I have been thinking about Jet Swan’s book Material for the past week. This is a fortunate sign. It marks it as one of those books that float across my desk that at first glance I feel some sympathy with, not total, but then it, or the images inside of it, burrow into my psyche and I find myself having a strange dialogue in my head about the work over minutes to hours, sussing out pros and cons in a fever pitch of activity not dissimilar to arm-wrestling or having a boxing match on bath salts. This generally happens in the morning, often at the gym when I power up the bodily machine post-caffeine. It also happens often late in the evening when I am trying to shut the damn thing off before falling asleep. These conversations know few boundaries and cannot be easily governed, but they are a strong indicator of the power of the book discussed with me and myself.
The discussions over books like this are often quite similar. They start as arguments but end in the absolution of any misgivings that I might have had of the work. The pro side of the argument in my head always reminds the con side of what it takes to make the work versus what it means to simply look at images of the work and assess quandaries elicited by the con side from a fiefdom of superficial means. It is usually a pretty tight finishing move for the pro side in as much as that when reminded of the effort, decisions, and drives associated with making work from a point of projection of what I believe that I know about the book and author, it reminds me that the lived experience in making work like this is part of the overall process itself and that intention cannot always be easily shared. It must be delivered or revoked solely by means of the artist and in doing so, we are left with the decision to believe those assertions or find their libel. My opinion is more about how it affects my position than it is about the reality of that intent. My reading of the work, though my own, can be countervailed by the artist’s intentions at any time, and for the most part, I tend to err on the side of belief and acceptance of their position regarding the intention of the work.
Though I might not go as far as to insist Jet Swans’ Material (Loose Joints, 2021) is a book of collaborations per se, I do feel there is a shared (could be imagined, I will admit) moment of work between the artist and the subjects that she enlists (selects ?-con baggage, one point) just outside of her studio door that levels the hierarchy of power in which all present in the room are united by a common force of will and place and activity in which the result desired is to make a great image. Each person has their role and these roles are equally important in the production of the image. Of course, my analytical con side brings its own baggage as it sits at the table unpacking every mantra it believes it is entitled to perform from assessing the conceptual framework to recalling (hazily) certain attitudes and ideas that it had learned about feminist policies regarding the female gaze and the body to what little it knows or perhaps even agrees with regarding CRT, whiteness, etc. This baggage is inevitably a sensible accessory as it provides a deconstructing rigor (and shield) that is necessary in parts, but it often tows the pro side’s neck towards the depths like an errant and corroded anchor when it can no longer parse out whether an image can be made at all anymore with the bevy of restrictions increasing in irresolute conversations turned into shouting matches, a nefarious new custom of our contemporary moment.
One of the assertions that my pro and con side both registers is a need to consider the book, not only in authorial terms but also in the locality of production of the image and its historic precedents as well as what I know about the publisher (Loose Joints). Jet Swan, a relatively young British photographer made this work in Scarborough and Ramsgate, a quite homogenous set of cities in the UK. The fact that she is a woman is part of my baggage in reading her perceived intention within the work and it oddly absolves her of a number of the more erotically charged images in the book because women looking at women like this is somehow ok the pro baggage tells me, but they are not without consequence the con baggage reminds me. If it were a white hetero man, I would admittedly balk as I do with the equally beautiful and charged photographs by Thomas Hauser. The con bag praises my decision, the pro bag reminds me of the consequences of conclusion and assumption, between the two-consumption. Nonetheless, the oblique use of female bodies in a state of undress mixed in with headshots, birds in flight, babies, and cropped images of faceless subjects creates a strange atmosphere in which everything feels uncanny, Lynchian. More questions arise than are defined by their desire for absolutes. This is a strength, not a deficit.
The part about the homogeneity of these UK cities is also part of the hustle my brain spars with. Only in portraiture do we ask for a card of identification indexing the author’s background in order to grant the right to take a photograph of another of its species. This card of identification should contain the following information-age, voting preference, religion, position on Israel/Palestine, carnivore/vegan, sex, orientation, race, and class in order to successfully give permission to make photographs of other humans. Only in declaring all of the necessary fields of identity in the full description on the card may we proceed with the business (con baggage, point 2) of making photographs.
In the case of Material, the book is full of 100 photographs of British subjects found just outside Swan’s studio door in her homogenized locality of Ramsgate and Scarborough which, as the publisher and I have discussed, is about 90% white and native British. In a slight echo to August Sander, Swan details, in headshot portraits, these (common, average, random-are these bad words too?) people who agree to have their picture taken in a very minimal studio environment. Her work is somber or even sober which is perhaps the consequence of stripping back the studio to make the work natural, less flash threatening, and less in accordance with commercial triggers that would make the subjects seem more for sale than intended.
The portraits are underexposed, purposefully crepuscular in palette and metaphor, and resound similarly to the twilight photographs produced by Bill Henson or equally notable, the more tuned down portraits produced by fellow Briton Nadav Kander. The portraits are not all headshots. Bodies are also cropped and images are made from suggestive elements of white tattooed legs, pantyhosed legs, dirty fingernails, an Apple watch, and amongst other elements, a priapic Lucozade bottle clenched and white-knuckled from the lap of a business-smart female subject becomes part of the aggregate. The portraits exude sensuality and are governed in particular measure by the striking headshots which glare into or at times, slightly adjacent towards (ever so) the camera, creating a stoic facade that does not read as vulnerable, but adversely reads as if the subjects are more in control than the artist and I am reminded again that I know nothing of the experience that prevailed in making these images, nor the direct relationship between subject and author, nor the complexities of their moment in representation. I only have my particular baggage to work with.
Jet Swan, Material
In order to think about this type of image, I found myself consulting a recent article that I have re-read by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa from his excellent new book Dark Mirrors (MACK, 2021) that I had originally read on his site (now sadly defunct) The Great Leap Sideways (2011-2017) regarding another photographer making similar work in the 80s and 90s. Swan’s brooding book, well-designed, and sequenced with an emphasis on the female body, the local subject, and stoic portraiture bears historical hints of Robert Bergman‘s work in what I might suggest is most closely assumed as a type of photographic mannerism (art-historical mode). In thinking about the headshot portraits in both bodies of work in this particular way pays an homage to the painterly studies of late and post-renaissance portraiture, qualified herein by the overly vibrant color palette and decision to focus on a direct gaze, and a choice of subject that suggests exaggeration and a strange harmonious unbalancing of idealism in the pursuit of the everyday magnified to near-heroic terms, the success of which is epitomized in the case of Bergman on surface choices of his subject that at times can be read as imperfect, abject, or non-status quo in terms of visage.
I have always found myself disagreeing with Wolokau-Wanambwa’s assessment of Bergman’s book A Kind of Rapture. (Pantheon, 1998) and the (if eloquent) reasoning for his exoneration of Bergman’s position of what I consider exploitive work on grounds of the book’s deep economic class othering based on Bergman’s selection of down and out Americans meant intentionally, no doubt, to provide evidence of the condition of the human cost at the base of industry collapse in America’s rust belt during the 80s and 90s. I have felt that to ignore the class distinction between the subject, audience, and itinerant author was to ignore the grave politics at the heart of the published work regarding the economy and the perceived desperation its deflated essence enables on the brow of the common citizen. Somehow, Bergman’s close-cropped, semi-angelic portraits of these people have been given a class pass regarding ethics, and it still mystifies me. In defense of Bergman’s images of otherness in his book, Wolukau-Wanambwa asserts that he feels held by the images of the subject’s in Bergman’s work, their gaze penetrating and staring back thus holding the viewer, which to my argument, is to ignore the profundity of the base experience in selecting those particular subjects to focus on, whose personal cost bears the brunt of the artist’s…intentions for the sake of an attempted and amplified beautification. From Wolukau-Wanambwa…
“But in the portrait, his (Untitled and nameless sitter, 1994) lassitude cannot be conclusively divided from deep meditation, nor his nobility from weariness, nor his beauty from damage and aging. The starkness of the frame and the sinuousness of its parts produce a kind of seizure that is also a caress so that I am drawn into abrupt sensuousness, and wordless contiguity with this man- so that I am transported and held. I want to work out how to respond to the mystery of this stranger without seeking to reduce him to some manageable position on a calibrated index of difference from which I might separate myself”.
For Wolukau-Wanambwa, the success of Bergman’s portraits in which the gaze, which extends past the retinal, gives the viewer a chance to hold and be held in a rapturous state between the direct look of the subject into the camera and the viewer themselves to understand and, to be transported into the subject’s…condition/world, no matter how imagined, projected and over-sugared in sentiment that might be in regards to declaring their nobility through their weariness, etc.
The critic wishes to understand and come to terms with the Other in Bergman’s portraits without inclining the artist’s clear intentions to concentrate on economic disequilibrium in his choice of subject. His Brueghelian choice of subject, a clear indicator that otherness is not simply levied in location, economy, or familiarity, but rather in combination with the exemplary quality that he wishes to pursue based on what he observes at surface difference level and that those observed, in their difference or…flaw, are held under his lens, but I don’t find the reciprocity as a viewer in assuming an understanding of this relationship despite finding the portraits often sumptuous and kind. To this point, as in the work of Diane Arbus, there is a peculiar fetish and desire to make othering a currency and though I find Bergman’s photographs beautiful, I find it hard to ignore the complexities of his choices, economic or other.
Though I understand the critic’s sentiment, I cannot completely divest myself of the economic otherness found in Bergman’s work. I find the elusive part of Wolukau-Wanambwa’s assessment which disregards the continual motif of the itinerant and predatory photographer searching out a particular subject of otherness, who occupies a lower economic position (slumming or poverty porn), whose selection of subject is clearly motivated by selecting by a particular “look” of difference of a subject who is left nameless to be ethically questionable. No matter how endearing we believe the subject’s countenance to be, to not assess the power of the portrait’s othering in its ability to hold the viewer, in a book, which is to be purchased, is to skip addressing the ethical qualities in scope, no matter how much viewers desire to engage in a form of “reciprocal gazing”. An economy is afoot with class itself as its partial subject matter. This cannot be discounted.
In the work of Jet Swan, the conscious choice we face regarding othering is less about class or being held than it is in the bustling environment outside of her studio door where the homogeneous population of Margate and Scarborough resides. Instead of dwelling on economically deprived subjects, she seeks people literally outside of her door in a location native to her own position. Swan has selected potential subjects from just beyond the studio door instead of seeking them in the back alleys of Detroit, Cleveland, New York, and other populated urban densities. Her reciprocal gazing in this sense is absolved from the unfamiliar othering that positions Bergman’s work in a supposed rapture both as nefarious as it is preposterous in the theory of being held enlisted as an attempt at absolving responsibility in Bergman’s case. There is a suggestion of collaboration in Swan’s work that is clearly missing in Bergman’s images by comparison. The difference in Swan’s work is that exceptionalism is found in the relativity of her own position to the environment from which she makes the work. What is exceptional is the counterintuitive notion that othering is much more diffuse when it occurs in the author’s own locality. In asserting this with her intention to produce the work, Swan allows a more realistic discussion about who is held and what reciprocity with responsibility might mean.
In summary, my use of Wolukau-Wanambwa’s assertions about Bergman’s work is used as a guide from which we may untangle and decipher portraiture made in this mode of directness. It is important to have the conversation with all of our baggage and our desires to compete for differing viewpoints regarding work which will no doubt be brought up again in the case of both artists. My disagreement is nothing more than that. It is a respectful disagreement and it is being used to levy a number of my own considerations, including class distinction in the works of both Swan and Bergman.
I highly suggest that interested parties check out the work of Robert Bergman to form their own assumptions and to check out Dark Mirrors as soon as possible. Whether I agree with Stanley on this particular body of work does not dissuade me from acknowledging his position as his generation’s great thinkers about the medium of photography. In a lasting summary of Jet Swan and her book, I can highly recommend this work not simply for the brilliance of the images, but for those very questions raised. I have not addressed all of the components at length that features in Swan’s book preferring to let audiences confer with the book itself to draw personal conclusions and to continue the discussion about how we navigate and use the baggage that surrounds our personal understanding of portraiture in 2021. It is certainly one of my photobook picks for the year and I would not be surprised if it gets a re-appraisal from the future. I think it is a sleeper of a book and there is loads to think about in the artist’s work. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!