The first exhibition I visited was Zoey Leonard’s “Survey” at MOCA in downtown Los Angeles. The exhibition explores looking at the overlooked and forgotten through sculpture, installations, and photographs of seemingly mundane subjects. The exhibition is divided into many parts, as it includes a collection of 4000 vintage postcards of Niagara Falls, a tree installation, a row of blue suitcases, and series of black and white photographs taken with an analog camera. Each part of the exhibition touches on a range of themes; her close up Tree + Fence photographs deal with persistence and containment, the Wax Anatomical Model juxtaposes our fascination with the body and feminist critique, You see I am here after all demonstrates how a natural site turned into a profitable tourist destination while 1961 suggests the ongoingness of life and the melancholy of looking back. Despite the various themes that she touches on, repetition is seen in all of her work. The same subject is photographed with subtle changes in perspective and shifts of scale. They take time to look at, for you have to look carefully to detect the patterns and changes. Her use of repetition presents new interpretations of things that we find familiar such as trees and fences and things that are invisible when society turns a blind eye. The spaces between the display of photos with the same subject speed up and slow down the development of her work. Additionally, in all of her photos, Leonard leaves the black border visible to remind viewers of her subjective position and camera as a tool for framing. Leonard wants us to question cultural, social, economic and political conditions that involve our subjective points of view. As titled “survey,” the exhibition looks out at a landscape and banal objects and describes them through multiple viewpoints, inviting us to reflect on the act of looking itself that is never passive, our ability to “know,” and our relationship with the world.
One series of her work that stood out to me were the images of the sun (February 27, August 4, and January 23), which were titled after the date of when they were taken. As I entered the room, I was unsure of what I was looking at. I had to look closer to see that they are pictures of the sun. The photos only consisted of a circular radiation of light. All of them look almost identical with slight shifts in shade and tone between them. They are stripped of any narrative content; you can’t locate a specific place, landscape or city. Without the company of the other images of the same subject shot from different angles, I wonder if I would know what I was looking at. These images stood out to me because Leonard challenges the convention of photography to shoot directly into the sun. The sun is a source of light in photos but rarely the subject; it is there and you know that you see it but can’t look directly at it. Altogether, these images deal with seeing and depicting, pushing the limit of what is possible to document with the camera.
My interest in editorial and fashion photography have led me to visit Mark Seliger’s Photographs exhibition at the Fahey/Klein Gallery next. The retrospective exhibition included iconic portraits of many celebrities and influential figures like Kurt Cobain, Barrack Obama, Snoop Dog, Kim Kardashian, Brad Pitt, Bob Dylan and David Bowie which Seliger immortalized throughout his career as a photographer. His portraits appeared on the cover of Rolling Stones, GQ, Italian Vogue, and Vanity Fair. I’m fascinated by how Seliger was able to accommodate the magazine’s agenda yet was still always able to get inside the character and take his subjects out of context into a situation where they have to let down their guard within a limited time span that lasted as short as five minutes. The backdrops of his portraits range from elaborate to something as simple as a plain grey background. All of his photos have a perfect mix of color and light. More importantly, his striking portraits demonstrate his knowledge of what each of his subjects is about and his emotional intelligence and empathy towards them. Selinger celebrates his subjects for who they are through paying great attention to their nonverbal cues (they way they react, an expression, their posture, or their off moments between takes), capturing their idiosyncrasies, subtleties, vulnerabilities, and personality traits that are rarely seen. Viewing Selinger’s photos in the exhibition is different from viewing them from the magazine with texts on them. The large scale of the photos that are installed helps dramatize Selinger’s photos and give them power and a timeless quality.
The photos that interested me, in particular, are the portrait of Kurt Cobain and the one of Bradd Pitt. In Selinger’s black and white portrait of Cobain for Rolling Stones shot on Polaroid, honesty is present. The shallow depth of field and lighting of the photo accentuated Cobain’s melancholy expression that is relevant to his condition which resulted in his suicide a year after the picture was taken. On the other hand, in Bradd Pitt’s portrait, Pitt projects a playful attitude and is dressed in a pink dress with rhinestone hoop earrings on one ear and shot against a plain white background. Despite being in women’s clothes, Pitt still appears equally attractive; Selinger was able to depict perfect masculinity in a feminine manner.
Finally, the third exhibit I saw was Deana Lawson’s “Planes” at The Underground Museum. The exhibit celebrates the everyday experiences of black lives through staged portraits of black strangers that she encountered in the streets. Her quest to explore the themes of family, spirituality, and intimacy within the black experience has led her to photograph black people in the Carribean, South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her subjects are posed in their homes or domestic spaces she puts them in. Their belongings are carefully rearranged and some objects that appear in the photos are her own. Though her photos are staged and somewhat theatrical, she made them appear like reality even if it’s not. For example, in Women With Child, a woman is holding a crying child that appears like her own but is actually not her child. Each picture stages a contest to determine what is more expressive, the human subjects or the objects around them, as for Lawson the details of the spaces that her subjects occupy are as important as the subjects themselves. All of her subjects look directly into the camera at the viewer, allowing us to feel the transfer of power between the subject, Lawson, and us as viewers. When we think of portrait photographs we often think of them as something intimate and small in size. However, her portraits are large. The large scale of her photos enables the emotions of her subjects to radiate through them and makes us feel like we are in the presence of real people, real poses, and authentic interiors. Ultimately, through this series of photos that highlights black bodies and black interiors that have not been included in art history, Lawson hopes to show that everyday black lives and experiences are “beautiful, powerful, and intelligent.”
One picture that interested me most in the exhibition is Nation. The photo depicts two tattooed, shirtless men sitting on a brown leather sofa. I was drawn to the photo because it was the most unsettling of the series. One of the subjects points his finger at the viewer like a pistol or a come-hither gesture while the other man’s mouth is kept open by a bizarre device — a contraption used in dental surgery that Lawson spray-painted gold. By looking directly at the viewer, her subjects resist objectification. A third shirtless man is seen standing in the upper right edge of the photo. His head is covered by a photo of Geoge Washington’s dentures, which Lawson collaged in. George Washington’s dentures are known to contain teeth of his slaves. The mouth guard which Lawson puts on her subject thus serves as a metaphor for torture and slavery. At large, Lawson’s juxtaposition of the dentures and the mouthpiece demonstrates the power of photography to make history and the present speak to each other.