It was to be expected that this year’s Rencontres d’Arles Photography festival would slide towards the visceral with Nan Goldin contributing the projection The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the three-screen audio visual piece Sisters, Saints and Sibyls, her personal photographic collection, and curating the exhibition Ça Ma Touche.
For the latter she invited 12 photographers, including Boris Mikhailov, Anders Petersen, Antoine D’Agata, (many of whose work features in her personal photo collection), to present their work in the former railway sheds known as the Parc d’Ateliers. So it came as little surprise to see aspects of JH Engstom’s personal life on show, including two large colour photographs of his newly-born baby paired with one of the placenta, as well as a smaller portrait of him and his partner facing the camera, full frontal and naked. D’Agata’s swirling torsos commingling during sex elicit the sensation of a drug-induced haze, whether wittingly or unwittingly. A number of key themes surfaced, especially those relating to familial relationships, to procreation (Engstrom’s baby photos) and the ongoing cycle of life in contrast to mortality and finitude – to decline and destruction – played out against a backdrop of flesh, of skin pierced by the needle and penetrated by the phallic.
What was a surprise was the work of American photographer Leigh Ledare. The work is taken from American Ledare’s first book Pretend You’re Actually Alive which is described as “a searingly intimate investigation of the artist’s complex and ambivalent relationship with his mother”. Ledare sets his mother, who trained to be a ballet dancer, and is now in her late fifties, centre stage and combined his own photographs of her with handwritten letters and notes, one of which was a plea for the model to be more explicitly acknowledged for their often overlooked collaboration in the photographic process.
But this was not the case with Ledare. His mother’s voice was muted by the graphic depiction of her photographed in flagrante with a variety of men. The viewer is informed – from the accompanying, ‘official’ text – that she “started to cultivate an exceedingly sexualised persona” which resulted in her advertising for a variety of mostly, it appeared from the photographs, young lovers. A grid of close ups of her vagina, with lips prised back to reveal her labia, had the effect of thrusting her body at the viewer; graphic, uncompromising and stripped of all vestige of gentleness. Yet amongst the square images were a couple of dark squares suggesting that he could have been shooting with a flash which failed to fire on a couple of occasions and which would account for the unexposed and dark frames. But this is speculation and if so, it could be that he was unable to see what she was doing until he processed the film but, again, this would depend on whether he shot on film or digital. Aside from the technical approach, it was mother as muse, mother as one of the people on the handwritten list of ‘Women/Girls I want/would like to fuck’. (I can’t remember the exact words used but you get the gist).
Mother, mother, mother. Mother as project. Mother on display; mother laid bare; mother laid, mother made.
How does it feel to witness the decline of Ledare’s mother especially as it is documented by her son? Taking a Freudian reading of the work, the Oedipal overtones are glaring. But does Ledare in effect ‘kill off’ his mother through the act of photographing her? Has her plea to be recognised for her role as a collaborator in the photographic process fallen on deaf ears? How complicit is she in the process? Having seen the result of this body of work, would she subject herself to the lens again? What if mother took control of the camera? (Here I am reminded of Tierney Gearon’s, work documenting her mentally unstable mother, see HotShoe book review, Tierney Gearon Daddy, Where are you?).
Families – how do photographers convey the complexities of these relationships? How do they represent the family and how does the photographer place him or herself in the frame? What do members of the photographer’s family think and feel about the projects, if they are alive? How are these relationships negotiated? Who profits, ultimately, from such visual disclosures and what are the repercussions of so blatantly revealing our intimate and personal lives to the public? What does the confronting of taboos, as in Ledare’s work (for example the incest taboo), actually achieve? During the professional week Ledare’s work was discussed ad nauseum, but in what ways does it really push beyond the surface?
When the accompanying text suggests that Ledare regards the work as being “collaborative in nature” and that Ledare is investigating “the affective dimensions of photography and video, revealing the ways in which social interactions and interpersonal relationships create spaces for the emergence of the subject”, I am a little sceptical. What does this actually mean? What happens when the words/text are put under the same scrutiny as when ‘reading’ a photograph? Sometimes the words are simply hot air and, in the nicest way, they are non-sense. Words are everywhere, especially in buoying up photographic imagery destined for the art market. A clever text can give depth to a photograph, or series of photographs, that would otherwise float off the page.
In Leigh Ledare, Frieze 2009, No 123, Christy Lange takes a charitable stance when she writes that “Ledare also makes a conscious effort to counter his position as the photographer with that of the subject. In his series Personal Commissions (2008), he answered personal ads from women whose desires echoed those of his mother’s, and paid them to photograph him in their apartments, in a scenario of their choosing”. I was unaware from the show at Arles that Ledare did this and the reversing of the process is, to some extent, of interest, but the relationships in Ledare’s reversal are not those of biological mother-son. Were any of these women mothers themselves?
A Black Book article on Ledare, written in 2008, has the following to say about the photographer: “Ledare, 32, says the project began about eight years ago, when he paid his mother a visit in Seattle. “Basically,” he says, “I arrived home one Christmas, and I hadn’t seen her in a year, and she came to the door completely naked.” Ledare, who left home at 15, and was formerly a professional skateboarder and assistant to photographer-director Larry Clark of KIDS fame, says the camera provides needed distance between him and his mother and, conversely, serves as a catalyst “to sort of push the relationship….
“It was my mother coming into a period of decline and attempting to resist that through projecting her sexuality and tying herself to younger boyfriends,” says Ledare. “And it’s a coming of age, artistically, for me.” Disturbing as his photographs may be, Ledare elevates the pictures from distasteful shock tactics into works of art through his depiction of a sad, aging woman desperately clinging to her last vestiges of youth. His images are now hanging at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, and in September, he has a show at the Rivington Arms Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. One question remains: Has Ledare’s mother, with her Oedipal inclinations, ever propositioned him? “It’s nothing that direct,” he says.”