Rencontres d’Arles 2009 – Leigh Ledare writes back

I just received an email from Leigh Ledare regarding my summing up of his show at Rencontres d’Arles. He correctly says that I failed to read his statement in Arles, but adds: “I do understand that it was in French”. Leigh has kindly attached an English version which I am posting in its entirety.  I had only read the official ‘press pack’ text on Ledare, which was, thankfully, in English. This is an oversight that the organisers at Rencontres d’Arles should take note of, as it was not the only instance when English translations of texts and photo captions were missing.

In his email, Leigh takes issue with my reductionist focus on his “mother’s decline to the exclusion of all other interests of the project and social context involved” and hopes that the text will help me “to understand a little more clearly my positions and my mother’s positions to this work”. He also says that he is “happy to speak further”, if I want. I have already written back to thank him for the email and for initiating a dialogue. I do want to discuss things further. Absolutely. For now, here is his statement:

July 3, 2009, Marseille, France

“I’ve been asked to write a statement to lend context to the exhibition I’ve mounted at Les Rencontres d’Arles. The work in this show is comprised primarily from materials relating to my book, Pretend You’re Actually Alive, published last year by Andrew Roth Editions. While ostensibly this is a portrait of my mother, I view it more precisely as an archive of our relationship as it was continuously formed and reformed again over a period of nine years and going back much further.

I decided one Christmas to make a visit home after not seeing my mother for 18 months. After arranging to meet at her apartment at a specific time I knocked on the door. A few minutes later the door opened and she was standing there naked, smiling at me with her hands on her hips. She asked me to follow her to her room while she got dressed. As we moved down the hallway to her room she began speaking to someone. On her bed, a young man, almost exactly my age, was sprawled out naked. He rolled over to see me, saying hello, before rolling back over on his side and returning to sleep. I saw this as her way of announcing to me what she was up to at this period in her life, almost as though to say take it or leave it.

At this point I began making pictures in order to deal with being present in this situation. It has been important for me to ask myself continually why I was making these images, and why she was displaying herself for me in a way that transgressed the expected boundaries between mother and son so fiercely. At different moments I have had the sense that her sexuality was serving multiple purposes: shielding herself from her own sense of aging; attempting to trade on her beauty before her looks waned; procuring an intimacy with me, often through a substitute figure; laying claim to posterity; and in a very poignant way as an attempt to undermine her father’s expectations on her, both as his daughter and as the mother of me and my brother. She had never wanted to be normal.

Most of the people who know her have thought that she was creating problems. Still, creating problems is definitely an act of creativity, and my mother is certainly an artist, capable of great effect. I was immensely attracted to her sense of play and the urgency she exhibited in the many roles she shifted effortlessly between: the beauty and talent of her precocious youth as a professional ballerina performing with the New York City Ballet; a pornographic actress; a glamorous woman approaching old age; the victim of a car accident, a sophisticated collector of stories and information, and innumerable other qualities entwined within an upbringing with her as my mother that I was very grateful to have had. She was capable of embodying each of these roles, and they coexisted contemporaneously, the earliest often surfacing unexpectedly. It is the fact that they were so irreconcileable with eachother that was extraordinary.

The materials in this project convey this dilemma. The show is filled with her intellegence, humor, struggle, and challenge. Her contribution has been an act of extreme generosity, and just as any photographer, I have certainly taken as much as I have given. Through this project I have attempted to provided a framework to consider who we are, not at the generalized level of our identities but at the level of our desires and needs. Far too frequently we neglect to see how our self-presentation and longings for connection play out, especially as these impulses are mediated through representation. It is important to read into the power relationships involved in the making of these images, as they are manifested on a whole and at the level of the individual image.

I do not consider myself a documentary photographer. I have not attempted to take a picture of the stocking but rather to turn the stocking inside out. The objects in this show are materials that have consequence as they circulate in the world, that hold traces of the attitudes of their making. Photographs are extremely powerful in how they construct meaning and in the diverse uses they can be put to. Their meanings shift dramatically depending on the context in which they appear, and the subtle details of the participants and the circumstances at play. Often images are containers of very ambivalent meanings, implying ideals through elements that remain absent.

What were the different reasons for each of these photographs to be made? What ethical dimensions are at play between the creator of the image, the subject, and the viewer? What do these images mean as private images? As a book which circulates publicly? As a show? And in this particular context, beside the work of Nan Goldin and her colleagues? The overriding job to interpret the work is the reader’s concern, and the reader must do this in relation to their own experiences, ethics and values.

Of the 64 works in my portion of the show a number of these are texts written in English which Les Rencontres has asked me to clarify. I present them here because they are important to me to convey the texture of the entire project. Whether they are understood or not, it is understood that something is happening. They point to a context that the images circulate within, and which is part and parcel of the work as a whole. They also point to this not being a project exclusively about photography. For all the formidable strengths of photography there are many things that it cannot do. As stressed earlier, I do not see this as a portrait of one woman’s eccentricity but as a temporal mapping of reactions to realities in the world, psychological realities we carry with us from situation to situation, positions we must negotiate, subtexts we find ourselves living within.

To quickly summarize a number of these… In an interview printed on the books cover my mother discusses the inter-dependency of the photographer and subject from the point of view of the muse as author, conspicuously leaving out another reading of our relationship as mother and son. 17 Magazine profile of my mother when she was 16: “I have had dancing scholarships since I was 13 years old… I make my own clothes and raise St. Bernard dogs too. Without all of this I would feel incomplete.” A collage containing advertizements where she described herself in the Personals section of various newspapers: “exotic dancer and former ballerina seeks wealthy husband, not somone else’s”. My grandmother’s collecting and her relationship both with my mother and with my grandfather. My grandmother’s illness and impending death, and my mother’s reaction. A letter from my mother to my family insisting to let bygones be bygones after taking out $48,000 on my brother’s credit cards buying what she claimed were gifts from men, and after she felt considerably vicimized by the circumstances of my brother’s life.

Lists of role models and girls I had desired when I was younger. An image of my ex-wife and me photographed on our wedding night. An image of my brother taken on his birthday. Larry Clark’s photograph of me holding a gun from when I lived with him in my early 20s. Men my mother dated, as described to me by her. A view from a collection of grave plots in Idaho that my grandfather gifted each member of my family for Christmas. My brother pressing charges on my mother for identity theft. Smoked salmon, TVs, panties and other gifts “showered” on my mother. The uncanny likeness of one of my mother’s boyfriends to my brother and my brother’s irritation. My mother’s expressed desires, written on a napkin, of who she would be in an ideal life: “A writer like Margarite Duras; an actress like Jean Moreau, not Valerie Vixen; a tango dancer with a partner who doesn’t die”. An inventory of my mother’s possessions in the form of a will, asking me to administer these precious things of hers to people who will appreciate them and appreciate her for who she was. A grid of photographs containing all 36 images from an entire role of film.

Lastly, the video… Working with two family friends my mother set out to make a softcore fetish spanking film with every intention of selling it for profit. The story was so flawed that the tapes sat for 2 years without being able to be made into anything. One day a package arrived with the mail at my door. Inside were two tapes and a small note from my mother telling me they were a gift and now it was my responsibility to make something out of them. I edited out the failed story the initial artists had attempted to film and left my mother playing to the direction of these two men, leaving what can be seen as a real armature for the missing narrative. This video, and this show, are my gift to her.”

Many thanks to Nan Goldin and Les Rencontres d’Arles.

Leigh Ledare

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One response to “Rencontres d’Arles 2009 – Leigh Ledare writes back

  1. Pingback: Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood & Identity at The Photographers Gallery |

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