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Screen Test:  The Photographs of Denise Prince

"Whether he poses or is real, no cat/Bothers to say"  Thom Gunn

Much has been concerned, in communities that concern themselves with such things, with 'the gaze': the presumed patriarchal, gendered authority of the viewer of film and photo, and the pose as its symbiotic response; the pose mirroring the desire of the spectator, passive by necessity. Since, the pose has become ubiquitous, influenced by the dominance of celebrity culture (insert Warhol quote) and the maw of social media, the selfie and social narcissism. In photographic portraiture, the pose has evolved from, historically, a sober assertion of social respectability to an understanding of the portrait as performance and theater and---by the inherent presence of an audience, as artifice.  If, indeed, identity is now considered as construct, then the pose is a handy component of its architecture.

The ideology of identity has been of fundamental prominence ---and contention--- in political discourse in the past thirty years, and it may be argued that photography, as the lingua franca of representation, is the most expedient tool of visibility, both individual and community. An endorsement by photography  is an acknowledgment of worth of those that have been marginalized. Throughout photography's history, much of the work that has been most influential has disclosed individuals and identities heretofore unknown to mainstream hetronormative culture, and social media has profoundly accelerated this.

The writer Lynne Tillman has said: "Risking ambiguities, (Diane) Arbus vigorously subverted the subject/object position, shoving the viewer into her soft ground. She interrogated looking, aggressively, and made looking itself controversial."  

A shrewd and gratifying summation of Arbus's legacy; succinct in its understanding of her singular contribution as not just the pathologies of subject (or 'victim' re: Sontag)  but upending the comfort of passivity for culpability, a profound rupture in the history of looking. Arbus, says Tillman, removed the guardrails, undermining our smug alibis and immunities.

This 'soft ground': pliant, uncertain, yielding, bruised; without sensible footwear, vulnerable.

The female figures here, recumbent and supine admist draping swirls of fabric, haloed in turbaned headdress are, of course, a modern odalisque; the familiar clutter of cramped domestic life a substitute for orientalist bric-a-brac; a baroque of busted housewares. Here, a seemingly distant signifier of servitude and colonialism is redeemed and recuperated, an anachronism converting to an agent of empowerment and identity and agency.  Those historically excluded arrive at the portal of beauty and desire; that recently denounced as objectifying becomes privilege, again.

Fashion photography reliably traffics in aspiration and desire, and identity as formed by style, fluid and mercurial,  thus a cunning influencer of cultural taste. Regardless of recent attempts at inclusivity, however, fashion maintains strict taxonomies of beauty and class, renewing a narrow margin of what is considered attractive.

In Denise Prince's photographs, their resemblance to recognizable vocabularies of fashion photography propose the possibility of sharing the tropes of fashion and style to now include those who have been excluded from its privilege, to say nothing of public life itself.  The transaction, this screen test, is rather more complicated, as the meticulous illusion of a fashion spectacle fails deliberately. Along the margins, the unruly debris of place, hard and unforgiving, encrusts the frame; later, the clumsy collaging into the lavish interiors of the ruling class remain on the image surface like a decal, upholding their separation, their otherness. The apparatus of the shoot-the chords, lighting stands, and clamps are revealed, left strewn about, and we see the staging and the back-stage, the makeshift. Sand (and the always handy sand-dune-fence prop) with its reference to holiday, travel, frolic, privilege, is here as sandbox-- indifferent to the demands of visual illusion. The gestures of fiction are undermined by the brutality of fact.

Prince does not comfort, rejecting pictorial devices of romanticism and leitmotifs of fashion imagery; no warm caressing light nor soothing soft focus, and the veneers that surround the figures are without mercy. We are stranded without the reassurance of fashion's stagecraft of  transcendence and youth, the luminous body.

Like much relevant work of our time, the work deeply challenges conventions of beauty, and pointedly, our anxieties that chaperone beauty as a human characteristic. Here beauty is a triumph of ecstatic revelation, clenching and contracting: "Beauty must be convulsive or not at all". It is post-Edenic, in which the expulsion from the Garden does not elicit shame and awkward self-consciousness, but pleasure and play; acceptance.

The emotional tripwire of the work is availability and this moment of flirtation, and discomfort is ours, not theirs.  Not Reggie,  Saidi,  Gail, nor Susie.  Not Zelda nor Jacki. Our gaze is not avoided, and we witness an assertion of themselves as image, vital in their swagger, mirth, glamour or grace, and this gaze, not as violation, judgment and superiority but of ardor.

Stephen Frailey


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