Our Bodies, Online

Feminist images in the age of Instagram.

By Carmen Winant

Petra Collins, from the series Selfie, 2013-2016 © the artist

Petra Collins, from the series Selfie, 2013-2016
© the artist

What are the qualifications of being a feminist artist today? This is an impossible question, which is, in many ways, the point. One of the defining doctrines of third-wave feminism (or fourth-wave feminism, or postfeminism, or whatever you call our current moment) is its persistent unwillingness to be defined. Whether you make abstract photograms or stag films, label your work feminist, and it is.

As a feminist contrivance, this idea is either liberating or naive, depending on whom you ask, and, likely, in which decade you were born. In either case, it’s a jagged break from the secondwave feminist art movement that predated it—a movement that adhered, by its very design, to a strict set of ideological guidelines. Much like the activist organizations from which this movement grew (which aimed to achieve specific goals like legalizing abortion, passing the Equal Rights Amendment, establishing equal pay and free, universal childcare), feminist art of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s was determined to raze oppressive structures with a new and defined set of rules all its own. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Audre Lorde famously declared in 1979. According to both the political and creative arms of the movement, any device that utilized patriarchal means was pointedly unfeminist and thereby an inadmissible agent of real social change.

Mayan Toledano, Emma, 2015 Courtesy the artist

Mayan Toledano, Emma, 2015
Courtesy the artist

Though born from a desire to achieve equality, some of these mandates around what feminism could and could not be eventually became exclusive, limiting, and problematic. Activist groups such as New York Radical Women came to regularly vote out their leaders for being “unsisterly,” leaders of the National Organization for Women distanced themselves from lesbian feminists—whom Betty Friedan labeled a “lavender menace”—and male children were banned from feminist separatist communes such as Womyn’s Land. At its zenith, this essentialist dogma thwarted the momentous gains of the second-wave movement. At the same time, artists like Betty Tompkins and Anita Steckel, whose paintings were considered too explicitly pornographic and thereby aligned with the patriarchal gaze, were largely excluded from the pale. Hannah Wilke was criticized for being too stereotypically beautiful (and thereby narcissistic) to represent her work’s feminist politics.

Almost half a century later, Instagram, the rise of selfie culture, American Apparel aesthetics, and amateur pornography—channels of visual communication that would have been impossible to fathom within the context of the pre-Internet women’s liberation movement—have come into being. An emerging guard of young, female photographers has carved out a new brand of feminism with a new set of definitions: Amalia Ulman created “hipster lifestyle” porn, to be viewed only within a gallery setting titled International House of Cozy (2015). Arvida Bystrom’s series There Will Be Blood (2012) pictures women in their lacy, period-stained underwear (she also regularly photographs herself and other young women in various states of undress in front of bright, pastel backdrops). Molly Soda’s project Should I Send This? (2015) is comprised of titillating, seminude, and headless selfies that the artist took but never forwarded on to romantic partners. Audrey Wollen’s series Repetition (2014–15) features the artist posing nude or seminude as she imitates and embodies historic works of art made by men such as Bas Jan Ader, Botticelli, and Velázquez. Mayan Toledano’s photographs for her brand Me and You—cocreated with Julia Baylis—are of young women posing topless in bed while wearing Me and You’s most recognizable product: women’s underwear that has the word feminist printed across the backside in pink. These artists frequently collaborate, curate one another into exhibitions, tag and promote each other on social media, and appear as subjects in each other’s work. The commercial, editorial, and creative ventures are part of a larger, allied cohort that is rapidly gaining popular visibility.

Mayan Toledano, Serreis in Palm Springs, 2014 Courtesy the artist

Mayan Toledano, Sherris in Palm Springs, 2014
Courtesy the artist

Among them, Petra Collins’s work is perhaps the most prominent. In addition to a creative practice—a recent project is of adolescent girls in the process of taking selfies—Collins counts Vogue, Elle, Wonderland, and i-D magazines as editorial clients, and has shot advertising work for Levi’s, Adidas, Stella McCartney, and Calvin Klein. Across all of these practices, her 35mm images are recognizable as crude and dreamy. Collins’s use of gel filters, pastel palettes, and high grain is uncannily reminiscent of Bob Guccione’s signature Penthouse magazine style, and likewise owes a debt to Ryan McGinley (for whom she has posed on numerous occasions) and Nan Goldin before that. However, unlike Goldin’s women, whose whole bodies project a wild and gleeful pathos, Collins—when she shoots commercially—often zooms in on her subject’s breasts, lips, or asses, their bodies bathed in warm, gauzy light. For all their sexual potency, Goldin’s photographs of Greer Lankton and Cookie Mueller don’t resemble other popular images of women; they feel at once beaten down and ferocious. Collins’s photographs of female subjects for fashion magazines, in which models pose in sauna-soaked underwear and lacy negligees, are notably more domesticated.

Yet Collins consistently makes the case for her work as being driven by her deeply rooted feminist ideals, as do many—if not all—of the photographers of this cohort. The question, then, of what qualifies work as feminist art in today’s cultural landscape circles closely around this group of artists. Bystrom, the Swedish photographer and self-defined “strident feminist” who has posed for Toledano and collaborated with Collins, told Dazed, “You can’t just make ‘feminist art’ because feminism is more like a spectrum of things; it changes and depends on its context.” This notion—that feminism can be whatever you want it to be, and that there are as many feminisms as there are women—appears to sharply contradict the exacting boundaries and idealistic aspirations of the preceding movement. It is, perhaps, the prevailing definition of feminism embraced by Collins and her peers.

Mayan Toledano, Lindsay, Long Island, 2015 Courtesy the artist

Mayan Toledano, Lindsay, Long Island, 2015
Courtesy the artist

Prestel, the publisher of Babe—a 2015 Collins-curated book that includes work by over thirty artists who have been part of her online collective, the Ardorous—promotes the collection as “reflect[ing] an all-accepting, affirming, distinct point of view that teens and young women everywhere can respond to.” Barnes & Noble blurbs Collins as “leading the way in a contemporary girl power revolution that proves feminism and sexuality aren’t mutually exclusive,” and various places online promote the book as “help[ing] us to refocus and remember that we are all a part of the struggle together.” This publisher-scripted language is not far removed from the manner in which the photographers and their surrounding community describe their work. For instance, Collins did an interview with the site StyleLikeU titled “Sorry Not Sorry, Women Have Body Hair” (and subtitled, “Another female power house is stripping down in the name of self-love, femininity, and body acceptance”) while slowly disrobing down to her underwear. Posted on YouTube, it drew several comments by men bemoaning the fact that she never removes her bra.

In her essay “Censorship and the Female Body,” published in 2013 by the Huffington Post, Collins rebukes Instagram’s decision to remove her profile based on a photograph she posted showing her crotch with some exposed pubic hair, writing:

I know having a social media profile removed is a 21st century privileged problem—but it is the way a lot of us live. These profiles mimic our physical selves and a lot of the time are even more important. They are ways to connect with an audience, to start discussion, and to create change…. To all the young girls and women, do not let this discourage you, do not let anyone tell you what you should look like, tell you how to be, tell you that you do not own your body. Even if society tries to silence you keep on going, keep moving forward, keep creating revolutionary work, and keep this discourse alive.

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 2nd July 2014 Courtesy the artist, James Fuentes and Arcadia Missa

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 2nd July 2014), 2014
Courtesy the artist, James Fuentes and Arcadia Missa

Collins shows real dedication to challenging censorship and promoting body positivity through her work (and is aware that her position is a privileged one), which is focused on reclaiming the female body by utilizing the techniques and tools of the male gaze. Censorship is, of course, a crucial feminist issue, as is sexual expression, freedom, and agency—all addressed head-on by these photographers. The characterization of this particular case of censorship being a “21st century privileged problem” that nevertheless represents “the way a lot of us live,” though, hints at the paradox inherent in much of this work. Can an inclusive and far-reaching feminism develop within the confines of a Westernminded social-media universe that upholds the status quo of capitalism—the begetter of privilege and the patriarchy alike?

If the rhetoric surrounding this kind of imagery is under question, the images themselves flirt with something undeniably interesting: the tension between provocation and objectification. Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” now almost four decades old, might have been written about this very charge:

The erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough. The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.

Mayan Toledano, Tessa in Mizpe, 2014 Courtesy the artist

Mayan Toledano, Tessa in Mizpe, 2014
Courtesy the artist

Locating the boundary between the erotic-as-power and the erotic-as-bondage can be a complex task, as is manifest in a recent project by Amalia Ulman. For Excellences & Perfections (2014), she posted hundreds of hypersexual, blank-faced selfies on Instagram, accruing up to six hundred likes on a single photograph. In describing how young women now self-present in images on the Internet, Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls and Sex (2016) aptly pins the type of account that Ulman’s spoofs as “a commercialized, one-dimensional, infinitely replicated, and, frankly, unimaginative vision of sexiness … [set to] perform rather than to feel sensuality.” By the time that Ulman eventually revealed that she was playing a fictional character in an act of cultural sendup, she had accrued almost 90,000 new followers. In a moment in which feminist art is defined primarily by its immediate context and authorial claims (Ulman herself does not identify her practice as “feminist” or ascribing to any other political categorization), this work—which has been digitally archived by Rhizome at the New Museum and will be exhibited at the Tate Modern this year—could be considered incisive or lacking rigor. In any case, by reveling in the exhibitionism she seeks to critique, Ulman’s work gets to have it both ways.

Feminist curator and critic Helen Molesworth told me recently that “in addition to the understanding that feminism is structured on absence—the absence of women’s experience, of bodies of color—a feminist is someone who is aware that you can’t change the patriarchy just by inserting women into it.” Is the fact that it was made by a woman enough to qualify it as progressive or political? Would we read these same images differently if Terry Richardson or Richard Kern—a mentor of Collins—made them? Is it possible to at once challenge codified systems of feminized beauty while photographing for the very fashion magazines that reinforce them? Can feminism successfully protest sexism through the personal choice of self-objectification, using what Zoë Heller described skeptically in her New York Review of Books essay “‘Hot’ Sex & Young Girls” as “the emancipatory possibilities of hotness”?

Audrey Wollen, Rokeby Venus, repetition of Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez, 2015 Courtesy the artist

Audrey Wollen, Rokeby Venus, repetition of Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez, 2015
Courtesy the artist

When untangling the complex questions posed by the work of these artists, it’s important to recognize that these women deliberately take control of the master’s tools (porn, Instagram, high-end fashion advertising, lifestyle magazines, other corporate and commercial entities) to dismantle the master’s house (patriarchal expectations of gender). Let’s remember that Audre Lorde and the antipornography activist Andrea Dworkin, who passed away in 1992 and 2005, respectively, would have been old enough to be grandmothers to this new generation of feminists. Movements evolve and revolt against themselves; axioms shift over time and in relationship to culture. Rather than ask this group of artists to resemble the feminists that came before them, critics, consumers, and practitioners alike should be promoting an unabashed and exacting dialogue around the politics of looking and image making.

This is a generation that has had access to mobile devices and image-centric web platforms from preadolescence as a part of daily life; this technological and commercial divide naturally shapes their creative instincts, and sets them apart from previous makers. Molesworth concluded our conversation by reminding me, “Though there are some basic operating principles and values, there is no one theoretical position on feminism that works for everyone.” So long as it is self-critically vested in challenging modes of power, feminism can, and must, be a continually evolving phenomenon. No matter the generation of feminism to which one ascribes, expansive and rigorous definitions do exist; let’s set about reclaiming them.

Carmen Winant is an artist, writer, and Professor of Visual Studies and Contemporary Art History at Columbus College of Art and Design.

Read more from Aperture Issue 225, “On Feminism,” or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

The post Our Bodies, Online appeared first on Aperture Foundation NY.


Notes on a Scandal

After weathering the media firestorm surrounding a series of provocative self-portraits, Lebanese photographer Rasha Kahil turns comments from online trolls into a powerful exhibition.

By Rayya Badran

Rasha Kahil, Hackney Wick, E9, London, from the series In Your Home, 2011 Courtesy the artist

Rasha Kahil, Hackney Wick, E9, London, from the series In Your Home, 2011
Courtesy the artist

For her photographic series In Your Home (2011), Rasha Kahil a London-based, Lebanese artist, photographer, and art director, depicted herself in seminude poses in people’s homes in London, Berlin, and Beirut. Kahil presented the work in Beirut and Istanbul and self-published the series in London in 2011. Confined at first to art world circles, In Your Home later caught the attention of local Lebanese news outlets when, in 2013, Al-Jadeed TV produced a report on Kahil. Her images became an instant sensation and the coverage subsequently catapulted Kahil into the ruthless public domain of social media. Anatomy of a Scandal, Kahil’s new work, is a multimedia installation that delves into her response.

Rasha Kahil, Kastanienallee, Mitte, Berlin, from the series In Your Home, 2011 Courtesy the artist

Rasha Kahil, Kastanienallee, Mitte, Berlin, from the series In Your Home, 2011
Courtesy the artist

Rayya Badran: In Your Home, made between 2008 and 2011, is a series that challenges issues of intimacy and private space. Yet, the later occultation—censorship—of the erotic parts of your body was itself a violation, not merely bestowed upon your body, but also a violation of what your work had intended to do in the first place. Your reprisal of these reworked, retouched works sheds light on the ease with which the Internet can appropriate and deconstruct images at will. Instead of actively challenging them, you chose to surrender, if one can say that, to that noise. I wonder about the subversive potential in such a decision. Radio silence as a position of power.

Rasha Kahil: As the “scandal” happened online, I did choose to stay silent. It wasn’t so much an act of resistance at first, but instead a realization that the power of the Internet, and the free-flow of voices who either choose to condemn or champion, is a torrential force that can only be observed in real time, not one I can actively engage in. Observation was my only recourse; documentation my only tool.

Being at the center of a such a vigorous media storm and witnessing the flurry of comments aimed at my body, my work, my being, was at first extremely harrowing, especially because there were many attempts to contact me directly, rather than just “reading” my person being dissected online. I was hounded by TV talk show hosts who asked me to participate in live TV panels and “defend” my work, give my side of the story. Of course, I was never going to do that, and I chose to remain silent, as not only is attempting to engage with the strength of the online voices a futile exercise, but, of course, agreeing to add my own voice to the discourse would only mean that I was giving validity to the wider discussion.

Therefore, proactive silence was my only course of action, and my strongest tool. I actually found the deconstructed images of my original In Your Home series churned out by the media outlets online—with their liberal use of pixels, black bars, and Photoshop blurs and splodges—quite fascinating. I am not sure “surrender” is the right word, as my silence was my own form of attack: it never crossed my mind to issue an apology to the singular “mass,” as seems so customary an outcome in these types of online scandals.

Rasha Kahil, Caledonian-Road, N7, London, from the series In Your Home, 2011 Courtesy the artist

Rasha Kahil, Caledonian-Road, N7, London, from the series In Your Home, 2011
Courtesy the artist

Badran: Before you moved onto the dissection of people’s responses to your work, and aside from the very polarizing, yet somewhat predictable opinions out there, was there a response among those that were sent or posted that particularly marked you or made you pause? And could you explain why?

Kahil: Yes, it is a comment left on a blog post that I actually used as a stand-alone vinyl piece in the exhibition:

unfortunately, none of Rasha’s so-called artistic pictures meet the conditions needed for a piece of work to be considered as art:

art: something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings/works created by artists: paintings, sculptures, etc., that are created to be beautiful or to express important ideas or feelings. [from the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary]

Obviously, these pictures only display vulgarity, fruitlessness and lack of creativity, which are the complete opposites of the two definitions of art mentioned above (that’s just to say a little about her pictures). Plus, they serve no important or noble purpose and are thus pure garbage porn.

Last point I want to make is, looking at this girl’s pictures, all I could possibly see is a stupid, wrathful, disguised feminist rebelling at the very end of the continuum and more importantly, a promising Arab porn star … wow! Very honorable and educational material for generations to come …

It is the violence of the tone in the comment that really struck me. Most of the comments left online were throwaway remarks, using my body as a springboard for “locker-room banter” (as Trump would say, defending this type of discourse). But this particular comment is considered. It reads like a mini-essay, with a moderate intro, a heated argument, and a progressively more vociferous closing statement. There seems to be deep-rooted revulsion towards my work and persona, manifest in an attack not only on my practice, but also my intellect, my body, my gender, and my intentions all at once. It unsettled me deeply, not because it zoomed in on me personally, but because I feel it to be a violent attack on women in general and vocal, outspoken women in particular.

Rasha Kahil, Anatomy of a Scandal, installation at Art First Projects, London, 2016 Courtesy the artist

Rasha Kahil, Anatomy of a Scandal, installation at Art First Projects, London, 2016
Courtesy the artist

Badran: Did you place any criteria for selecting the posted comments? What was the narrative you sought to bring to the surface from the flurry of online opinions?

Kahil: I incorporated all the emails I received as part of the framed wall installation. Since they are private, one-to-one emails, the names are cut out of the paper printout to protect the identity of the sender. As for the Facebook comments I used in the video, it was a question of using a diverse selection, so as to give the most accurate representation of the sheer volume, as well as the overarching themes, of the discussion that was happening. Some of the comments I narrate in my own voice are also arguments that happened between commenters amongst themselves, and I embody both polar positions through my voice.

Rather than a narrative, the installation is a documentation of the happening itself. I am the author of the installation and my arrangement of the different “scandal” elements constitutes a form of storytelling. In a sense, it’s a translation of a virtual experience into a physical experience. The elements are all there, untouched—the comments, the emails, the censored images—but my architectural layout of the components is my way of re-appropriating this experience, neutralizing it, and displaying back to the original creators. The work is the result of my sustained forensic collecting of these artifacts during my “radio silence” and their subsequent transformation into physical objects.

Rasha Kahil, Anatomy of a Scandal, installation at Art First Projects, London, 2016 Courtesy the artist

Rasha Kahil, Anatomy of a Scandal, installation at Art First Projects, London, 2016
Courtesy the artist

Badran: You display comments from those in your defense and from those who attacked your photographs. Why was it important for you to re-enact the social media comments yourself, with your own voice?

Kahil: I wanted to start a dialogue about what it is to be an artist and a woman in a patriarchal society. So, the use of my voice to narrate the different comments, both in defense and in condemnation of my work, is my way of owning the orchestra of voices, in contrast to having remained silent while it was underway. Personally collecting, transcribing, and retelling the running commentary in my own voice seems to have disarmed the violence inherent to the commentary, and revealed its farcical undertone. There was a lot of giggling and laughter at the opening of Anatomy of a Scandal in London last year, which was something I had sensed would happen and very much welcomed. Is laughter the best medicine? Not always, but in the case of this scandal, turning it from a violating experience into a tragicomedy laced with absurdity was the best way to move beyond the initial violent assault.

Rasha Kahil, Whiston Road, E2, London, from the series In Your Home, 2011 Courtesy the artist

Rasha Kahil, Whiston Road, E2, London, from the series In Your Home, 2011
Courtesy the artist

Badran: Nina Power, a British writer, teacher, and critic, recently wrote as a preface for an essay entitled “How do you visualise a woman in the 21st century?”:

The battle to visualise ‘a woman’ or to give shape to the category of women in the 21st century will take place mostly virtually and linguistically but the consequences will be material, as they always are. We must go through the violence of the image in order to arrive at something else—a non-violent, non-image that can still, somehow, be understood.

Do you align yourself with this notion that one must go through the violence of the image in order to topple our understanding of visualizing women? Is this even possible in our context?

Kahil: I think this applies to what happened with my series In Your Home as it went through the motions of online scrutiny. In parallel to the verbal attacks—a great majority of them attacking my body and its “unworthiness”—the original images themselves were censored and visually maimed as the story spread to online news channels. I addressed this component of the scandal by recreating the censorship over the glass of the original framed prints using spray paint or blurred vinyl. In that way, the original images remain untouched underneath the glass, but the new layer sits atop, like a bruised skin.

I’ve often noticed that most work by women that addresses sexuality, the body, femininity, or feminist notions tends to attract verbal abuse online on a superficial, denigrating level. Shaming the artist, the work, the flesh with disparaging, overtly misogynistic remarks, or “Here’s another one getting her kit off” type of way, even on reputable sites that deal with art and photography. This happened when a review of Anatomy of a Scandal was posted on the British Journal of Photography’s Facebook page. Scrolling through that page, I noticed these comments propped up whenever a link to an article about a female artist dealing with the body in her work came up. My intention with Anatomy of a Scandal was to bring to light this phenomenon, which has always existed at a macro level, but is now amplified and globally visible through social media.

Badran: Are you thinking about certain feminist artists in your practice?

Kahil: One of the first feminist artists whose work resonated with me was that of Sophie Calle, which I discovered as a young teenager growing up in Beirut. I was blown away by the intimacy of her projects, and by their accessibility. Even without any background in art history or theory, I could understand and relate to her work as a woman and as a human. I understood that you could touch your audience and make thought-provoking work through the simplest of concepts, through personal storytelling, and create a body of work that ranges from performance to photography to text. This is a line of thought that I’ve carried throughout my practice.

Rasha Kahil, Potterells Farmhouse, AL9, Hertfordshire, from the series In Your Home, 2011 Courtesy the artist

Rasha Kahil, Potterells Farmhouse, AL9, Hertfordshire, from the series In Your Home, 2011
Courtesy the artist

Badran: Do have any advice for young women artists who are constantly at risk of exposing themselves to the barrage of anonymous trolls online, and who must navigate the wide web of misogyny?

Kahil: It is now impossible to have an online presence, whether through social media or even just by the fact of having a website, without coming into contact with the “mass web voice,” especially if the work deals with “inflammatory” subjects—and by using that word, I am just qualifying it from the point of view of the conservative masses. But I think that having confidence in one’s work, knowing what it communicates, who its audience is and why it exists, intrinsically protects from the consequences of online onslaught and creates an immovable wall against petty banter. The most important thing I learned from being the subject of an online scandal is that it’s not personal. Actually, emails that were sent to me personally and addressed to my face were almost always encouraging and supportive. The virulent comments were the ones that were simply thrown into the mass anonymous online conversation, and thus held no weight. As artists and as women, a little scandal is no excuse not to use our voices and our work to fuel the conversation, especially in the current climate.

Rayya Badran is a writer, translator, and teacher based in Beirut.

Read more from Aperture Issue 225, “On Feminism,” or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.

The post Notes on a Scandal appeared first on Aperture Foundation NY.


Spotlight: Eli Durst

In Eritrea, a young photographer pursues a cinematic vision.

By Alexandra Pechman

Eli Durst, Photographer, from the series In Asmara, 2015 Courtesy the artist

Eli Durst, Photographer, from the series In Asmara, 2015
Courtesy the artist

Eli Durst spent his summers during high school and college assembling asylum applications at the Austin immigration clinic where his mother works as a legal advocate, often for refugees from Eritrea. Durst took passport photographs and met dozens of people who had crossed the U.S. border from Mexico after landing there by circuitous journeys and illegal means, fleeing Eritrea’s authoritarian government and standstill economy. Yet, some Eritreans spoke wistfully about the underrecognized allure of Asmara, the nation’s capital and a time capsule of early twentieth-century colonial Italian architecture.

In the 1930s, following four decades of colonization, Italian fascist forces imposed the charge of futurism on Asmara through hundreds of new buildings, often shaped like the era’s latest technology: airplanes, radios, trains. The invasion of British troops in 1941, during World War II, brought an end to the Italian colony and the architectural explosion. Today, buildings remain remarkably undisturbed after years of war and undemocratic regimes.

“That really interested me, this kind of a duality of people’s love for this place while they are doing everything they can to leave,” Durst told me recently. In the summer of 2015, Durst visited the city for the first time, arranging for the brother of an Eritrean translator who works with his mother’s clinic to serve as a guide. He showed Durst the city for a few days, but then was forced to report for military training—another reason Eritreans leave the country.

Eli Durst, Samson and Winta, from the series In Asmara, 2015 Courtesy the artist

Eli Durst, Samson and Winta, from the series In Asmara, 2015
Courtesy the artist

Durst toured Asmara using a 2003 architectural survey, but found he was not allowed to photograph iconic buildings. Though still standing, the majority have fallen into disrepair. A 1930s swimming hall he wanted to photograph had, he learned, been closed for a decade, and buildings converted for government use were restricted. With limited accessibility, Durst focused on silent details, and took cues from the cinematic styles of Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, and, most of all, Michelangelo Antonioni. “I couldn’t not see it that way,” Durst said. “Asmara looks so much like the world I’ve seen in these midcentury Italian films. Antonioni, particularly, conveys a certain beauty with an underlying tension, where you have this setting but it’s disintegrating.”

Durst’s sharply contrasted black-and-white images from Asmara are often devoid of people, though the sense remains that someone has just left or is soon to appear in the frame. The Roman lettering of AMOR on a building reflects up from a puddle of standing water. Untouched coffee cups crowd a brimming ashtray on a table. A place setting of food awaits a diner.

“All you can talk about is how beautiful it is, because everyone is afraid of being critical,” Durst said. Eritrea has no free press and one of the world’s worst records for free speech. Journalists who speak out against the government are imprisoned, email and Internet use are closely monitored, and foreign journalists are not allowed to enter the country. (Durst traveled under a tourist visa.)

Durst, a native Texan, took photography classes at Wesleyan University. After graduating in 2011, he moved to New York to learn more about photography, working at Griffin Editions and as an assistant for Joel Meyerowitz, whom he cites as an influence. Durst later attended the Yale University School of Art for his MFA, where he began to work on his Asmara portfolio.

¬¬Eli Durst, Steak, from the series In Asmara, 2015 Courtesy the artist

Eli Durst, Steak, from the series In Asmara, 2015
Courtesy the artist

The retouched passport photographs that Durst took over the years in Austin (and now uses in his work, with applicants’ consent) punctuate the series and connect Durst’s engagement with Eritreans in Austin and Asmara. Other images have faces and bodies that are clipped, cropped, or seen at a distance.

In a photograph taken in the dining room of his nearly unoccupied hotel (tourism to Eritrea is made difficult by a government wary of Western agitators and influence), a waiter in suit and tie stands in front of a contemporarily dressed man seated alone among empty tables.

Durst’s trip coincided with Ramadan, and on Eid al-Fitr local photographers take pictures of celebrating families. One took notice of Durst. “All the younger photographers had digital and he had this old Olympus,” Durst said. “He saw me and I stood out. He took my picture and then pulled me aside and led me around the city.” The man didn’t speak English and Durst was without a translator, so during their hour-long tour Durst never learned his name. In Durst’s image of their encounter, the unknown photographer, his face obscured by the Olympus, trains his analog lens on Durst, a seeming nod to the obscured face of Thomas in the popular imagery from Blow-Up (1966), Antonioni’s seminal meditation on the medium of photography.

“With Antonioni, there are these complicated and often very scary political undercurrents,” Durst said. “That photographic tension exists in his films. That’s what was driving me.”

Alexandra Pechman is a writer based in Rio de Janeiro and New York.

Eli Durst is the winner of the 2016 Portfolio Prize. His exhibition In Asmara is on view at the Aperture Gallery through February 4, 2017. Click here for more information about the Portfolio Prize, now open exclusively to Aperture subscribers.

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John Berger’s Intimate Greatness

Aperture remembers the life of John Berger, whose narrative approach to art criticism reached far beyond photography.

By Geoff Dyer

Jean Mohr, John Berger, 1967 Courtesy the artist

Jean Mohr, John Berger, 1967
Courtesy the artist

I became interested in photography not by taking or looking at photographs but by reading about them. The names of the three writers who served as guides will come as no surprise: Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, and John Berger. I read Sontag on Diane Arbus before I’d seen any photographs by Arbus (there are no pictures in On Photography), and Barthes on André Kertész, and Berger on August Sander without knowing any photographs other than the few reproduced in Camera Lucida and About Looking. (The fact that the photo on the cover of About Looking was credited to someone called Garry Winogrand meant nothing to me.)

Berger was indebted to both of the others. Dedicated to Sontag, the 1978 essay “Uses of Photography” is offered as a series of “responses” to On Photography, published the previous year: “The thoughts are sometimes my own, but all originate in the experience of reading her book.” Writing about The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Berger described Barthes as “the only living critic or theorist of literature and language whom I, as a writer, recognise.”

For his part, Barthes included Sontag’s On Photography in the list of books—omitted from the English edition—at the end of Camera Lucida (1980). Sontag, in turn, had been profoundly shaped by her reading of Barthes. All three had been influenced by Walter Benjamin, whose A Short History of Photography (1931) reads like the oldest surviving part of a map this later trio tried—in their different ways, using customized projections—to extend, enhance, and improve. Benjamin is a constantly flickering presence in much of Barthes’ writing. The anthology of quotations at the end of On Photography is dedicated—with the kind of intimate relation to greatness that Sontag cultivated, adored, and believed to be her due—“to W. B.” At the end of the first part of Ways of Seeing Berger acknowledges that “many of the ideas” had been taken from an essay of Benjamin’s titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” (This was 1972, remember, before Benjamin’s essay became one of the most mechanically reproduced and quoted ever written.)

Photography, for all four, was an area of special interest, but not a specialism. They approached photography not with the authority of curators or historians of the medium but as essayists, writers. Their writings on the subject were less the product of accumulated knowledge than active records of how knowledge and understanding had been acquired or was in the process of being acquired.

This is particularly evident in the case of Berger, who did not devote an entire book to the subject until Another Way of Telling in 1982. In a sense, though, he was the one whose training and career led most directly to photography. Sontag had followed a fairly established path of academic study before becoming a freelance writer, and Barthes remained in academia for his entire career. Berger’s creative life, however, was rooted in the visual arts. Leaving school possessed by a single idea—“I wanted to draw naked women. All day long”—he attended London’s Chelsea and Central schools of art. In the early 1950s he began writing about art and became a regular critic— iconoclastic, Marxist, much admired, often derided—for the New Statesman. His first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958), was a direct result of his immersion in the world of art and the politics of the left. By the mid-1960s he had widened his scope far beyond art and the novel to become a writer unhindered by category and genre. Crucially, for the current discussion, he had begun collaborating with a photographer, Jean Mohr. Their first book, A Fortunate Man (1967), made a significant step beyond the pioneering work of Walker Evans and James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), on rural poverty in the Great Depression. (A Fortunate Man is subtitled “The Story of a Country Doctor,” in homage, presumably, to the great photo-essay by W. Eugene Smith, “Country Doctor,” published in Life in 1948.) This was followed by their study of migrant labor, A Seventh Man (1975), and, eventually, Another Way of Telling. The important thing, in all three books, is that the photographs are not there to illustrate the text, and, conversely, the text is not intended to serve as any kind of extended caption for the images. Rejecting what Berger regards as a kind of “tautology,” words and images exist, instead, in an integrated, mutually enhancing relationship. A new form was being forged and refined.

A side-effect of this ongoing relationship with Mohr was that Berger had, for many years, not only observed Mohr at work; he had also been the subject of that work. Lacking the training as a photographer that he’d enjoyed as an artist, he became very familiar with the other side of the experience, of being photographed. With the exception of one picture, by another friend—Henri Cartier-Bresson!—the author photographs for his books have almost always been by Mohr; they constitute Mohr’s visual biography of his friend. (The essay on Mohr included here records Berger’s attempt to reciprocate, to make a sketch of the photographer.) His writings on drawing speak with the authority of the drawer; his writings on photography often concentrate on the experience, the depicted lives, of those photographed. Barthes expressed the initial impetus for Camera Lucida as photography “against film”; Berger’s writing on photography hinges on its relationship to painting and drawing. As Berger has grown older, his early training—in drawing—rather than fading in importance has become a more and more trusted tool of investigation and inquiry. (Tellingly, his latest book, published in 2011 and inspired in part by Spinoza, is called Bento’s Sketchbook.) A representative passage in “My Beautiful” records how, in a museum in Florence, he came across the porcelain head of an angel by Luca della Robbia: “I did a drawing to try to understand better the expression of her face.” Could this be part of the fascination of photography for Berger? Not just that it is a wholly different form of image production, but that it is immune to explication by drawing? A photograph can be drawn, obviously, but how can its meaning best be drawn out?

This was the goal Barthes and Berger shared: to articulate the essence of photography—or, as Alfred Stieglitz had expressed it in 1914, “the idea photography.” While this ambition fed, naturally enough, into photographic theory, Berger’s method was always too personal, the habits of the autodidact too ingrained, to succumb to the kind of discourse- and semiotics-mania that seized cultural studies in the 1970s and ’80s. Victor Burgin—to take a representative figure of the time—had much to learn from Berger; Berger comparatively little from Burgin. After all, by the time of About Looking (1980), the collection that contained some of his most important essays on photography, Berger had been living in the Haute-Savoie, France, for the best part of a decade. His researches—I let the word stand in spite of being so thoroughly inappropriate—into photography proceeded in tandem with the struggle to gain a different kind of knowledge and understanding: of the peasants he had been living among and was writing about in the trilogy Into Their Labours. Except, of course, the knowledge and methods were not so distinct after all. Writing the fictional lives of Lucie Cabrol or Boris—in Pig Earth (1979) and Once in Europa (1987), the first two volumes of the trilogy—or about Paul Strand’s photograph of Mr. Bennett (p. 44), both required the kind of attentiveness celebrated by D. H. Lawrence in his poem “Thought”:

Thought is gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to a conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.

In Berger’s case, the habit of thought is like a sustained and disciplined version of something that had come instinctively to him as a boy. In Here Is Where We Meet the author’s mother remembers him as a child on a tram in the London suburb of Croydon: “I never saw anyone look as hard as you did, sitting on the edge of the seat.” If the boy ended up becoming a “theorist,” then it is by adherence to the method described by Goethe, quoted by Benjamin (in A Short History) and requoted by Berger in “The Suit and the Photograph”: “There is a delicate form of the empirical which identifies itself so intimately with its object that it thereby becomes theory.”

This is what makes Berger such a wonderful practical critic and reader of individual photographs (“gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read”), questioning them with his signature intensity of attention—and, often, tenderness. (See, for example, the analysis of Kertész’s picture A Red Hussar Leaving, Budapest, June 1919.) To that extent his writing on photography continues the interrogation of the visible that characterized his writing on painting. As he explains at the beginning of the conversation with Sebastião Salgado: “I try to put into words what I see.”

This essay is adapted from the introduction to John Berger’s Understanding a Photograph, published by Aperture in 2013.

Geoff Dyer’s most recent book is White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World (2016).

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Exploding Faces & Glitchy Portraits: The Futuristic Work of Pandagunda

Sweden-based artist Pandagunda finds inspiration in everything from hospital sounds, to glitch art, to imperfections in the world around us. His work is largely digital, with an almost tactile quality. People with surreal spikes and growths shooting out of their heads, glossy 3D shapes, and often an almost floral treatment creates works that require a…


Westhoek, Scarred land.


[dropcap type="1"]I[/dropcap]t also bears the marks of its ambivalences – as a part of France notwithstanding its Flemish tradition, but also as a place with mores revealing a strong attachment to the past and yet with a yearning for change, and it is also the seat of a blatant sociocultural rift.
From this sole background four projects have emerged, fragmenting and going their separate ways, but always keeping in mind the identity of this territory.
Whether through the prism of landscapes or through that of portraits, these projects aim at disclosing the identity of this part of France nowadays.
In the end, dialogue emerges from these four autonomous projects which thus gather strength to the point that they become complementary. The Westhoek project came as a way to work together for the four young photographers. The four of them being French living in Belgium, it was a interesting challenge to go to this region of mixed culture. In the context of the upcoming presidential election in France, and the migrant’s crisis strongly present in this region, it was an important time for them to discover this land, to meet the people living there, and therefore to give a vision of this poorly known area. When they talk about their experience there, they talk about meeting cheerful and welcoming people, in despite of the general humble background of the land they went through, people were strong and proud. When ask about the reception of the images, it’s clear for them that it’s a really subjective vision that they give. They all come from a documentary tradition but they are really conscious here of presenting their vision, the images are open enough to let the viewers make his own idea of the region, his own story.
About the authors:
« Scouting Around Westoek” is composed of four french young photographers ( Paul Hennebelle, Fabien Silvestre Suzor, Benjamin Sandri, Johan Poezevara) graduated from the Art school « le Septantecinq » in Brussels in 2016. For this one project they decided to work together on one territory the Westhoek, a part of the French Flanders in the north of France.

The post Westhoek, Scarred land. appeared first on Positive Magazine.


The Red Ice Forest

The Red Ice Forest wallpaper

I received my new drone a few days before the ending of 2016 but i couldn’t fly it here in the Netherlands since we were hit by some heavy fog for a few days. finally on the 30th of December it was clearing up just a little but, which ended up being just enough so i could try out the drone and hover above some trees near my living place. All of the trees were covered in ice but it didn’t cover up all the grass on the floor, resulting in some nice orange/red grass coming through the icy scenery.

DJI Phantom 4 Professional, Adobe Photoshop CC 2017.

Mac users: download Macdrops the official InterfaceLIFT app for Mac OS X.



Incoming wallpaper

Taken this past weekend in the Marin Headlands, California. The natural lighting was nearly perfect for highlighting the awesome power of the ocean.

Nikon D7100.

Mac users: download Macdrops the official InterfaceLIFT app for Mac OS X.


A Pocket Full of Happy: Becky Margraf’s Handmade Squares To see…

A Pocket Full of Happy: Becky Margraf’s Handmade Squares

To see more of Becky’s art, follow @bargraf on Instagram.

Becky Margraf’s (@bargraf) personality-packed squares began as part of the #100DayProject, a movement encouraging people to participate in 100 consecutive days of making. Soon after she started, rain clouds pouted, bowls of cereal grinned and breakfast pastries winked. “Taking weird things and making them cute is a cool way to look at the world,” says Becky, who is the community manager of DIY.org. “Anytime I was out in the wild running around San Francisco, I’d look for an object that I thought would be cool to turn into a creature.” Using 30-cent sheets of felt and 60-cent skeins of floss, she sewed her tiny, happy creations in a couple of hours, often finishing them on her commute. “This year was totally crazy — my relationship ended, I got this crazy job promotion and I moved. The squares are almost little diary entries,” says Becky. “It was cool to have something to do on the bus besides stare at a phone.”