Col­lab­o­ra­tive Por­trai­ture Fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion

In this new ex­hi­bi­tion unit­ing the work of three Mag­num pho­tog­ra­phers, Oliver Atwell finds the power of rep­re­sen­ta­tion handed back to its sub­jects

Amateur Photographer - - 7days -

When we look at a por­trait, who is it we are ac­tu­ally see­ing? Our first in­stinct is to sug­gest that the an­swer is ob­vi­ous: we are see­ing a per­son. But the real ques­tion is, which ver­sion of that per­son are we see­ing? Are we truly see­ing an hon­est de­pic­tion of an in­di­vid­ual or are we wit­ness­ing an in­di­vid­ual who has been moulded by the sub­jec­tive gaze of the pho­tog­ra­pher? Per­haps we are see­ing them through the gaze of an artist who has staged and con­trolled a char­ac­ter as they see it. Add to that the gaze of each in­di­vid­ual who then sees that im­age – all of whom will carry their own pre­con­ceived no­tions – and we’re left with a sub­ject that, in the end, bears lit­tle or no re­sem­blance to the ‘re­al­ity’ of the sit­ter. The sit­ter ul­ti­mately be­comes a tapestry or col­lage, one that is re­ar­ranged and re­newed with each view­ing. This has of course been an is­sue with pho­tog­ra­phy since day one. The very act of pho­tograph­ing a scene means it is stripped from its con­text. Por­trai­ture (along with doc­u­men­tary) is per­haps one genre that il­lus­trates this beau­ti­fully. The re­ac­tions to the an­nual Tay­lor Wess­ing prize al­ways in­spire de­bate about the po­lit­i­cal na­ture of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. But per­haps the best ex­am­ples re­volve around gen­der. The fe­male form, as we know, has for the most part been cap­tured and crys­tallised by the male gaze. That’s why lit­er­a­ture, art and cin­ema are pop­u­lated by such dis­tinct archetypes – the housewife, the pas­sion­ate lover, the maiden, the mother, the Mary Sue, the manic pixie dream girl, and so on, ad nau­seum. It’s with great in­ter­est that we can look to to­day’s politi­cised cli­mate around gen­der and hope that fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion is given back to its artists and sub­jects. This ex­hi­bi­tion is one of many at­tempts to move to­wards that goal.

The Mag­num Print Room in Lon­don is host­ing three fe­male Mag­num pho­tog­ra­phers – Carolyn Drake, Bieke De­poorter and Su­san Meise­las – and all of the im­ages fea­ture fe­male sit­ters who have been asked to, in the words of the ex­hi­bi­tion, ‘present them­selves on their own terms, to per­form, play and con­trol their rep­re­sen­ta­tion in front of the lens’. This is im­por­tant when we con­sider that only a small frac­tion of the Mag­num agency’s mem­bers is fe­male, though this num­ber has been grow­ing in re­cent years.

Be­tween 2014 and 2016, Carolyn Drake pho­tographed the fe­male res­i­dents of a Soviet- era or­phan­age, also called an ‘in­ter­nat’, in the Ukraine. The or­phan­age con­tained young fe­males marked with a range of dis­abil­i­ties, all of whom were over­seen by a male di­rec­tor. In each im­age, Drake has al­lowed her sit­ters to use any avail­able ma­te­ri­als, such as found

ob­jects and the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment, to cre­ate im­ages that evoke art his­tory and fairy­tales in or­der to ex­plore how they per­ceive their own in­di­vid­ual iden­ti­ties and their links to no­tions of fem­i­nin­ity.

Some years be­fore Drake’s pro­ject – in the early 1970s – Su­san Meise­las pho­tographed car­ni­val strip­pers in New Eng­land and South Carolina. Her im­ages show the women on and off stage, giv­ing us an in­sight into their stage per­sonas and pri­vate lives. Get­ting such an in­ti­mate in­sight into the lives of these women al­lows a larger di­a­logue to form around how we view women who put them­selves on dis­play for pa­trons who ob­jec­tify them and, ul­ti­mately, come to see them in deroga­tory ways.

Of all the projects, per­haps the most in­ti­mate is Bieke De­poorter’s. In Novem­ber 2017 De­poorter met Agata when the pho­tog­ra­pher went for a drink at a strip­tease bar. The two im­me­di­ately hit it off and quickly bonded. They spent the next few days to­gether and De­poorter took a series of in­ti­mate and re­veal­ing im­ages of Agata and her life, though im­por­tantly it was Agata who dic­tated how she was shown and rep­re­sented.

Each pro­ject is a per­fect ex­plo­ration of how dif­fi­cult the no­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tion can be, par­tic­u­larly as it ap­plies to fem­i­nin­ity. How­ever, the real suc­cess of this show lies in how con­fi­dently it asks the ques­tions we be­gan this re­view with and its abil­ity to place the power back in the hands of the sit­ter.

‘Ternopil, Petrykhiv, Ukraine, 2017’ by Carolyn Drake

‘Agata, Paris, France. 2017’ by Bieke De­poorter

‘Agata, Beirut. Au­gust 3, 2018’ by Bieke De­poorter

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