Thursday, April 12, 2012

Artforum Review by Nell McClister

I love this review and the ending is great and I hope it will prompt more and more questions. Thanks, Nell McClister!

Here's some questions I have for folks following the train of thought put forward in the review. For me the ending is what prompts the most important questions:

"Strauss wants her photographs to speak for themselves, but in reality her voiceless subjects remain politically silenced... In prompting the viewer to construct an active reading, Strauss emphasizes their contingency, and in speaking to us on her subjects' behalf, she reminds us that the photographer ALWAYS (emphasis mine) stands between them and us as a mediator. Meanwhile, those subjects remain outside the social matrix she constructs: they never get to join the conversation. Not even ten years of photographs has the power to change that."

Yes! Thank you, Nell McClister! Not even a million years of photos changes the imbalance of the power dynamic inherent in "street" photography. The photographer is always the one who retains control, and therefore retains the power of using an image as a metaphor, including portraiture. That then begs any number of questions about the ethics and ideas about using the "real" image of a person as a metaphor for an idea the photographer is looking to put forth.

The phrasing at the end of the review is a little unclear to me and that brings up great questions. What conversation is being referred to? Because the billboards are in public spaces, there are a number of conversations happening, most of which have very little crossover. Is the conversation about the interior, gallery, component of the show and my editing process, which is always my final decision? Although with this show the in-gallery choices were a join decision, me and the super curator Peter Barberie went at it 50/50. Only one person, the mother of a person in one of the portraits, was consulted about the placement of an image, although several people who had portraits in the show were asked about the inclusion of their image. In referring to portraits, the great majority of the people who I have made photos of have trusted me to use them and are not part of a conversation about placement or inclusion within the gallery setting, even though many have attended the show. So they are part of a different conversation, their place within the larger body of work and how people read their image.

Or is it the conversation among viewers regarding the images? And if so, the conversation shifts in relation to which context have the images been seen, so how does that impact the reading of the images?

Are the images politically silent? I think that's up for debate. One aspect of the Billboard Project is that it eliminated a great deal of marketing for consumerism and services. That's a political gesture, regardless of the image. But it's true that the images themselves don't offer more than the image, and the viewer must make an effort to construct what's being said or what the moment is about. In that sense they are inscrutable as a political gesture because there's no context to place the images into the urban landscape, other than being a disruption in semiotic structure of advertising.

And while I totally agree that an important aspect of my work is that the photographer is always the mediator and constructor of the image, I believe that's accurate for EVERY photograph produced regardless of context, my hope is that everyone is a part of the conversation. There's conversations happening all the time about the work, especially in relation to the Billboard Project, but not necessarily within the academy, within an institutional structure, or within a printed or online forum related to visual art. And so I would disagree with the assessment that some of the people represented, and I could take it as far as (re)presented, are not part of the conversation... many are actively part of conversations about the work, just not the conversations happening within the confines of academic discourse, or spaces and forums in which there's active critical writing and discussion about visual art. This gives rise to the question of the importance of the crossover of those conversations. Since I am very interested in visually "quoting" photographs that have great importance to me personally (and many of those "quoted" photos are seen as important in the history of photography) many of the photos are often not easily recognized outside of books or the spaces that exhibit what might be considered "fine art" photography. Coming from that are about a billion other questions I have about the success of the project and the many ways it can be read.

So great, questions galore.

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