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Shadowplay: Transgressive Photography from the Hood Museum of Art

Hood Quarterly, summer 2013
Virginia Beahan, Senior Lecturer, and Brian Miller, Senior Lecturer

Two professors who teach photography in the Studio Art Department, Virginia Beahan and Brian Miller, have organized an exhibition that looks at the Hood Museum of Art’s collection through a particular lens: transgressive photography, or works that cross boundaries and perhaps change the way we view the world.

Virginia Beahan

The medium of photography originated in the 1800s as a means of capturing the world in what was thought of as a completely factual way. In The History of Photography, Beaumont Newhall writes, “The fever for reality was running high,” and so the first daguerreotypes documented details of everyday life. Architecture and street scenes were among the most common subjects, as well as disasters such as fires and floods, nude models (ostensibly for painting), family members, and dignitaries. But only one year after the unveiling of this new truth-telling medium, a different kind of image appeared: the 1840 photograph by Hippolyte Bayard titled Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man.

Reality, photographers promptly discovered, is elusive, and of course, both audience and practitioners ultimately learned to ask this question: Whose version of reality are we seeing? In Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop (a recent catalogue and exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), curator Mia Fineman shows us that right from the start, photographers bent the medium to their will, establishing a productive tension between our desire for verisimilitude and the maker’s own personal, social, or political agenda.

Within evolving traditional categories of photographic image-making, conventions of acceptability have changed over time. Tintypes of deceased family members, known as Memento Mori, would seem macabre to most viewers today; souvenir postcards of lynchings and public hangings that were prevalent in the early 1900s (featuring mobs and sometimes jubilant spectators including women and children) are now unthinkable. During the straight-laced Victorian era, photographs of nude adolescent children outnumbered those of adult women by a margin of four to one.

In this exhibition of contemporary photography, Jock Sturges, Sally Mann, and María Magdalena Campos-Pons push the boundaries of taste and acceptability in both subtle and obvious ways. Lalla Essaydi’s elaborately staged studio photographs of veiled Arab women present tableaus that conflate issues of submission, invisibility, gender, and power. The saturated aerial images of David Maisel and J Henry Fair are bold abstractions that are as terrible in their connotations as they are beautiful in their appearance.

One of the things we as professors discuss with student photographers is the idea of taking artistic risks or finding one’s “edge.” For me, this means reaching beyond the familiar, the expected, and the comfortable to discover what is new and what can extend the boundaries of our perceptions and assumptions. In thinking about a theme for this exhibition, Professor Miller and I liked the notion of finding works that explore those edges in a number of different ways. This exhibition is the result of our process of sifting through the collection and selecting photographs that may startle, annoy, embarrass, or even infuriate, but also strongly affirm the breadth and complexity of human experience.

Brian Miller

Photography has always been considered a somewhat dangerous medium. Shortly after its invention, contemporary artists of the mid-1800s decided it could never be considered art. This new technology was found to be so threatening to established artistic norms, then, that it had to be completely dismissed. Some artists were even convinced that its democratic pretensions would undermine their privileged cultural position. Photography was simply too real, they argued, and photographers lacked imagination. Photography was thought to corrupt minors and cause insanity. Certain religious groups prohibited their adherents from being photographed. Some believed that photography was capable of revealing images of ghosts, spirits, and the supernatural. Has there ever been a medium, we might begin to wonder, to which so much power has been ascribed?

Transgressive imagery appeals to me conceptually because it represents a certain freedom in art making—from convention, from technique, from established traditions. With this freedom, artists have the opportunity to reinvent their aesthetic vision every time they create something new. There is no need to subscribe to movements, ideologies, or theories: there is only pure creation. As a photographer, my understanding of the history and traditions of the medium has given me a solid foundation for my practice, but it has also presented some profound limitations. Photography initially evolved out of the tradition of representational painting, and, as such, many conventions of composition, tonality, color, and so forth were never questioned or changed. Does photography now deserve to develop an aesthetic of its own? Its practitioners have certainly wondered about this, and the most recent result is the acceptance of the snapshot aesthetic into the photographic canon.

Transgressive imagery also brings with it freedom on a sociopolitical level— from religion, from good taste or politeness, from the ideas of others. Through these images (and this practice), I find the freedom to live, behave, and create exactly as I want, and any limits I place upon my work are by choice, not through some fear of violating laws or taboos. There is no immorality where imagery is concerned. Some images, then, are the visual equivalent of a curse word, an effective and emotionally charged way to make a point. We cannot say f**k politely, nor should we. The sociopolitical freedom of the transgressive image allows the artist to act as a cultural critic as well. Nothing is safe: no person, no idea, no article of faith. Blind adherence to any given set of ideas keeps the individual in a perpetually subservient state that is vulnerable to repeated manipulation. Sometimes we need to be pushed into reevaluating our situation (and ourselves), and this is precisely the job of the provocative artwork.

I hope that people see the Les Krims photograph in this exhibition and think about traditional Christian attitudes towards female sexuality, or see an image by Fiona Foley and think about the way history is told. Perhaps the images by Gary Schneider or Thomas Barrow might encourage an aspiring photographer to be more daring in the darkroom? Maybe the headshot by Cary Leibowitz will raise questions and concerns about language and the way we use it. But before any of this happens, we must be open to new ideas. If our minds are made up about politics, then we will always vote for our side. If our minds are made up about culture or sexuality, then we risk leading rather boring lives, which might really be the sin here.

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