Last Sunday I had the opportunity to visit The Photographer’s Gallery in London where they had an exhibition on Feminist Avant-Garde photographers from the 1970’s. There were many interesting pictures, videos and installations from 48 artists on display over two floors, and the gallery generously provided a thick pamphlet with short biographies and critical commentary for every photographer exhibited.
Among the pieces on display, the one that captivated me the most was a series by American photographer Martha Wilson (b. 1947) entitled “A Portfolio of Models” (link)(1). This consists of 6 self-portraits, with the artist dressed in accordance with a particular role or feminine archetype (that of “Goddess” and 5 others: “Housewife”, “Working Girl”, “Professional”, “Earth Mother” and “Lesbian”), each of which is accompanied by a short text in which the artist describes the role being portrayed and how it compares to that of the “Goddess”, which seems to a common reference point for all the roles. The series is accompanied by a separate panel with the following short text, which in my case was read at first (and I believe it was probably intended to be read at the end, although some blogs classify it as “introductory”(2)):
“These are the models society holds out to me: Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, Professional, Earth Mother, Lesbian. At one time or another, I have tried them all on for size, and none has fit. All that’s left to do is be an artist and point the finger at my own predicament. The artist operates out of the vacuum left when all other values are rejected.”(3)
I started studying photography in OCA back in May 2016 because I felt that both as a person and a photographer my life was being filled with roles and ideas that did not fit and that were starting to disorient me, like the situation described by Wilson above. At that time, I had been attending my local camera club for about 3 years while spending a good chunk of that time trying to learn, on my own, traditional silver gelatin printing and using it almost exclusively as the means to produce my photographic output. The combination of these two things ended up being a disaster: most camera club photography these days seems to revolve around neo-pictorialistic interpretations, in which extreme post processing is a crucial component of the end product and there is a shortfall of conceptual thought. The demands of this vision did not square well with my modest analogue post-processing abilities and as a result of that, I felt that I was wasting my time on both fronts and needed to do something urgently to regain track.
More importantly, I felt compelled to study photography formally because I was not sure about why I was attracted to it, and what role it should play in my life. This lead to great uncertainty and self-doubt, which to an extent is not a bad thing, in as much as it helps to keep oneself grounded while providing a healthy push for self-reflection; but in my particular case ended up not being helpful at all, because it kept me thinking constantly about my own limitations, and particularly on the idea that I was not able to conceptualize what I do, that I am unable to distill why on earth I click the shutter in most occasions, and that my photographs to date (a good selection of which you can see here) are primarily connected just by aesthetics without any plan, without any beginning or end.
I have been doing this course for about 5 months now I am still not sure what the journey I am taking is about. I was quite apprehensive of this blog at first, and the requirement to have it online, for I am not a very social person. My initial postings were impersonal, descriptive and detached, and I have been using the roles, values and customs that either society or, perhaps more frequently, myself “hold out to me” as an excuse to avoid engaging with the process of self-reflection, experimentation and search for ideas that photography, at least in my ideal view, should be all about. Wilson’s work has got me thinking about these things that have been filling my life and my practice recently, and that seem to be getting on the way of that something, still elusive and still unknown, that I am fearful to see. The vacuum from which art should hopefully emerge.
(1) Wilson, M. (2016) Martha Wilson. A portfolio of models. 1974. Available at: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/165440 (Accessed: 13 October 2016).
(2) See for instance Gallant, A. and Smith (2015) Martha Wilson: A portfolio of models. Available at: http://scma.smith.edu/artmuseum/Collections/Cunningham-Center/Blog-paper-people/Martha-Wilson-A-Portfolio-of-Models (Accessed: 13 October 2016).
(3) Written by Martha Wilson as part of the series A portfolio of models (1974), and quoted from Gallant, A. and Smith (2015) Martha Wilson: A portfolio of models. Available at: http://scma.smith.edu/artmuseum/Collections/Cunningham-Center/Blog-paper-people/Martha-Wilson-A-Portfolio-of-Models (Accessed: 13 October 2016).