I've become a little obsessed lately with blue and white ceramics.
This might seem like a pretty specific obsession to have- I don't actually like the color blue very much, I don't wear it much, it's not typically my first choice for decor. Living in Fairbanks, however, makes it difficult to ignore. The whole city seems to be saturated with it- no thanks in large part, I'm sure, to UAF's school colors, royal blue and yellow. UAF's color scheme, because of it's prominence in the Fairbanks community, transfers into the logos, color schemes and decor themes of many local businesses and community sports organizations (including the roller derby league that I skate with).
I digress. I changed my minor this year to Ceramics, from Native Arts. Not because I'm not interested or invested in Native Arts, but because I never knew how much I'd like Ceramics, since I never had the time to take a class in undergrad. It felt so nice in the Intermediate course I took this past Fall to just make things, immediate and tactile things, that I signed up for a second semester of it. Of course, leveling up means that I'm no longer allowed to get away with just making stuff, and have to find a focus for the work I want to do. Womp womp.
At some point last term, Celadon glazing piqued my interest. I grew up around a lot of Asian and Asian-inspired ceramics, celadon works chief among them. I presented a short research project on the history of the glaze and it's use in ancient Chinese ceramic ware, and that grew into an interest in the theory and history of glazing and ceramic decoration in general. It's not actually that strange that I've settled on blue and white wares for the moment- they're iconic, they can be found in most early Asian and eventually European clay traditions, and the history of the patterns and techniques is complicated and fascinating.
I wouldn't consider myself a ceramicist quite yet. A lot of the work I'm doing this semester is experimental- I'm not great on the wheel yet and I'm still developing a lot of the technical skill necessary to make the work that I'd eventually like to make. But for now I'm experimenting mostly- with surface decor, with pigmentation, with glaze and underglaze and slip and oxides. I made a darker clay body this term in order to play with the reading of the work- does blue and white read the same as blue and tan? Why or why not? How does a darker clay body change the perceived value of a work? Why? Many of these questions are still in the works, and many of the works are still in the works. It's certainly been a learning experience- maybe you can see all the fingerprints I left behind from working with under-watered cobalt oxide? But it's been pretty fun so far. It's nice to work in a medium that's still kind of a mystery to me, something that I can't necessarily predict the outcome of yet.
Last Autumn, the University of Alaska Museum of the North was chosen to be the Alaska recipient of the Vogel 50x50 exhibition, a project which doled out 50 works from Dorothy and Herb Vogel's extensive collection of small contemporary American artworks to one public museum in each of the 50 states. I'd first heard about the Vogels early in my artistic education, due to Herb's passing in my second year of undergrad. The Vogel Collection is legendary- after his death, Dorothy donated most of their collection to the Smithsonian, with the stipulation that the 50x50 project take place before the entire donation was added to the Institution's permanent collection.
The story of the Vogels aside, my fascination with the show at the Museum of the North extended past the works themselves, and eventually settled on the experience of viewing works of art, mostly smaller 2D works on paper, in a space typically occupied by cultural artifacts and natural history. The Museum of the North hosts both of these genres of items in the vast majority of its space. Interspersed among the taxidermied polar bears and the carefully preserved Athabascan beadwork might be found historic paintings, sketches from journals, illustrations by expedition crews or local Natives, but the large majority of the Museum's collection of fine art and handicrafts reside in one gallery on the upper level. Paintings, photographs and other 2D works in the Rose Berry Gallery are framed and hung like they might be at any other institution, historic and contemporary works side-by-side. In the Special Exhibitions gallery, where the Vogel show was hung, wall-sized glass cases built for 3D specimens and artifact display dominate the space. Both the physical and visual space created between work and viewer created by these glass cases surprised me- if we're being honest, I spent more time considering the space than I did the work housed within them. Having matriculated at a museum school for my undergraduate degree, I feel justified in saying that I have spent more time considering, dissecting, docent-ing and generally hanging out in museum galleries than the average Joe. In processing the Vogel show, I was prevented from interacting with the work in the way that I was used to, and in a way that made sense to me. Space constraints seemingly caused the exhibition to forego more traditional styles of presentation. I couldn't find an anchor piece with which to start- I bounced from one case to another, trying to settle on a work to lead me in to the rest of the collection. The glass between the work and I interrupted my gaze, my considerations, and my ultimate experience. Lately, as I begin to makes choices about the finishing and sequencing of my thesis exhibition next Spring, I keep returning to my experience digesting the Vogel show, and the museum/gallery experience as a whole.
On my birthday this past December, my best friend and I spent some time perusing a secondhand bookstore in the city near our parents' homes. It was in this book store that I stumbled across Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine. Especially when organizing a show of photographic work, size, placement, sequence, and finishing are vital topics to consider, and as I begin to plan these things in reference to my own final show, I thought the book would make for some topical light reading. I've only read one essay in the collection so far, but it was one of the best introductions to considerations of cultural museum display that I've encountered in my time as an art student. In "Four Northwest Coast Museums: Travel Reflections", James Clifford, noted anthropologist, compares and contrasts the handling of Northwest Coast historic and contemporary cultural objects and artworks, as handled by four separate cultural institutions in British Columbia. Although it wasn't specifically what I was looking for when I began to read, the points and issues Clifford addresses are vitally important for any student of museum studies, cultural preservation or indigenous issues.
In 42 pages, Clifford (who acknowledges his place as a white student of anthropology dissection the presentation of indigenous North American cultures in the first two pages, points for him) breaks down the minute differences between the handling of various Northwest Coast permanent collections by four British Columbia institutions: the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, the Royal British Columbia Museum, the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center, and the U'mista Cultural Centre. He spends much of the essay describing, in detail, the environments that these museums inhabit, why they were founded/what greater purpose they serve, how their collections are organized, arranged, catalogued and displayed, and what moving through the gallery spaces is like. Some dissection of these topics occurs in the first half of the essay, though most of the more critical and detailed investigation can be found in the latter half. One of the sections that I was most interested in involved thoughts on presentation and intention:
On page 240, Clifford is discussing the collections of the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center, and the U'mista Cultural Centre. The creation of these two institutions occurred when, in the latter half of the 20th century, the Canadian government returned a huge cache of cultural artifacts, confiscated in the 1920's during a raid on an "illegal" potlatch hosted by Dan Cranmer on Village Island. By the time the collection was returned to the community, the descendants claiming ownership of the items were split between two Kwagiulth communities- one in Cape Mudge Village (location of the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center) and the other in Alert Bay (location of the U'mista Cultural Centre). The U'mista Cultural Centre has foregone a more Western styles of presentation in favor of a more organic system- viewers enter the big-house style gallery and are presented with the objects in the order in which they would have appear at the potlatch ceremony. There is no glass, and the lighting is low. Rather than title cards naming materials and dimensions, elders and community members were invited to provide cultural and historic context for the pieces, their comments recorded on large white cards place in proximity to, but not attached to, the items they reference. The Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Center takes a more recognizable approach to the display and categorization of the items in its collection- arranged thematically, the spotlit glass cases could seem at home in any Smithsonian institution. Title cards include, under the description of the item, the name of the family or descendent who claims ownership. Arguably, the Kwagiulth Museum seems to serve a more Western sensibility, laid out and labeled in a way that is familiar and recognizable to the passing cultural tourist. The U'mista Centre, on the other hand, would appear more centered around the community. Does the U'mista Centre, due to it's display and organizational choices, then become a museum of the potlatch, rather than the overall cultural heritage of the area? Does the Kwagiulth Museum exist for the community, or because of it? Do the answers to any of these questions effect the importance, significance or truth of these spaces? Does it matter?
Really, it always matters. I had a really productive critique in my graduate seminar a few weeks ago, centered around my most recent public presentation of a few images from my work. Mostly, the consensus was that the choices I had made were not doing the images any favors- which was fair, and true. We spent time troubleshooting some of the particulars associated with the story that I'm trying to tell, and weighed a lot of options. It felt good. Intention, sequence, space, organization- in the grand scheme of Looking, these are the choices that have to matter as much as the actual making of the work matters.
For someone as messy as I am, the organization and appearance of my personal spaces are surprisingly important. My bedroom, my bathroom, my car- all spaces that I spend so much of my time in, that are astonishingly messy, but in a way that I find sort of comforting. I, as a person, pride myself on not being messy. My spaces might be messy, but I am not a mess. Not usually, anyway. I'm a nester, which on good days means mostly that I like to make spaces immediately mine, no matter how long I'm actually staying in them, and on bad days, means that everything I own ends up in various strategic piles around me.
My studio space is maybe the one general exception to the rule. Because it is a personal space, but one that I'm often inviting other people to spend time in, I make a much bigger effort to keep it habitable than I do for say, my bedroom.
The first studio ever granted to me was a three-walled, 12'x12' space that I shared with my friend Rona in the Gallery building at the Burren College of Art. It was my third year of undergrad, and I was working almost exclusively in 2d digital photography. I'd never been given so much space to work in before, and I was pretty overwhelmed by it. I kept a worktable, chair and pile of books there. Halfway through the semester I used some of the wall space to consider several large maps of the area that I'd purchased. I never used it for anything else, hence why I have a photo of Rona's space, but not mine:
In the spring of that year, Rona and I chose to move into a smaller-but-brighter studio affectionally referred to as "the Fishbowl". Our space in the Bowl featured high ceilings, a 12' shared wall, a sink, and a long set of low shelves. Rona had the back half of the space, granting her another 6-8' of wall space, while I took the half of our shared wall and the courtyard-facing wall made of glass panels. I was still working overwhelmingly in 2d, although I'd added a painting course to my schedule that term. The Fishbowl was a interesting experience in the public-private duality of artists' spaces- tourists who came to view the castle on the grounds of the school often had to walk past our space on their way to or from the Gallery building, and would stop to view us through the aquarium-like walls. Children would point at something that was going on in the space, asking their parents about whatever bizarre-looking thing we we working on that week. I don't know what sort of answers those parents gave their young ones- none of them ever came inside to consult us.
When I returned to my home institution after a year of studio indulgence at the Burren, I didn't quite know what to expect. I knew that the space generally granted to Photography thesis students was limited, but I thought for sure that they couldn't expect all twelve of us to share a space only twice the size of the spaces that I'd shared with Rona in Ireland. I was wrong.
The Corcoran gave each Fine Art Photography thesis student a 5' long table and the wall immediately in front of it. Some of us rearrange our spaces in such a way as to take better advantage of what we had versus how we needed to work- I replaced my large table with a much smaller pedestal in order to better access the wall space, many of my peers installed shelves for books and supplies, and one of us removed their table and replaced it with a cushy armchair, abandoning the pretense of working in the space completely. I like to think that our shared clown car-esque experience really brought us all closer- that mightn't have been true, but it sure felt like it.
The MFA studios at UAF, where I've been for the past year and a half, are housed in a gutted graduate student triplex. The building was condemned as a housing unit at some point, after which it was given to the Chemistry department, after which it transferred into the ink-and-paint-stained clutches of the Art department. It's not ideal, but it has a lot of potential. We can't make many structural changes to it, which is disappointing, but it's a space, which is a good thing.
I don't have any photos of my first studio setup because I wasn't very comfortable in it. I didn't have much space to spread out and I didn't feel at all like the space belonged to me. Working in borrowed space is fine for a certain amount of time, but after awhile it can grow tiring. This January, I was able to move into a vacated space on the other side of the basement. The long, continuous wall is ideal for organizing wide edits and really getting to sit with the work I'm making. Even after moving to a largely digital workflow, making work prints and sequencing physical images is the only way to visualize what shape the final work will take. I plan to begin making final prints at the end of this semester, and this wall will allow me to hang several of them together at a time, rather than just one or two (like my previous space would've allowed).
All photos in this post are mine unless otherwise noted.
Photography will always be my first love. Photography was the first medium I ever tried in which I understood exactly how to get the image in my head to appear on the paper. Photography taught me the only chemistry I remember from high school, the only advanced math I use on a daily basis, and the only control I could exercise in my own life as a young adult.
But sometimes, it just feels good to make stuff out of dirt.
(Obviously, yes, clay bodies and glaze compounds are far more intricate and exact than just "dirt". But like, it's basically dirt.)
Especially because my photographic practice lately has shifted to a digital workflow, photography isn't as tactile for me as it is when it's darkroom-based. Of course I still love it, and all the different intricacies that come with a digital practice. But today, I got to pull these babies off the "finished" shelf, and it felt really good. They're too thick, the glazes overlap too much some places and not enough others, the handles are awkward sizes and so are the mugs- but it felt good. So, sorry, everyone I know, but you're all getting a mug or a bowl or a sad ashtray for Christmas, and I don't even care if you like it or not.
The MFAs got to hang a small works-in-progress show in the University gallery this past week.
Ceramic work in the foreground by Dustin Auerbach.
You should appreciate this timelapse a lot, because the first time I ever had to hang any of my own photographs (which was only actually five years ago), I ended the day sitting on the floor, crying, surrounded by bent nails and three different types of hammers.
Exhibitions was not my forte. I've gotten a lot better, obviously, and also sworn to never hang salon-style again, no matter how much the work would benefit.
I hung three 11x17 pigment prints in plain white frames (my go-to when someone, like my advisor, makes me use them at all) and called it a day. I knew my work would contrast pretty harshly with what my peers would be showing, and I didn't want to call any more attention to that than I had to. I did, however, make some very specific choices about titles, which I don't usually do and have been exploring more lately.
Because the show title was very generic, and our statements were hung separately from the work, I wanted to be very purposeful about naming the photos. I'm not a big fan of overly verbose or descriptive titles, and haven't used them at all in the past.
From left to right: When We Thought It Was Cancer (I Wish It Was Cancer), May 2013; I Don't Live In This House Any More/ Does Anyone Live In This House Any More?, une 2015; After Physical Therapy, ctober 2015.
My art history professor/committee member said they made her cry so I guess they're good titles.
I am a perfectionist procrastinator and I'm not afraid to say it. It's taken me a long time to realize these things about myself- I hesitate to begin a project until I feel like I have absolutely everything that I could possibly need, I don't like to hang or present work until I feel like it's reached a real stopping/finishing point. This is what I've been struggling with a lot lately in regards to my Pacific-American diaspora work- how to put the work out there, accessible, in the world, while still actively making it.
As a fourth-year undergrad, my Professional Practices course brought in a gallery owner and had her give a talk to us about marketing our work to galleries. She asked the group of 30, "How many of you want to be photographer who hang work in galleries? How many of you want to make a living from making fine art images?" All but two of us raised their hands. Myself and one other student kept ours down. My classmate Chris explained that he was more interested in going into archiving and fabrication, and I talked about how in the balance between teaching and art making, teaching will always win out for me. Being a "gallery photographer" has never appealed to me. Art galleries and the art world are inherently inaccessible to the general public- a topic that I could go in to at length, but maybe I'll save that for another post.
So when considering how I want to present An Ocean, there's a lot of different elements to take into account:
- The work is ongoing.
- It is important to present the work as it happens/continuously.
- It should be immediately accessible to as many people as possible.
- People should not be kept from seeing it based on budget/location/time.
- Participants should have the ability to contribute their own voice to the work.
Thinking about these elements, several traditional forms of presenting photographs are immediately ruled out. Gallery spaces are only locationally accessible and books or magazines cost money to produce and ship. How else to people experience images? How else to people access photographs?
I made the decision recently to utilize Instagram as the fastest, cheapest, most widely accessible method of making this work as possible.
The Instagram format has already been as immediately accessible, interactive and discoverable as I'd hoped it would be. The ability to tag images means more people have the opportunity to happen upon the images while searching a specific tag, participants can tag themselves or their friends, and people can comment on particular images- which has already proved valuable when Mikhael, pictured at the lower right, added this comment to an image that was part of his story:
The account is still in it's infancy- but it's growth and reach in only the first three weeks of it's existence gives me confidence.
Nancy Borowick is a photographer based out of New York. We've never met, but I went to school for a few years with her brother, Matt, a talented photographer in his own right.
Nancy has gained a lot of attention in the last few years for her Cancer Family work, which chronicles the cancer treatments of both of her parents, and their subsequent passings.
I often reference Nancy's work when people ask me for influences and inspirations. The images are striking, the story is poignant and emotional, and it's an important story to tell.
I get resentful, sometimes, that the majority of sick-parent narratives out there are cancer narratives. It's not that I don't think they're important or worthy stories, it's just that the visual markers of the story have become so ingrained in our culture that for any narrative about a sick person, we make presumptions about the images we're going to see. Hair loss, chemotherapy treatments and the hospital scenes that go with them, the IVs, the list goes on. I get resentful about people asking why I don't have those photos in the work I'm doing about my mom, about people suggesting specific images they think I should make when in reality, those images don't exist in her story.
ALS is not cancer, Some days, I wish that it was. I said that to a friend this summer and they looked at me like I'd just shot their dog. It's true- I wish my mom had cancer. I wish people understood what she's going through without me having to explain it, I wish there were treatment options, I wish there was the hope of remission to hold on to. There aren't any of those things- there is no rising action here, there is no upswing to this story. Scientists don't know what causes ALS, why people develop it, or how to cure it. There is one course of treatment for it: physical therapy and muscle relaxers. Sure, there are markers of the sickness- her neck brace, her wheelchair, her garden sitting untended, the pile of bills from John's Hopkins.
I've picked a lot of work to do lately that doesn't already exist in the world. They're important stories, stories worth telling. Sometimes, I just get tired.
There's a Tumblr meme going around lately in which someone will post their "fall aesthetic" or "mood board", and then tag a number of other tumblr users to do the same. It seems sort of redundant, as many folks use the Tumblr social blogging platform as a sort of long-form mood board, implying that really anything they post is part of their aesthetic . But some users, myself included, don't necessarily use their blogs in that manner, and so the excersize is actually sort of a nice way to organize recent thoughts/inspiration/aspirations. I used the blog function on the initial version of my website in a similar sort of mood board/photographic sketchbook manner, until I switched hosting platforms and then keeping a blog became a requisite of my graduate program.
Many of the folks I have seen doing this excersize maybe don't identify themselves as artists, and so the imagery can vary a lot. It's nice to see all the different places we find hints of inspiration. A few of the recent ones I've come across, all on Tumblr:
As silly/bizzare as some of the #aesthetic posts I have seen can be, it is a great excersize in the moment, and if you continue to keep making them, a nice way for you to look back and identify patterns in the things that are interesting you.
Some of mine from the past few months:
I got asked this question last November, and I answered "sure, why not?".
I got to meet some incredible people, ate fantastic Inupiaq dishes, and hang out with Edna MacLean for 24 hours.
Edna is something of an Alaskan treasure. She's a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, hanging previously taught in the Alaska Native Languages program. This past September, UAF Press published Edna's North Slope Inupiaq-English dictionary- a lexicon that took Edna and dozens of Inupiaq elders nearly 40 years to complete.
Aurora Magazine, UAF's alumni & friends publication, was strapped for photographer options when they called me up asking if I wanted to spend a day in Barrow, so I don't know how much of it was faith and how much of it was desperation, but I jumped at the chance. Barrow is the northernmost incorporated community in North America, with around 4,500 people occupying a narrow strip of Alaska's Arctic Slope coast at the confluence of the Bering and Chukchi Seas.
Read the rest of the feature on Edna, and see the rest of my photos (including the cover!) in the Spring 2015 issue of Aurora.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about identity and belonging lately.
(This may seem like a nebulous statement, but stay with me.)
I've been answering a lot of questions in the last month or so related to the work that I'm doing with other Pacific Islanders. Who counts or doesn't count and why, why I even wanted to do this work in the first place, what the work is going to look like in the long run. Some of these questions were easier to answer than others, and some of the questions I don't yet have an answer for. I'm glad the questions are happening, but some days they weigh heavier on my mind than others.
The Pacific Daily News published an article about a week ago titled "Who counts as being Chamorro?" and even just the title set my teeth on edge. The author ends the article (which posed more questions than it answered) noting that that question, "who counts?" is a "great way to start a family discussion- or a bar fight."
Blood quantum has been used by and against People of Color for hundreds of years, although my knowledge is limited largely to it's uses in the US and the Pacific. The One-Drop rule, Tribal registration, schools for native youth, land ownership, college scholarships- for better or for worse, being counted counts for something.
Even though I'm mixed, even though my Father is white, it was pointed out to me from a very young age that I had to be something else. I didn't understand the concept of passing for white until late in high school, but it was an idea projected on to me from early childhood. I couldn't ever have a "typical" white American experience because I didn't pass- and so have spent my entire life fielding questions about where I'm "really" from. If I'm feeling particularly tired of the question in a given moment, I'll continue to deadpan-respond with "Virginia" until the person gets frustrated and drops the issue. What they're really asking me/themselves is, "what kind of brown are you?" "Should I be uncomfortable with your presence in this space?" "Am I going to tolerate your answer?" "Should I value your existence less based on your answer?"
A while back, I got an anonymous message from someone asking about how to start exploring a newfound part of their heritage without being appropriative or insulting or stepping on toes. I didn't have a very clear answer for them, and so I said what I could and then posed the question to my larger Pacific community to see if someone else could verbalize the complicated thoughts I was having. In part, it was a difficult question for me to answer because it's a process that I'm still undergoing. Although I generally self-identify as a Pacific Islander, that's a pretty unclear statement. I am a person of Pacific Islander heritage, who was born and has lived their entire life on the Mainland. My experience as an Islander will always be different than the experiences of someone who has grown up in the Pacific, who has lived their life grounded in the place their family comes from. I don't speak, read or write Palauan. Unless I become a citizen of Palau, potentially forfeiting my US citizenship in the process, I can never own land there- not even the land that legally belongs to my mother, who has retained her Palauan citizenship for the entirety of her time living Stateside for the express purpose of land ownership. In the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, as far as I'm aware, you have to prove that you're at least 25% Chamorro or Carolinian in order to own land. Just like in Palau, these laws were passed initially to protect what was left of their islands from further annexation by the United States (among other reasons). It makes sense, and I'm not against the laws. But where does that leave me?
These are some- though certainly not all- of the roots with which I am grounding this body of work. Children of any diaspora straddle a thin line between worlds, and it is vital that they know they're not alone. I saw little to no representation of myself in film, music, television, books or politics. I didn't know what other people like me were out there doing, and so it was difficult to picture where I could fit in. I grew up fully alienated from both of the worlds that I was made from, and though my experiences were certainly not the worst of either world, that doesn't mean it wasn't difficult. I am finally at a point in my life where I am reaching out and connecting with the community that I have wanted to be a part of for my entire life, and I want other people like me to see that too.
Portraiture is arguably the most immediately accessible genre of photography. It's easy to understand a portrait- a photo of a person, usually. A face- something recognizable, something familiar. It's easy to look a photograph of a person and imagine what their life may be like, based on what we can see.
The images above are selections from Alec Soth's Sleeping By the Mississippi. The first time I completed a body of work based in portraiture, the first feedback that I received from a professor was "I'm so glad these images don't look like Alec Soth". That single comment has shaped both the way that I photograph portraits and how I perceive them for the last four years.
Allow me to rewind, momentarily.
These are selections from work made by Edward Curtis in the early 1900's. Curtis has been viewed as the father of ethnographic portraiture for the better part of the last two centuries, but in my own experience, people in the last ten years finally seem to be copping on to his crap. Curtis' Pictorialist style- softer focus and manipulation of the print color or chemicals in order to elicit a somewhat dreamlike appearance- renders the ethnographic validity of these images immediately null. Pictorialism is often spoken about as the catalyst for photography's exaltation to the realm of fine art in the mid 1900's. Why, then, have Curtis' images, especially those of indigenous North Americans, been viewed for so long as true representations of the people depicted? The idea of manipulation, of both the image and the viewer's emotions, are literally part of the definition of Pictorialism. Curtis' portraits are socio-cultural propaganda at their most basic.
Principal among the commonalities between Curtis' and Soth's photo is the anonymity of their subjects. The generally accepted idea of portraiture is to reveal the identity of a person- and while these two photographers may do that in the most superficial way, we cannot truly identify anything about these people outside of their frames. Seth's images, though most of them include some environmental context, are the height of Anywhere, USA. There are things we can infer based on the settings of some of his subjects- this person is on a bed, that person is outside, the other person is probably in a church. But the only reason we have a more specific geographic clue about his locations is because he gives it to us. Without a title, Sleeping by the Mississippi would become Sleeping Literally Anywhere. And suddenly, this anonymous mish-mash of folks becomes the precedent for what people look like in that part of the world. Likewise, Curtis' images of regalia-ed Natives provide little to no cultural context of the clothing or adornment portrayed. His subjects are depicted often in either ceremonial regalia, traditional clothing with a specific purpose, or, as in the case above, what appears to be an entire bear skin. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of pretty much any of the thousands of Native groups in North America should know that none of these things are everyday wear. How did the war bonnet become synonymous with typical Native garb? Curtis.
I'm reminded of another "ethnographic" work of pseudo-non-fiction by our dear friend Robert Flaherty, titled Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic, produced in 1922. The silent "documentary" tells the story of an Canadian Inut man, Allakariallak ("Nanook"), of the Itivimuit, his wife Nyla and their child Cunayou. In reality, various accounts from individuals who knew Flaherty and Allakariallak have revealed that this woman and child were not Allakariallak's family at all, but instead Flaherty's. Flaherty encouraged Allakariallak to hunt in the "traditional" way of his people, instead of with the gun that Allakariallak would normally use. Flaherty in fact refused to capture any film in which evidence of European contact was apparent, instead staging scenes capturing what were basically re-enactments of pre-colonial life in the Canadian Arctic.
But I digress.
The two most important bodies of work that I am currently involved in are, at their most basic, works of portraiture. Not only in the sense that I am making photos that are mostly of faces and people, but in the sense that both bodies as a whole are meant to represent something. Like Stieglitz's Georgia O'Keeffe, A Portrait, the images I'm producing aren't meant to be viewed one at a time. They're a progression of an experience- one, a portrait of a matriarch with a terminal condition. The other, a portrait of a community grasping to stay rooted in our heritage. Obviously, neither of these works are as simple as what I've tried to boil them down to here, but then neither are my feelings regarding the totalitarian nature of the idea of a portrait. To believe that we can know someone by viewing an image of them is naive. To believe that we can capture even part of an individual's personality in a still frame is naive. To make our life's work out of depicting the faces of the world and to say that those images are a representation of everyone else who looks like that person is naive (cough, Steve McCurry). Making portraits never appealed to me until I realized that all we have to do is recognize that images of people are not the same as the people themselves. Ceci n'est pas une pipe, right? The image is not the object but merely a screen of a representation of the object. I just finished re-reading Jaques Lacan for the third time in four years and he still doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but that part I understand.
I want to see aspects of my identity represented in the world so badly- on magazine covers, in movies and television, and in the music industry. I want to see people who look like me, talk like me, have similar experiences to mine out in the world, existing and being recognized. That's the main impetus for both the work I'm doing on my mother and the world that I'm doing with other children of Pacific immigrants. But through both of these works, I have to keep reminding myself that what I'm making will never be the same as what those people are living. My images are not their identities, my photographs are not their experiences. An image of the object is not the object.
…a flock of Palins? A disturbance of Palins? A screeching of Palins?
Since moving to Alaska, many friends from home have managed to weave Sarah Palin into our conversations once or twice. Although I haven't seen her, or her infamous backyard, I was fascinated by these photos released by the Anchorage Police Department today. About a month ago, a fight broke out at a birthday party at which some of the Palins were present, and the police were called. They released the evidence photos today on the APD website, and I spent a long time this morning considering them.
Evidence photos are not intended to be works of art, and yet I find myself drawn to these images. Photography has been considered for a long time to be a reflection of reality, and only in the last decade or so has begun to be distrusted as much (if not more so) than paintings or drawings. The argument is one any photojournalist is familiar with, and even Dutch student Zilla van den Born knows all too well. But we still use photography, despite all it's deceptive ability, to document and to record. These evidence photos appear un-doctored to the naked eye- and I have confidence that if they were examined more closely, their data would reflect that as well. The images that feature human subjects intentionally obscure the identities of those depicted. The harsh flash and the apparent disregard for composition or framing marks these images as intentional records rather than a constructed reality or conceptual framework. And yet, these are also the traits that keep me drawn to the imagery- a kind of half-way between Nan Goldin and Paul Seawright comes to mind.
Regardless of the intent behind the Palin evidence photos, their intrigue is undeniable. Whether the intrigue is born out of the family's fame or simply the strangeness of these specific pictures remains to be seen.