the same set of images, all apt in one or more ways: fairytales; the darkness of girlhood and the lightness of aging; and the incredible tale of the innocent old lady and the heartless girl.” whichever phrasing you choose, this third body of her photographs follows seamlessly where the last left off, and her visual problem-solving mingled with her confidence in her questions and critque makes her among the most interesting and provactive image makers today.

the japanese have a phrase for women art photographers, and it is not one that they should be entirely grateful for: onnanoko shashinka, translated literally as “girlie photographers.” as the first wave of established japanese photographers begins to make way for the new second wave, women have been struggling to make work that is both personal and collective, meaningful without being minute. and while work by female photographers is being produced, there is irritatingly little infomation or exposure of it. the lack of interest, press or support of contemporary female photographers in japan has been in part because of the concerns choosen to be explored in their art gets snidely referred to as “women’s work” and is subsequently dismissed. miyako ishiuchi‘s photographs catalog her mother’s articles of clothing and ephemera, as a daughter tries to understand her relationship to her and to herself through personal (nearly sacristral) objects she wore or carried on her person. michiko kon deals in still lifes constructed entirely of foodstuffs. gloriously decadent, humorous and grotesque, they are still made of items that a woman bought at a market, which are ingredients in a meal, that to a japanese mentality is to be served and prepared for a husband and family.

i have never liked the notion of women vs. male artists of any sort. women-only shows, while they serve a purpose, feel like a half-hearted attempt at artistic affirmative action. equality has never come about through polarity. the fact is, the playing field has never been level, and all that’s ever mattered–male or female–is the work. photography, because of its relatively late entrance into the art scene, has been perhaps the greatest democracy of all the arts (whether or not you read about it speaks to something else). ishiuchi’s photos are delicate, eerie and truly personalized, intimate documents. kon’s are among the first photographic images by a japanese photographer that i ever became infactuated with (and whatever happened to her anyway? has she made anything since the mid-1990’s?). that said, miwa yanagi makes altogether different kinds of images. different from women. different from men. different from anything i have ever seen. miwa yanagi is an artist whose questions give way to more questions.

yanagi first found herself championed by a transvestite japanese photographer,yasumasa morimura, who had been making a splash re-enacting art historical scenes and inserting himself as an obvious asian-male-made-to-be-westernized-ideal-of-female. he introduced her work to a curator of a major deutsche bank exhibition, held at the kunsthalle in frankfurt. her work was shown along the same walls as cindy sherman, nobuyoshi araki, jeff wall, miyako ishiuchi and morimura.

her first series, elevator girls, is startling to look at and is seductive in its deliberately sleek and polished sensibility. but when i first saw them i did not understand what i was looking at, and faced with the cultural roadblock, stopped at the surface.

elevator girls, 1996-1999

i did not know what an “elevator girl” was, and wasn’t aware of any overreaching cultural critique going on in the images. there are times when i assume that if i need to be given too much information about the context for a work, or why it exists, then the work becomes about the information and not about the work itself. i tend to think that these pieces fail when the explanation is more interesting than the visual. but happily in yanagi’s case, her visuals are always thought through, well executed and the context is necessary, and necessarily engaging.

noriko fuku describes elevator girls as those who:

…wear beautiful uniforms called “royal fashion,” often created by famous designers, and they receive special training where they learn to bow and speak with an exaggeratedly feminine tone of voice: “welcome to our department store. we appreciate your visit here today. this elevator is going up now and stops at all the floors upon your request. the second floor is for designer brand dresses for ladies. are there any customers who would like to stop here?” when the door opens, she says, “please mind your step.” another elevator girl is usually standing outside the door, also wearing royal fashion. the elevator girl inside the elevator smiles and bows to the girl outside, as if saying, “i am handing over my customers to you, please take care of them.” elevator girls stay in their tiny cells repeating the same speech and gestures hour after hour. only beautiful young girls are hired for these positions. for the previous generation, this was a highly desirable job.

without this information all i saw were sleek, surreal examples of consumer culture, and was completely oblivious to the specific critique on that culture the images were made to provoke. as i read in interviews and articles, i began to glean that this first work was possibly not meant for a wider cultural audience than the japanese (though her successive work would contend mightily with more collective themes), and that what it would become was yanagi’s first stab at puncturing this feminine bubble that exists in japan, the one that sets out all the acceptable options for a woman’s course in life and what her expectations can and should be for the duration.

white casket, 1998

i trust yanagi’s images in part because her line of questioning is evident and continually surprising: what can young, educated japanese women expect for their ambitious lives lived in large cities, post-education but pre-marriage? what does it mean to define oneself through sheer consumerism? is one doll different at all from another? is life as an elevator girl like living in some terranium, existing as a perfect moving object in a kind of fishbowl? how does one escape? does one escape? is collective identity a kind of murder, a form of sought-after suicide? in interviews, yanagi comments on the varities of female experience in japan, chief among those she questions are a group deemed “parasites.” parasites are women who choose to stay living at home with their parents while spending all of their considerable salaries on fashion. the relationship’s dynamic perpetuates itself because both parties think they are doing good deeds by living under the same roof: children think they are being good by watching over their parents and just generally being there, and parents feel a reason to live in continuing to take care of them. yanagi has said, “they stay home and spend all their money buying what they want. prada or hermes, japanese women consume all brand-name products. the industry does best in japan thanks to these women.” with no real cultural comparison in the west, the finer points of her criticism of this aspect of daily life was completely lost on me. once i had read the context which to a japanese would be self-evident, the photographs pulsed with their intended meaning.

in this interview, yanagi describes how her experience with her models from the series elevator girls began to generate fodder for her next work, grandmothers.

yanagi: in the process of making the series, i had the opportunity to talk with models who were in their twenties. it was interesting. they want something for their future. but they have a hard time expressing what they want as if their desires were subdued or locked inside…japanese women think they have to be lovable and liked by everyone around them…they think that they don’t deserve to live if they are not like that. as a result, they don’t talk openly about their wishes or strange desires even though they had some ideas about who they wanted to be when they were children. in order for them to recall their childhood dreams, they need to be liberated from their youthfulness.
wasaka: young women cannot express who they want to be at present because they are young?
yanagi: right. but, they can often express what they want to accomplish 50 years later. i think that occurs after they feel liberated from the age issue.
wasaka: does that mean that they don’t care anymore about what others think of them when they become senior?
yanagi: yes. so the more restricted she is today, the more free and gorgeous she may become fifty years later in her imagination.

misako, 2002
in your arms i used to listen to
that song which i will play again tonight
oh hazy moon
how many more nights are yet to pass
for this desolation to cease.

it is with her grandmothers series where yanagi began to fully come into her own. she had begun elevator girls as a performance piece, switching to photography when she became frustrated by the lack in the piece’s capacity to give her full authorial control. as if hitting a wall from such strictures, she turned around here, and gave up some of that rulership and found that it took her places it could not have with her absolute direction. using some of the models from elevator girls, and procuring others through an on-line advertisement she placed, she found stories within stories of what young women dreamed about becoming when they were older, once freed from their perceived obligations to family and society. artist and girl went hand-in-hand, teasing out the dreamed-of-life and what it might look like. using a combination of aging software, latex and makeup, yanagi brought the young into lively agehood. the women were asked to compose something that the reflective, experienced older woman would say or think.

ai, 2004

i know people in this neighborhood talk behind my back and say that my fortune-telling is fake.
i don’t do this to get a bit of money from these kids, i’m not that desperate or bored
i’m just here waiting for one special customer: my successor.
since she’s not attracted to the past or anxious about the future,
i leave it to chance that someday, she’ll enter through this shattered doorway.
after she takes my place, i’ll live quietly, discharged from both my hopes and regrets.
how many more dull fortunes do i have to tell
i can’t help feeling pity for these innocent girls.
their lives will be just like their mothers,
chronic boredom interrupted by disappointment and disillusionment.
can’t believe that they come here to confirm that.
i’m fed up with their girlsih secrets,
made rosy only by their shallow expectations and cheap dreams.
i’ll only take five more customers today.
oh, this girl is about to cry.
there’s no use for tears, sweetheart.

the result is a compelling battery of images, myriads of self-directed destinies and specifically wished-for futures; a truly realized and collaborative work. perhaps because the piece wouldn’t be complete without it, perhaps because it was too good a self-portrait opportunity to resist, yanagi included herself in the retinue of old ladies:

miwa, 2001
for ten years
i have looked after many children
every time
i embrace a new child
we all embark upon our journey together
at eighty
the long journeys across many mountains and rivers have become difficult.
still, i keep going
with the thought
that my children will exist
in the farthest reaches of this earth.

yanagi could be speaking about all the women she encounters while researching and producing her many images. or she could mean the women she hopes are touched or changed by the ideas of possible futures they could embody, if only they could see themselves within those possibile potential selves. or further still, the children may be the actual works themselves, taken out of japan, department stores, and foreign art museums, and held in the mind’s eyes of millions who come in contact with them, and by extension, with her wish for herself and a changed world.

her grandmothers series was well-received, shown in europe, japan and america, and included in a book of her work and interviews. it was reviewed as a series that viewed aging and feminity in a positive light, and the context for the reviews rarely delved anywhere near yanagi’s larger critique of banal and repetitive existences most japanese women live in today.

her newest body of work, the darkness of girlhood and the lightness of aging, begun in 2004, picks up some of the more sinister strands that her previous works had flirted with, but had not fully given voice to. to my eye, it is her most darkly compelling and aesthetically full-rounded work to date. in all her previous images, the final product is presented in lush, large, and luminous display, some photographs reaching 70×280″ in size. heavily digitally manipulated, extroidinarily detailed, we are engulfed as viewers into her mise-en-sc√©ne. these new images are smaller (but not small, exactly, measuring about 40×40″), classically printed black-and-whites, and still deal with a female-to-female dynamic, but in the well-known terrain of the fairy-tale.

gretel, 2004

i cannot find much information about this series, and am frustrated, as i often am, about the lack of information concerning newer work by pioneering japanese photographers. what i do know about the series i found in a recent issue of asia art pacific magazine. the review tells that yanagi reconstructs fairytale scenes from western tales as well as from gabriel garcia marquez’s erendira. she casts girls between the ages of five to eleven, and records them as both a girl and an old woman. the end result, in the handful of images i’ve seen (and want desperately to see in person), is chilling, unsettling, and utterly engrossing.

snow white, 2004

i quoted from anne sexton’s book of poems transformations at the beginning of this post. that particular tome was sexton’s dabbling into tales-told-slant, and yanagi’s rendering of girl-into-old-hag, innocence thwarted, and the cycle of youthful curiosity giving way to trials, self-discovery and redemption has much in sympathy with sexton’s treatment. in both the little girls aren’t all as innocent as they seem; evil witches are misfortunate shrews who wear their life’s regrets on their sleeves; both wield a certain power and horror; both are one in the same.

erendira, 2004

yanagi’s new series of work is being show from august through october at the hara museum of art in tokyo. i do not know whether it will come to the states or not, but if you have the means and opportunity to see it, i highly suggest you do so.