Photo London 2016 opened a couple of nights ago. It is only in its second year, but it’s clear that it is going to be a major photographic art fair in Europe. Although Paris Photo retains its leadership – at least as long as it’s in the Grand Palais – it is nice to be in London where everything is just a little bit more casual and open-minded, yet still highly professional and well-organised.
I am slowly introducing a new series, entitled “Brutalism.” It is my great hope that I can show the main pieces in Shanghai in September 2016, but we are still finalising plans, and there may be an Amsterdam show coming as well.
Brutalism as an architectural movement hit its stride in the 1960s, and always had a Socialist slant. The implication was that the state is more important than the individual. That struggle continues to this day, in which institutions, not just the state, impose themselves on our lives. The buildings are meant to impress us, to communicate power, relevance, and inevitability. We are expected to be a grateful consumer, or the beneficiary of it’s largess.
My new series has picked up on that. It often takes several months until I understand where my work is taking me, and there is something therapeutic about the process. I’ve ended up building heavy sets that bear down on the human figure, trying to make a place for fragility within hard environments. It sounds more trite and maudlin than intended. Most of us feel like we’re struggling through difficult terrain that doesn’t accommodate our individuality, but there is a mood permeating the culture right now that seems to be pushing back against it. Many of the images I’m working on find a place for the human body in various stages of unfolding growth.
I am moving forward. Quiet Devotion was a reference to baroque painting, whereas Personal Disclosure departed from it, beatifying the human figure and exploring the interplay between bodies using chiaroscuro while reducing everything else to the bare minimum. The interim work around the white set allowed me to break from the dogmatic focus on the holiness of the body. Now I am putting additional emphasis on the sets because I want to return to something slightly more narrative. I want the environment to provide literal context, not just figurative.
I have been making a version of these images for a lot of years now. My team and I work at these pieces very deliberately. I obsess over tonality and study color theory to give each series a look that is contextual and deliberate. When I think about skin tones, it is not simply a question of what looks good; it’s about understanding how colors correlate, how the secondary tone in shaded areas must respond to complementary highlights.
When I began executing the pieces in acrylics and steel I made a dozen prototypes, testing different thicknesses of the Diasec, the layers of matte material, ways to work the steel into frames, and how the wax coating on the paper effects contrast and saturation. Anything less would be an abdication of responsibility, and a lost creative opportunity. I work in 1 mm (one millimetre!) tolerances across large surfaces, and commission a CAD plans for every single piece that gets assembled. I’ve written about this before, and a link to a sample plan is visible in that blog entry as well.
But it remains frustrating. The only way I can get people to understand what I do is by showing the actual pieces. I have not found the right way to display my work on the internet yet. The simple web files make no sense to someone that’s never seen how I use the materials, and most people – especially those in the art world – don’t take the time to watch a video, or drill down through my admittedly hard-to-navigate website.
Let’s be candid, there’s a lot of people in the world of fine art imagery that remains uncomfortable around staged photography. Many of those in the photo world still think of photography as it’s own highly regulated sub-genre of the art world, one that is only pure if it is a picture taken by a lone photographer walking the earth. The idea of deliberately making images in a studio is something best left to the fashion and product world, it couldn’t possibly be art. This categorisation is compounded when you work with naked bodies. In photography nudity works best when it’s Nan Goldin keepin’ it real and hard. Anything beautiful is mistrusted. Sexuality in the art world is considered plebeian, and nudity that isn’t eroticism is not investigated. Fine art nude as a genre is revered in historical images, or if it is extremely provocative. The notable exceptions to all of this high-handedness are photographers like Gregory Crewdson or David LaChapelle, but they do better with galleries working as part of the broader art world, not simply in the photo-art bubble that still needs its own fairs.
As an aside, I am not aware of any solo-genre art fairs that focus solely on painting, or sculpture, performance. It’s odd that the photo art world stares at its own bellybutton while intoning lamentations about the absence of something truly new, while insisting on mounting fairs in which most of the galleries are showing work that spans the last one hundred years.
Not everyone can be expected to like every genre, and those suspicious of nude photography have reasonable cause. Much of the fine art nude photography being practiced by photographers doesn’t take itself seriously enough. It’s a genre filled with hobbyists that just want to be seen taking pictures of hot bodies, or professional photographers who want some creative outlet beyond their commercial work. Neither are regimental in their approach, and thus contribute little to the genre beyond an occasional great picture.
The point of this post is not to complain, but rather to express excitement about the creative opportunities ahead. One of the many reasons I encourage artists to attend the fairs are the conversations that happen. Creative people often desire constructive feedback, which is especially rewarding when it’s positive. Talking to collectors and curators is a rare, important opportunity. One good conversation can push the work along for years to come. Photo London strengthened my resolve to stay within my style. I had a chance to speak to people who have spent their entire professional lives in the world of photography, and they recognised the efforts that go into my pieces. They understand the references as well as the approach to color and composition, while noting the physical execution as a key component to the overall work. Nothing is as exciting as time spent with someone who really understands what you do. It is rewarding to hear when someone of that stature sees the creative choices, the material assembly, and the artistic direction.
…and don’t even try it without a gallery that fully supports you and understands what you do.