At some point in the late 1980s my father came home with a painting by Paul Delvaux. He’d never really been into Surrealist art. On the contrary, at the time he was collecting work by Photorealists, a painting style that at first glance emulates the gloss and shine familiar from photographs, and relies on ultra-realism to make its point. But this painting fascinated him. Simply entitled Tête de Femme, it was a beautiful face of a woman, her shoulders rising and suggesting that her arms are aloft, like so many other women in Delvaux’s paintings. It’s smaller than most of Delvaux’s work, who used to paint relatively large canvases. There’s a reason it’s smaller.
Apparently he was unhappy with the painting, or at least the direction it was going. Delvaux cropped the head out of the canvas, and discarded everything else. I have always wondered what else there was. I’ve seen plenty of Delvaux’s work since, but the light on the face is unlike any of his other work. It’s not a painting he attempted again, nor are there any pencil sketches or water-colours of a related motif. Because Delvaux was a Surrealist, almost anything could have been happening right beyond that frame. It lit up my imagination, but the lack of information also frustrated me. I wanted to see the rest of the painting!
So when I began to reduce my own work down to various crops that held my attention, I realized that some of the images might be visually compelling, but I feared they would become meaningless without context. At the same time, I found a conflict between the elements I found visually compelling, and the narrative. The story told by the image may be interesting, but sometimes the beauty is in the smaller details.
The image above is one of two Paolo and Francesca pieces. The original image I created around the two lovers was very tall, the two of them laying spent at the bottom of a tall frame with soft fabrics rising high up into the darkness. But the two of them seemed lost in it, and it didn’t tell the story. It is hard to depict the trance two lovers enter into after they consummate real love with deep lust. So the image was cut down to leave only the lovers, impossibly folded into one another after they had exhausted themselves. I found their hands beautiful, they said so much about the moment, but after cropping two reduced little frames I felt there was nothing left to connect them to the story I had set out to tell. They had no context. I decided to retain parts of the image, but to present them differently. You can read about the physical production in my previous post.
Two nights ago I was sitting with my creative assistant Lars Theuerkauff, we were arguing over whether crops without context work, whether they sufficiently communicate the intended moment. He felt strongly they did, but I told him that context is key. If we know the image, then a visual abbreviation is all we need. We can mentally reduce an image to its visual shorthand (pun intended!) if we know what happens around it. Ironically enough, the Taverna we were sitting in near Kollwitz Platz in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg had this poster hanging from a cross-beam above the entrance:
But Lars made another valid point. As beautiful as Baroque religious art may be, most of it was illustrative in nature. Its goal was to tell a story to people who couldn’t read, not to communicate a feeling exchanged in a moment. Those paintings rarely elicited a sense of beauty and recognition within the eye of the beholder, but told a story while imbuing their viewers with a sense of awe. My goals are lot more earthly and simple.
…and sometimes, you simply can’t trust a crop.
I have been shooting my Quiet Devotion project for over two years now, and have undergone a number of major life events that have impacted upon the evolution of the series. What began as an angry lash-out at whatever residual issues I might have had with institutinalized religion has finally resolved itself in post-narrative depiction.
The images have become reductions of stories, more like pencil sketches rather than sweeping epic dramatizations. My early illustrative images with large sets and groups of people have been replaced by simpler constructions. Like any feeling, thinking artist I am awed by late Renaissance and Baroque masters, whose paintings illustrate the greatest stories ever told, whether biblical, mythical, or ovidian. These paintings often hinge on their details, which give the key to the work. I came to love and look at them through these details, so I sought to bring that out in my own work, and my original title for the series was The Sacred and the Profane. But photographers have faired poorly when attempting to cover this narrative territory, convoluting their images with details that turn into meaningless props and pointless postures once they are no longer accomplishments of painted labor. As an artist working within the genre of staged photography it is liberating to distill a story to its core emotion captured in a simple gesture or curve of the back, illuminated through the use of chiaroscuro.
As a photographer I arrange the elements in my images rather than simply catching a certain moment, and place distinct emphasis within the overall frame. Creatively, staged photography offers both substantial narrative opportunity, but also a certain risk to clarity. It is tempting to fill an image with symbolic elements, but if the shot composition isn’t perfect then the image can slide into illustrative overload, or a simple aggregation of meaningless beauty. I found myself obsessing over details, and isolating those through a series of ever-tighter crops. However, these cropped details are lost without their context. A set of intertwined hands, a basket of fruits, or the folds in a curtain become meaningless if there is no bigger picture behind it.
I wanted both: to draw attention to certain elements of the image, and to show the context in which they occur.
Two years ago I discovered a printing process that only one fine art print shop in the world can execute – and the way to produce the images I had envisioned. I only found out about the exclusive nature of the material after I fell in love with it, but I knew this matte acrylic Diasec C-Print process was the medium I needed for the Sacred & Profane series. It is incredibly beautiful, but very difficult to use. There is a richness to the texture, but at the same time it makes the image feel removed, in some ways otherworldly. As part of the cropping process, it was my plan to use different print media, one I had used previously. I crop out certain parts of the image, and print those on a waxed paper using a Ditone archival pigment process.
Two of these images were hanging on one of my studio walls, though one of them has since been sold. Key to this series is that every piece is unique. There are no editions. When I’ve created pieces that are related to one another, the crops are different. No image will ever be used again, nor will a related image have an identical crop.
The steel frames are German precision work. We tried to weld some ourselves at the studio for the first prototypes, but were unable to get anywhere near the level of quality that I require. I use 3 millimetre rolled steel throughout the series, it represents a vestigial reminder of baroque ornate gold-leafed framing. The slightly shiny reflective areas where the oiled steel bounces light off the edges gives it a formal setting. It’s at odds with the industrial nature of the rolled oiled steel, as is the physical weight of the material in contrast to its appearance. It’s steel, but it looks fragile and elegant.
Notice the detail of the shadow reveal that is defined by the 3 millimetre steel running less than 2 millimetres away from the matte acrylic Diasec print. I ask for fully detailed CAD files for every piece before it enters physical production, so that all participants have plans to work from. Click here if you’re interested in seeing a screen shot of this particular piece.
I am grateful for German precision coupled with an appreciation for fine art. I’m glad that my team has made it possible to execute work at this level of quality. Because once we get to the internal frames, which define the crops and give the project its conceptual architecture, there is no tolerance for fault at all. The frames run nearly flush against the matte Diasec acrylic, but also encase the Ditone print on the waxed paper. The cropped component is set back a full 25 millimetres (or one inch!) from the front of the image.
In the first phase I print out the complete image using the matte acrylic Diasec, and then use a computer-driven precision saw with a diamond drill-bit to physically cut out the cropped area. During the second production phase the frames are set into place, around the outer perimeter as well as within the crops. In the final phase the waxed paper crop prints are mounted on aluminum, and then installed into the sawed-out and framed spaces.
I will write more in the coming days about the series. There is a lot that I want to explain about its evolution and my arrival at the cropping process, as well as the technical production. I am very excited about where this project has taken me, and even though it took several years, I look forward to shooting a lot more images. But obviously I’m also quite proud of where the project has gone physically and technically.
Every November the fine art world comes together to focus on photography. The loose umbrella over hundreds of different shows is the European Month of Photography, or EMOP, as no one ever really calls it. Member cities besides my hometown Berlin include Athens, Bratislava, Budapest, Ljubljana, Luxembourg and Vienna. Just in Berlin alone there are over 250 different shows being mounted over a four week period, ranging from the highly respected to the young and collegiate.
But the one city – and the one show – most of us think about during this Mois de la Photo is Paris. Because every November, the most important art fair for photography is the venerable PARIS PHOTO taking place in the magnificent Grand Palais. It is the most important photo art fair of the year. The leading galleries present their contemporary artist’s new work, classic prints in their rarest editions are on offer, and the various photo book specialists display their first editions and published eccentricities. PARIS PHOTO has become such a heavy-weight in the world of fine art photography that a number of satellite shows like Foto Fever have sprung up around it, the local galleries display their photographic artists, and the major auction houses Sotheby’s as well as Christies hold their photography auctions in Paris at the end of that week.
After showing at fairs like Milan’s MIA, and Tokyo Photo, it is my great pleasure to be represented at Paris Photo this year. It’s my first time, and I’m excited to finally show my “Sacred & Profane” series. And I’ll be honest – seeing my name on the roster of artists feels good. I’m confident in my work, so I’m looking forward to seeing it amongst photographers whom I consider role models, peers, or contemporaries. As an artist, the knighthood you seek to have bestowed on you is to be represented at Paris Photo. It means you have finally ascended to a place where your work is being seen by those who who have made photographic art a major element of their lives. Stop by Stand D11 to meet Galerie CAMERA WORK, who will be happy to tell you about my work, and that of other great photographers they represent.
The first time he calls you holy,
you laugh it back so hard your sides hurt.
The second time,
you moan gospel around his fingers
between your teeth.
He has always surprised
you into surprising yourself.
Because he’s an angel hiding his halo
behind his back and
nothing has ever felt so filthy
as plucking the wings from his shoulders—
undressing his softness
one feather at a time.
God, if you’re out there,
if you’re listening,
he fucks like a seraphim,
and there’s no part of scripture
that ever prepared you for his hands.
Hands that map a communion
in the cradle of your hips.
Hands that kiss hymns up your sides.
He confesses how long he’s looked
for a place to worship and,
you put him on his knees.
When he sinks to the floor and moans
like he can’t help himself,
you wonder if the other angels
fell so sweet.
He says his prayers between your thighs
and you dig your heels into the base of his spine
until he blushes the color of your filthy tongue.
You will ruin him and he will thank you;
he will say please.
No damnation ever looked as cozy as this,
but you fit over his hips like they
were made for you.
You fit, you fit, you fit.
On top of him, you are an ancient goddess
that only he remembers and he
offers up his skin.
And you take it.
Who knew sacrifice was so profane?
And once you’ve taught him how to hold
your throat in one hand
and your heart in the other,
you will have forgotten every other word
except his name.
Poem by Ashe Vernon, image by me. It’s a crop from an image that I’m probably not using in the Sacred & Profane series.
People who look for symbolic meanings fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image; By asking what does this mean? they express a wish that everything be understandable. But if one does not reject the mystery, one has quite a different response. One asks other things. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.
Quote from René Magritte, image from my Sacred & Profane series.
If I failed, Adam,
to gratify your every whim,
look me in the eye,
ask that I leave by
blue dusk to mask the flame
of my hair, your tearful shame
only witnessed by our Sculptor
as you demand He mold another.
Make certain she is formed from you
so she will never question the true
nature of her existence,
so the only resistance
you’ll encounter is in dreams,
my hands and mouth and streams
of flaming curls, your throat choking on
my name as you roll awake at dawn.
Your lips will part to call the one you’re with
but all your heart will ever howl is Lilith.
Poem by Ciara Shuttleworth, image from my Sacred & Profane series.
It seems to me that the desire to make art produces an ongoing experience of longing, a restlessness sometimes, but not inevitably, played out romantically, or sexually. Always there seems something ahead, the next poem or story, visible, at least, apprehensible, but unreachable. To perceive it at all is to be haunted by it; some sound, some tone, becomes a torment – the poem embodying that sound seems to exist somewhere already finished. It’s like a lighthouse, except that, as one swims towards it, it backs away.
– Louise Glück, Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry
…are married. You know this. You were at their wedding. What they say
should land as if your dad said it, or your brother. None of it means harm:
the way you look in a pair of jeans, how long your lipstick lasts, how good
the oysters are, how fresh. Married men are the lead characters in the movie
of their marriage. They share top billing, but have earned their solo screen time.
I mean how else do you really get to know them, they say, if you don’t see
how they are without their wives? The long curve of their arms, or calves,
where their hands rest: on hips, or elbows, on waists. Married men lean forward
when they smile, and lean back when they laugh. After the party, they roam
the kitchen, offer to share with you a plate of re-heated hors d’oevres. You see it:
the still life of some other woman’s man, barefoot and drunk, hungry and alone.
The cat hisses at him. It’s his wife’s cat. It hates him, and for the life of him,
he can’t figure out why.
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
“Blood is thicker than water”, when used in the context of family over friends, is in fact a wildly incorrect bastardisation.
The true, full quote is “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” and refers to relationships forged by choice holding deeper meaning than those of mere biology.
You don’t need anyone’s affection or approval in order to be good enough. If you live off a man’s compliments, you’ll die from his criticism. When someone rejects or abandons or judges you, it isn’t actually about you. It’s about them and their own insecurities, limitations, and needs, and you don’t have to internalize that. Your worth isn’t contingent upon other people’s acceptance of you — it’s something inherent. You exist, and therefore, you matter. You’re allowed to voice your thoughts and feelings. You’re allowed to assert your needs and take up space. You’re allowed to hold onto the truth that who you are is exactly enough. You didn’t just happen, you are the sum total of the choices you’ve made. And you’re allowed to remove anyone from your life who makes you feel otherwise.
You don’t ever have to feel guilty about removing toxic people from your life. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a relative, romantic interest, employer, childhood friend or new acquaintance – you don’t have to make room for people who cause you pain or make you feel small. It’s one thing if a person owns up to their behavior and makes an effort to change. But if a person disregards your feelings, ignores your boundaries, and continues to treat you in a harmful way, they have to go. But don’t expect them to keep loving you, don’t keep pining for their affection. Stop demanding their attention. Removing someone cannot be a tool to get someone’s attention.
There is a big difference between giving up and letting go. Giving up means selling yourself short. It means allowing fear and struggle to limit your opportunities and keep you stuck. Letting go means freeing yourself from something that is no longer serving you. It means removing toxic people and belief systems from your life so that you can make room for relationships and ideas that are conducive to your well-being and happiness. Giving up reduces your life. Letting go expands it. Giving up is imprisoning. Letting go is liberation. Giving up is self-defeat. Letting go is self-care. So the next time you make the decision to release something or someone that is stifling your happiness and growth, and a person has the audacity to accuse you of giving up or being weak, remind yourself of the difference. Remind yourself that you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to live your life in the way that feels right. No one has the authority to tell you who to be or how to live. No one gets to decide what your life should look like or who should be a part of it…
But nor does anyone get to judge you for sticking it out. Because beyond giving up and letting go, there is a third option: taking control. Stand up, know who you are, and face the situation. Don’t give up, and don’t let go. Own it.
Start living. You may not have ended up where you intended to go. But trust, for once, that you have ended up where you needed to be. Trust that you are in the right place at the right time. Trust that your life is enough. Trust that You are enough. So stop comparing, stop feeling guilty, and definitely stop seeking people’s approval, love, attention. Its unnecessary, and unattractive. Own your life, and take pride.
Two weeks ago my father passed away. He was almost eighty, but anyone who knew him considered him sixty-five years old, if that. He was vibrantly alive. Sharp as a knife, gregarious, opinionated, and he had a huge appetite for life. Human curiosity demands an answer to the immediate question: it was a heart attack. But really all I can say is that he just stopped living. The medical specificity is ultimately irrelevant, though it lends comfort to know he didn’t suffer. And it would have pleased him immensely to have never been seen as feeble or weak.
He was a decorated combat fighter pilot, an honor student, a successful businessman, and someone who loved literature and good conversation. He was also a tough father who expected a lot, and he made his own success look easy. He took great risks. The brave rarely consider themselves fearless, and he was very much alive when he was strategizing his next life-campaign. Some people never live. They move from one safe zone to another, avoiding tragedy, life and the inherent feelings. The small moments of joy are good enough in a life spent avoiding pain and failure. He lived with a risk/reward profile most lack the courage to assume.
I’m beginning to miss him.
One of the hard parts of surviving a larger-than-life parent is the constant contact people seek. Everyone wants to talk to me, all the time. They only have that one topic. Many are reminded of someone they lost, and will project their experience on to mine. Others are pushed into recognizing a mortality they have denied thus far. How can a man filled with such vitality, who made youth seem eternal, suddenly cease? They begin doing their own math. All these people want to talk to me. They’re sharing extremely special memories, but their timing is off. I’m not ready to have these conversations, but I am forced to stand and listen. A very large number of people felt very close to him, who want to be consoled, so I spend my days absorbing strangers’ sadness and making them feel better, while they load more grief on to me.
And they all tell me not to be sad.
We are not allowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into art, or Buddhism, or photography, or music, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, bankers, lawyers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I am alarmed by how many people know them, how deeply this single definition of the grieving process had permeated our cultural consciousness. Not only am I supposed to feel these five things, I am expected to feel them in that order, and other feelings must be reinterpreted to fit the template. Expressing any other feelings is anathema, because all these sad people would look at me like I’m an emotional cripple, or a callous ingrate.
What I want more than anything is time alone. And I just want to spend some time being sad, and I want to mourn the small pieces, the moving parts of a relationship that can now never fall perfectly into their places. I am surrounded all day long by people who want to be closer to the memory of my father, or need some family business issue to be resolved, or who simply want a piece of me. They pull at me, they take energy from me as they bathe in their own feelings, and they’re sucking the creativity and strength out of me. So I feel like a stone, an efficient machine, an executor of a will. But I can find no chance to feel like a son who lost his role model, or a man who will now lead his tribe. I honor my father’s life by working hard. His voice will be in my head forever, especially now as I absorb his responsibilities. I feel incredibly far away from creativity, and all I really want to do is walk around and shoot pictures.
There is a lot of work that remains to be done, and then I will take time for myself. Soon (hopefully) I will begin creating art again – with more effort, more determination, and a hell of a lot more risk. Because that’s when I feel the most alive.
Do you remember when we met
in Gomorrah? When you were still beardless,
and I would oil my hair in the lamp light before seeing
you, when we were young, and blushed with youth
like bruised fruit. Did we care then
what our neighbors did
in the dark?
When our first daughter was born
on the River Jordan, when our second
cracked her pink head from my body
like a promise, did we worry
what our friends might be
doing with their tongues?
What new crevices they found
to lick love into or strange flesh
to push pleasure from, when we
called them Sodomites then,
all we meant by it
When the angels told us to run
from the city, I went with you,
but even the angels knew
that women always look back.
Let me describe for you, Lot,
what your city looked like burning
since you never turned around to see it.
Sulfur ran its sticky fingers over the skin
of our countrymen. It smelled like burning hair
and rancid eggs. I watched as our friends pulled
chunks of brimstone from their faces. Is any form
of loving this indecent?
Cover your eyes tight,
husband, until you see stars, convince
yourself you are looking at Heaven.
Because any man weak enough to hide his eyes while his neighbors
are punished for the way they love deserves a vengeful god.
I would say these things to you now, Lot,
but an ocean has dried itself on my tongue.
So instead I will stand here, while my body blows itself
grain by grain back over the Land of Canaan.
I will stand here
and I will watch you
By Karen Finneyfrock