In the mid-19th century, photography studios flourished. For a price, stylists, props and rented clothing allowed people to look wealthy—even if they were, in fact, poor. Thus, portraiture was an aspirational industry.
As technology advanced, exposure times decreased. Subjects no longer had to sit still for many minutes, and poses became increasingly casual. Before the 20th century, it was even acceptable to have one’s portrait taken at the beach while wearing a bathing suit. Today, on any given weekend, you’ll find smiling families in pastel shirts and jeans posing for a paid photographer at, say, Sunset Park. The aspiration in this case is to create images of fully functional, deeply loving units.
But some artists take steaming dumps on aspiration, instead focusing on human failings. From Diane Arbus’s freak-show black-and-whites to Andy Warhol’s grungy Polaroid shots and screen tests, these artistic images show people as they really are—or as most of us would never wish to be depicted. In an era of self-promotion via Facebook, who can really blame noncommercial photographers for their deconstructive impulse?
I can. If you’re an artist, it hardly makes sense to punish your subjects for refusing to present their authentic selves online. Yet this is exactly what Krystal Ramirez does in I’m Sorry We Lied at Winchester Cultural Center through May 10. Lied is a mixed-media exhibit—there’s a section of one wall devoted to dozens of hand-drawn and repeated phrases on sheets of paper, as if a Catholic school kid had been locked inside the gallery and forced to write. (Ramirez is big on punishment!) There’s also an inaudible, ugly video portrait of an inarticulate young man named Joey.
But the show’s centerpiece is “The Sleepers,” 37 photos of unbeautiful and anonymous snoozers in their beds. With their permission, Ramirez set up a camera and a timer in the subjects’ bedrooms, capturing them in all their messy non-grandeur. Ramirez has nice friends, because if anyone snapped my splayed, mouth-agaped form in boxer shorts, and mounted the results in a gallery, I’d punch him. Obviously, Ramirez’s touchstone is Warhol’s Sleep, a five-hour film of a dozing pal. So what does Lied add? Less monotony perhaps. But not much.
There’s an exception: a pretty, porcelain-skinned redhead in shorts and a T-shirt, lying in the sheets like Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus.” But the image’s allure is muted in the context of so many other Eros-killing shots. Authenticity is a total bummer.
Overall, these are disheveled bodies robbed of their own dreams. The viewer, too, is denied any semblance of fantasy. In this way, Ramirez’s title is apt. She offers her own dreary fabrication to challenge the way people use technology to construct public identities. But as my mother used to say: Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Over at Contemporary Arts Center, the male haze is underway through April 20 with Philadelphia photographer Justyna Badach’s Bachelor Portraits. These images of single men from all over the U.S. play a dubious game with issues of gender and race. None of the (mostly) white-guy subjects smile because Badach doesn’t want it. Her aim is to emasculate, displaying unflattering portraits of Men Without Women hanging out in their cluttered rooms and gnarly campers—with their swords and model airplanes and open-heart surgery scars.
In the text accompanying each piece, she emphasizes their loneliness, isolation and oddness. Hollywood moviemaker Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) would be proud. Especially of the guy who asked Badach if it would be OK for her to photograph him naked. If these sad ball sacks have any hopes and dreams, or any aspirations other than drug abuse and collecting disability, we don’t know.
Of course Badach gets away with this skewed portrayal because of her gender. For instance, I wonder what the response would be to an exhibit by a male photographer titled Cat Ladies, in which older white women were asked to unsmilingly pose for their portraits with feline companions perched in their obese laps? Actually, I don’t wonder about the response, because such a show would never be permitted at CAC or anywhere. Only in our nightmares.