Carla Williams – Tender

Carla Williams can make the world beyond us seem a simple place. Looking at the self-portraits she made over a fifteen year period, from 1984-1999, may briefly lull us into a false apprehension of the world as containing little interest of its own. Such is the poetic depth of these pictures, which, when edited and sequenced together in Tender (TBW, 2023), seem as expansive in scope and meaning as any historical survey or anthology, as any book of photojournalism or one made in a documentary style. Beyond the sheer sense of wonder and discovery that will likely be experienced by anyone previously unfamiliar with this work (as I was), there is also a disarming blend of irony and intimacy, of performance and delicacy, that runs like a thread through this book. What Williams was after, we come to realize, was nothing less than the full creative control over her self-representation, and to achieve this while remaining in critical conversation with a photographic history that had, up to that point in the 1980s, offered little by way of an example to draw inspiration from.

Untitled (mask), 1986–87

Untitled (rose wreath), 1988

The majority of this work was made while Williams was an undergraduate student at Princeton University, and then as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque – a period of about seven years, from 1984-1991. Of the 80 images in the book, only three are noted as having been made after this stretch of time, along with an additional four which do not share the location of either university. This is to say that, although it was not until 1999 that Williams moved on from this project, the edit of the book suggests that the truly fertile years, the most productive and series-defining ones, were those that overlapped with her time as a photography student. These were years where we can imagine her focusing almost single-mindedly on expanding the language of her self-portraiture, a time when constant dialogue with her photographic predecessors – those who also gave pride of place to self-portraiture and the intimate spaces of one’s personal life – could then be worked through via interpretation, revision, and reenactment. Perhaps this explains why, in so much of this book, there is a sense that an aesthetic idea is being put into practice and its efficacy examined, or that a persona is being adopted and pushed to its expressive limit, sometimes even beyond what the illusion can bear. It is hardly the case, though, that each picture is merely a response to another, or that Williams is solely interested in using her own images to critique representational stereotypes. On the contrary, we just as often come upon a picture which feels private and seemingly addressed to Williams alone — something close, even, to a whisper.

Though she found in Cindy Sherman an example of how one could continuously expand a project of self-portraiture, and that, in fact, it could remain the sole object of one’s creative focus, there is in Williams’s pictures very little, if any, of the analytical detachment that so often characterizes Sherman’s work. Even when Williams performs for the camera with an exaggerated smile or affected pose, there still remains a degree of sincerity, even of interiority, that reminds us we are looking at one person rather than at a cipher for many. And though we may be aware that a performance is often taking place, we also, I think, see that a kind of introspection is being carried out as well, that she is exposing or discovering new layers of herself as much as she is riffing on or caricaturing, say, the poses and expressions of women that she would see in fashion photography, or in her father’s stash of pornography magazines that she and her sisters stumbled upon as teenagers. For as much as she came to understand self-portraiture as “[…] a whole philosophy, really, about the relationship between the camera, subject, and photographer”, she also thought of the camera as a “confidante”, as something she could divulge secrets, musings, half-thoughts and suppositions to. More than just technical apparatuses, then, the 4×5 inch and polaroid cameras that Williams used most functioned almost like a diary, something into which she could deposit herself freely and with little hesitation, because even though we can never truly expel from our minds the possibility of there being an audience for our most private acts or documents, we can at least exert meaningful control over their exposure – we can suspend, if only briefly, our ultimate disbelief in the certainty of privacy. Although Williams shared some of this work with members of her undergraduate and graduate cohorts at the time, and then with a close circle of friends and colleagues in the years after, the pictures in Tender had never been organized and presented with the kind of conceptual elegance and clarity that the book provides.

Untitled, 1985–86

Edited and sequenced by Paul Schiek and Catherine Symens-Bucher into nine sections of between seven and eleven images, the initial effect of the book’s segmentation can seem odd and even counterintuitive. The dusty rose-colored pages that signal the end of one sequence before the beginning of the next also contain captions for each image, and it may first feel as though one were looking at something like an index next to the last image in a sequence. Though at first I didn’t understand their choice to segment the book in this way, and my instinct was to prefer a single, uninterrupted sequence, with continued looking I began to see that the use of these intentional breaks allows the book to seem as if it were expanding and then contracting – almost as though a breath were being taken in and then slowly exhaled. Considering each sequence as its own unit within the larger structure of the book underscores just how well-balanced they all are: each contains pictures showing Williams performing in her tongue-in-cheek manner, often alongside those that display traces of what seem like experiments with form and material (such as a double-exposure or the un-evenly kept margins of her large-format polaroid prints), and then consistently throughout, there are pictures of startling grace and quiet beauty, pictures that are confident, clear, and true — those which make us doubt, if only momentarily, that irony and humor were as prominent across these pages as we know they are. The impact of each one – how well it speaks from the page – is shaped by the incredibly astute sense that Schiek and Symens-Bucher demonstrate for when to print large and when to surround an image with ample margin. The cumulative effect is nearly symphonic.

The history of self-portraiture that this work belongs with is long and varied. Within the western canon specifically, one can look to Rembrandt in painting and to Lee Friedlander in photography to see two of the most expansive and enduring visions for what self-portraiture could and can encompass within an artist’s oeuvre. That I would think of these two artists first and with great ease is reflective of the historical conditions of representation that I alluded to earlier, and which were even more prominent when Williams began making this work. More to the point, the history of the self-representation of Black women within photography, and specifically that of queer Black women, was without meaningful attention or appraisal from the discipline of photographic history (something that Williams, along with Deborah Willis, would eventually come to rectify with the publication in 2002 of The Black Female Body: A Photographic History). This latter condition can help explain why, for a young artist like Williams in the 1980s, who looked outward to the contemporary situation before her as well as to the historical landscape behind her, she would feel compelled to center her own self-representation as the basis of her work. Though of course there were many successful and celebrated Black photographers that Williams was familiar with, such as Gordon Parks, Roy deCarava, and Chester Higgins, Jr., for example, along with contemporaries like Carrie Mae Weems for whom self-portraiture of some form was a cornerstone of their work, the point here is that for Williams the formative impressions of her youth, a time when she was interacting with the omnipresent beauty industry and its corollary, fashion photography, would provide perhaps the widest and most varied set of examples of how the Black female body was most commonly being portrayed, thus establishing a set of representational models that she could respond to, experiment with, and make her own. We can see many of these re-imagined throughout the book, as when she pouts before the camera, stares pseudo-seductively and cross-eyed into it, or mimes something close to a damsel-in-distress character. What is essential to the critical edge of the book is, I think, that we see these exaggerations and reconfigurations alongside the many pictures that radiate with what is particular to Williams alone, with what is irreducible to character or formula. It is in those self-portraits that we best see the exploration of self that she was carrying out, an exploration of what was within her then and how her body and its arrangement – this way or that, in direct light or in shadow – might express it in a kaleidoscopic fashion over time. 

Untitled, 1987–88

Untitled (knots undone), 1989–90

Untitled, 1984–85

Untitled, 1987–88

Carl Williams


TBW, 2023

(All Rights Reserved. Text © Zach Ritter. Images © Carla Williams.)

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