Sunday, January 7, 2007

When the subjects revolt

Last night Bruce and I saw a movie in a theater, a strangely rare occasion that we ought to correct in the new year. At the suggestion of a friend, we saw "Stranger than Fiction" at the lovely second-run Capitol Theatre in Arlington. This fun and though-provoking (in just the right way) comedy/tragedy bought up many interesting issues about the relationship between authors and subjects.

Will Ferrell's character comes to realize that his life is being narrated by a distraught author plagued with writer's block, played by Emma Thompson. Inspired by his visits to a literary theorist, Dustin Hoffman, he gradually attempts to determine if his story is a comedy or a tragedy as well as find out if he can affect the story or is simply a pawn within her larger narrative. The movie also makes inventive use of graphic elements, namely in the form of graphs and sku numbers, laid over the scenes to illustrate Harold Crick's love of all things numerical and mild OCD compulsion for pre-determined routines. (The geek in me thoroughly enjoyed the references to the architecture of math and science in the characters' last names, including Crick, Pascal, and Eiffel.)

This inspired me to post a few musings and links regarding when a photographic subject seems to turn the tables and attempt to take directorial control from the photographer. Although many photographers describe their work with certain subjects as collaborative, can the power really flow both ways through the cable release? Take Andrea Modica and her work with Barbara in her series Treadwell and the oft-cited case of
Sally Mann and her early work with her children, which stirred much controversy when published. Here is one of the typical ways in which the photographer-subject relationship has been couched:

From the beginning, Barbara was a striking presence: a Rubenesque urchin, sad and sweet and a little sly, who responded to Modica's rapt attention like a flower that turns toward the sun. - Village Voice

Jessie Mann, daughter of Sally Mann, recently collaborated with the photographer Len Prince in a fascinating endeavour. (She is the one with the pearls in this shot and is now 26 years old.) In a recent New Yorker, she offered some interesting insights on the photographer-subject dynamic and her effort to invert the equation:

Jessie said, of the early portraits [by her mother], “It’s very difficult to say exactly who makes the pictures”; she sees her alliance with Prince as an extension of her work with her mother, which has occasionally vexed her but has always made her proud. “People have pointed out the obvious Freudian interpretation,” she said. “And it’s true that there is this sort of surface layer to doing these photos with Len—a power struggle, to reassert my identity. But I’m a Jungian girl myself. I’m interested in the significance of being a character in the story of art."

In the film, when Harold "realizes" that he is a subject, he takes agency and "fights" back by doing absolutely nothing one day in an attempt to stall the plot and a variety of other hijinks. On Jessie's artist website she elaborates on her own quest:

My up and coming photography project with Len Prince is an examination of both the characters and the archetypes of our time and as well as those of different historical periods. It honors, as active agent the muses and numerous subjects that have given themselves over to this fictional realm of human consciousness with both extreme self-consciousness and postmodern awareness, but also, in many cases, out of some undeveloped love of the camera or desire to be known or immortalized. It examines the quest of the self-fictionalizers and the magic of those who are called 'good in front of a camera'.

I share below one image from the series, but many more can be found at Danziger Projects that showed "Self-Possessed" just this past fall. In most of the photographs, Jessie visibly holds the shutter release--sometimes assertively, sometimes limply, instead of the photographer--enacting what she has described as "making art by being in art." I ought to end here my faithful readers, as I wouldn't want to continue to influence your opinion and affect the outcome? Hmm, you say you are getting sleepy now...?

Len Prince (and Jessie Mann), From Danziger Projects

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