Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gisela on...S. Calle, I. Werning, Z. Nelson, D. Popa, G. Wearing

Sophie Calle-January 25, 1985, Imperial Hotel, New Delhi (image from the book/series Exquisite Pain, book published 2003 by Thames and Hudson)


-color photograph

-aside from the very bright red phone, all the colors are subdued, and the room looks dingy (I would not want to sleep in that hotel room.)

-dim light, possibly shot in the early morning?

-everything in the image is in focus

-no people in the image

-the bed is made and no one has used the room apparently. The only thing that suggests that anyone has even come in is the placement of the phone on the bed.


The dim light, the dark colors (except for that phone), the unused bed…whatever happened here was not a happy event. The phone is the most vital part of the image: the only element of the image with any sort of vibrancy, the placement on the top of the bed near the center of the photograph suggests that this device delivered the bad news that caused the sadness that permeates the whole photograph. The dim morning light suggests that it was shot after a night of crying and grief.

In the whole series, this image is used over and over again, in connection with the evolving tale of a breakup. The repetition established this image as the summary and representation of the whole affair. The story that accompanies the photograph varies in tone. It first starts as stunned, then sad, then angry, and finally frustrated until Calle no longer wants anything to do with the whole affair. (“98 days ago, the man I loved left me. January 25, 1985. Room 261. Imperial Hotel New Delhi. Enough.”) The photograph itself, however, never changes. It always portrays a sad, painful event, all relayed over a strangely cheerful telephone.


As mentioned before, the photo is accompanied by text retelling the same story over and over again until the storyteller is fed up with it. With each retelling, the photograph and story is paired with another person’s story of their greatest suffering, along with a photograph representing it, taken by Calle. In this context, Calle’s story seems insignificant: she pairs her story with other tales of loss, grief, and death, in a successful endeavor to put her own suffering into context. This method was so effective, in fact, that she ignored the project for 20 years, fearing a relapse.

Her final declaration of “enough” makes sense in this context: she’s so tired of hearing herself speak about the same thing and fed up with her own self pity that she’s ready to put it all aside and move on.

Irina Werning- Tommy in 1977 & 2010, Buenos Aires (From the Back to the Future series, 2010)


-Diptych- the first image is most likely a snapshot taken in 1977; the second is a recreation of the original taken 33 years later. Yay rephotography!

-both images share the same muted color palate

-strong backlit shadow in both photographs; otherwise, fairly uneven situational lighting

-set in a house, possibly a living room

-almost identical setting for both images; only the curtains have changed; and even then they could pass as similar

-subject is posed in an identical pose in both photographs, with the same facial expression, wearing the same lanyard around his neck. His hair would probably be in the same style in both images, if his hairline weren’t receding in the second photograph.


Because of the obsessive attention to detail (Werning recreates the exact lighting conditions from the first photograph for the second, to mimic the shadows as much as possible) and how the rephotograph copies everything about the original image, including the muted colors and somewhat snapshot quality of the image, I’m led to believe that this image (and the rest of the series that it comes from) is not so much about documenting the growth and changes in the subject (he has obviously grown up over 33 years) but an attempt to recreate the past. Even with a picture taken much more recently this is an impossible endeavor, as people grow and change, but the time span between the two images makes the task even more futile. The artist’s obsessiveness includes the subject himself, who recreates the same deer-in-the-headlights expression from the original. On a toddler, it’s endearing. On a thirty-something, it’s concerning and brings his intelligence into question. It suggests that the artist not only wants to turn back the clock to when things were supposedly less chaotic (as we tend to look back at our collective past as better than our current future), but when the subject himself was a simpler human being with more basic needs. Placing the two images together and including the dates of both images remind us that this is impossibility, and that there is no stopping the passing of time.


The project evolved, according to Werning, out of a desire to explore “how people would feel and look like if they were to reenact them [old photographs] today.” The project is ongoing, and on her website she asks for photographs of people from New York, Paris, and other famous cities shot in clich├ęd locales (Times Square, the Eiffel Tower, etc.)

Zed Nelson-Phil Wolfe (from the series Right Wing Along the Rio Grande, 2010)


-outdoors shot, taken on a nice day

-wide depth of field; everything in focus

-man in the photograph does not look happy

-stickers on trucks imply that they’re on sale

-cartoon illustrations on sign make it clear who that sign’s about

-text on sign: “President or Jihad? Birth certificate? Prove it!”

-“Remember Ft. Hood!”- reference to 2009 shooting?

-hole in the sign-someone tried to deface it?

-documentary photograph?

-text included with the photograph:

“Phil Wolf, used car dealer and member of the ‘birther movement.’

‘President Obama was not born in America. He’s an imposter.’

Wheat Ridge, Colorado.”


The wide depth of field and the inclusion of the text is consistent with what is usually considered documentary photography; Nelson is using this image to comment on just how dumb the whole birther movement is. The scowl on the man’s face and the text on the sign (and its implication that Obama was complicit in the 2009 Ft. Hood shooting) convince me that this guy is possibly insane. While there are few (if any) members of the birther movement that could possibly be described as rational thinkers, there are few that would go so far as to claim that Obama conspired to kill servicemen…and post a billboard about it at their place of business. This man is that special sort of crazy. As he posed voluntarily and talked to Nelson long enough for Nelson to get a quote from him, it is clear that this man sincerely believes that Obama is a terrorist. Nelson, though, as the photographer, does not. Had he believed there was some merit to the birther movement, he would have chosen a more sympathetic representative from the movement. The hole in the sign (which looks like an attempt to deface it) is a nice touch. While it serves as a reminder that plenty of people disagree with this guy, it also serves to demonstrate that the other side of the spectrum sometimes reacts just as rationally as him.


Nelson shot this series as an exploration of the politics of the people that live along the Rio Grande. He uses the river as a symbol for the region, claiming that the political and cultural climate gets more muddled and polluted as the Grande gets closer to the Gulf of Mexico. The series focuses on the birther and Tea Party movements, as well as the current anti-immigration movement in Texas and Arizona. The images he has created and the quotes and information he has paired with them support his claim quite well that the extreme right is quite terrifying.

Side note: Nelson is a British photographer based in London. He’s taking these photographs from an outsider’s perspective. Thus, his images are more reactionary than those of someone from the region, who would see birthers as an unfortunate but everyday reality. I appreciate this aspect of the series, as sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone is mad.

Dana Popa, Untitled (from the series New Europeans, 2009)


-nice car in front, ugly building in the back

-those kids can’t be older than 16, and it’s pretty obvious they’re about to make out.

-that kid on the left has a very strong jawbone

-the car is in focus; background/apartment building in back is not

-building looks older than the kids

-car looks brand new

-power lines in background, along with a minivan/Subaru


This photograph is shot so it looks like a commonplace scene in the States: two kids parked by themselves in a car somewhere, about to make out. The shades that both of the kids are wearing and the newness and cleanliness of the car (come on, who keeps their windshield that pristine?) contrasts harshly with the age of the building. The building is grey, dirty, and poorly maintained. There are yellow banners on the building, but the blurriness of the image makes it difficult to read what they say. This is intentional: The photographer obviously does not want the viewer to be able to place the image. The car and the kids look very American, but the building in the back looks like something out of the Communist bloc-the photograph was shown in Eastern Europe. The photograph, then, is a reflection on how much things have changed, and how similar life in that part of the world is to life in the States.


Popa is from Romania, and witnessed the fall of Communism in that country as a child. The kids portrayed in the series were born after 1989, and have grown up in a culture influenced by Western ideas and pop culture. She was motivated to create this series after observing how much Romanian youth look like the youth from any other Western country, yet still suffer from the legacy of the Communist regime. This duality, she says, causes her subjects to have more fragile identities, as they have no idea how to cope.

Gillian Wearing- Untitled, from the series Theresa (1998) (image from the book Gillian Wearing, published 1999 by Phaidon)


-a couple in a bed; subject fills most of the frame

-both have very red faces; the man looks as if he has drank heavily the night before

-man is nude except for a pair of briefs, woman is wrapped in a blanket

-she has her back to him but is glancing in his direction; he’s looking off somewhere outside the frame

-neither looks happy to be there

-image is accompanied by handwritten text

-these are not attractive people by any stretch of the imagination

-dingy room, dim lighting


Before reading the accompanying text: This couple comes off as the stereotypical unhappily wed couple. Neither want to stay married, but for whatever reason they stick together. Who knows what brought them together? Both the people in this image have ruddy faces, suggesting that both of them drink to escape the misery of their home life. There is nothing glamorous about this room, which implies that they are poor, possibly adding to their misery. However, she’s still looking at him. Maybe she still cares about him and wants to make it work? Her body language, however, says the exact opposite. The more I look at her eyes, the more I read distaste. I think she was looking for a reason to leave, and those ugly striped briefs may give her the final push.

After reading the text: The text is from the man’s point of view, describing the woman (whose name is Theresa) as stupid and a whore, claiming she has sold herself in exchange for a can of beer. He then claims she has a good heart, which is why he sleeps with her (apart from her ample breasts.) The writing has spelling and grammar issues all over the place, along with various revisions and added words. After reading this, it makes me reconsider how Theresa looks at him: she both loathes him for not treating her well and herself for putting up with his behavior, and stooping so low to exchange sex for beer. (Of course, it is possible that he is lying, and Theresa’s more of a wine type of girl.) That being said, I did laugh when he described her breasts as a good pillow.


The book describes the series as a work in progress; it was first exhibited in 2000. Theresa was an alcoholic that Wearing met while working on another series of people who regularly drank in the streets near her home. Wearing learned that Theresa lived with and depended on a rotating cast of men for her survival, as her extreme alcoholism made it difficult to maintain a consistent home or a long-term relationship. Wearing photographed her with seven of her lovers, and displayed each photograph with a written statement by the man portrayed in the image. Their opinions of Theresa vary wildly; one loves her deeply, another depends on her for strength and wisdom, while a third claims she is completely full of shit.

In this context, our ugly lover’s claim that she sold herself for beer sounds very likely. The accounts given by her lover don’t quite agree with each other, which calls into question how reliable these accounts are, and how unpredictable Theresa’s behavior is.

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