Edward Steichen’s gestural Studies of Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon, Charlotte Rudolph’s studies of German dancers, James Abbe’s still frames of Anna Pavlova, Barabra Morgan’s studies of Martha Graham and her Letter to the World, and a number of other medium-defining images can be accredited to an embrace of the body in movement. Historical artists such as Thomas Eakins, Edweard Muybridge, and Étienne-Jules Marey were also fascinated with the body in motion. Their concerns were however not as much about gesture as they were about the scientific (pseudo or other) documentation of motion. In the case of dance photography, much can be made of the medium’s ability to arrest the choreography of dance in mid-movement and in nuanced detail which often results in a beautiful study of sculptural tendencies in reading the body. These details exhibit, like Muybridge’s images taken in the 19th Century, a static and graceful depiction of micromovements in which details of the transitional moments between movements are exhibited clearly.
Gesture in photography may also be indebted to studies of theatrical performance. Arnold Genthe and Thérèse Le Prat in the 1910s and 1930s (respectively) produced portraits of actors in costume showing various ticks and gestures in the midst of a private performance. Heinrich Hoffman’s bombastic studies of Adolph Hitler are also theatrical studies full of gesture that would eventually be used for the nefarious purposes of Third Reich propaganda and yet they are full of gesture. Max Waldman, a forgotten name in photography also made exceptional studies of dancers between the 1960s and 70s. Many of these names and their association to modern dance and gesture have been documented and yet the world of gesture as it relates to dance has been supplanted more by an increasing urge to study performance art in its larger remit in accordance to the body and its posing. The posed and performed body has an even longer history in photography than dance reaching back as early as Hippolyte Bayard’s Self Portrait as Drowned Man in 1840, which is arguably the first conceptual photograph to be staged as a performance-although it is captured as a still performance of death.
In thinking about performance, one is compelled to consider the differences between dance, theatrical gesture, and performance and to try and parse out how those three subtle terms and activities are similar. They seem semi-interchangeable and yet an emphasis on gesture seems to hold them together. It is the gel that confirms the body and its miraculous stability to convert emotion, sentiment, and beauty through its ability to move expressively. In regarding the photography of movement and of gesture, we can begin to see a re-examination of the body in contemporary photography that has laid somewhat dormant since the 1990s. Contemporary concerns are similar, yet slightly different. In the 90s, the focus was on the body as it related to aids, conservatism, and death. There were several political debates that gave rise to the use of the body in photography as a way to debase it to an abused form intentioned to solicit empathy in its dejected and symbolic abjection. Blood, shit, and piss were all used along with BDSM to encourage a way of shocking conservative audiences into a confrontation with the body.
Contemporary concerns of the body and its uses today are slightly different but stem largely from a celebration of identity and also a confrontational way in which to undermine conventions of the norm. Though LGBTQ is a prevalent topic of discussion in contemporary photography, there are many other concerns that are equally and profoundly pressing that engage race and gender. These interests in the current social and political climate are topical again as they were in the 90s and the 60s before that. The body has become central again and its use oscillates from the direct to the subtle in its attempt to court the camera as a means of expression, but also as an act of political empowerment that is not necessarily used as propaganda.
There are different methods for the display of empowerment and agency. Power is at the crux of these displays and yet, not all investigations of identity and the body rely on images that castigate the viewer with confrontation. Others are more subtle and regard the conversation as something ongoing and non-exclusive. I can think of Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures in which a word without men signifies, without necessarily being over-confrontational, an alternate use for the body in which soft exclusion by lack of male representation is used as a way to assert a new history of gender and to engage a new world in which emphasis is to be placed on women and also more profoundly, not on men. Conversely, Kurland’s other more politically attempted Scumb Manifesto relies on shock tactics and juvenile confrontational rhetoric to exhibit the same point through the historical act of invoking the would-be-murderer Valerie Solanas’s manifesto of the same name as an excuse to delete (through symbolic castration) the history of the white man’s (particularly the straight white man’s) photobook. In both examples, soft and hard power is employed as an act of granting agency to Kurland’s own position as a queer white woman working in photography. Both are legit, one is effective.
In the case Jenna Westra’s Afternoons (Hassla, 2020), several factors within the book suggest a return to the body as an act less of political dialogue, but more as an act of balance. Westra employs gesture and a number of interesting sculptural tactics to create a world where the feminine is embraced without men involved at all and unlike Girl Pictures, the emphasis is not on fantasy, but on reality, collaboration, and intimacy. The camera is enlisted as a means in which to engage closeness between lovers and friends-alike. There is balance. You can see this written in the waters (both literally and figuratively) in the work. Westra’s observations and consummate staging of multiple bodies in close-cropped and often busy frames reminds one more of 19th Century paintings like Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa or the perhaps more conveniently, the “fashion” photographs of Deborah Turbeville. The truncated body parts in Afternoons also reminds one of the compositional studies of gesture and “posing the model” technical books produced in the Mid-Twentieth Century such as books by William Mortensen and John Evrard.
Throughout Afternoons, there is a kinship between the subjects, their body parts, some fruit, and the use of water that points to a relaxed environment in which photography happens as opposed to it being overly demanding. The atmosphere is relaxed and de-tuned from the vociferous possibility of political soapboxing. The intimate focus on the bodies is reminiscent of work by Senta Simond and Peter Puklus in which the body and its close framing compress the space and focus to something angular, line-driven, and almost modernist in tendency. Germaine Krull, Florence Henri, and perhaps Imogen Cunningham’s Portrait of Edward Weston and Margarethe Mather (1923) feel like close kins to the images found in Westra’s book. I would imagine she is a fan of the historical image.
I would also suggest Westra’s flat-cum-studio and her use of grainy film can also be found similarly in Talia Chetrit’s Showcaller, though the emphasis here is more on multiple bodies over Chetrit’s self-absorbed work (not in the pejorative, per se). Westra’s approach places direct emphasis on the people within the frame and their movements which allows the audience to think about the history of the medium while also considering the body posed as if in motion-the nuance of which proves fertile ground to reflect on the body and closeness. In this, her work aligns closer to the tradition of sculpture and perhaps performative theater. These formal tendencies are broken up with less formally posed images such as found on the cover of the book. The work is fresh, consistent, and leads the audience in several directions without ever wielding the hammer to the skull of the observer to beat the point. I should also point out that the book is perfectly executed in both design and production terms. It’s as perfect as a photobook can get these days. It has my highest recommendation.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Jenna Westra.)