Alina van Ryzin, Bryn Mawr

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Kris Graves Projects (here). Perfect bound softcover, 7×8.5 inches, 48 pages, with black-and-white reproductions. With an introduction by the author and afterword by Lesley A. Martin. In an edition of 250 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For each of the past three years, Kris Graves Projects has produced a series of books called LOST. Their premise is deceptively simple: photographers documenting a familiar environment. As described on the KGP site, “each artist chooses a place that they have resided or grew up, each monograph gives the viewer their experience and journey within.” In a photo world seemingly bent on deeper probes to more exotic locales, KGP’s recommitment to local vernacular has been a welcome step, and perhaps an unwitting harbinger of pandemic adjustments.

The scope of the series has varied year to year. LOST I (2018) encompassed ten books. LOST II (2019) had twenty. LOST III (2020) shrank to just eight titles. It’s unclear if the reduction was due to the pandemic or if LOST is winding down. Regardless of quantity the titles follow a similar format. They are slim, dense paperbacks in an array of bold colors. Their bindings form a rainbow as boxed sets. The back covers show an outline of the geographic area described within. Plunging into any single book is a way to transport oneself quickly inside those boundaries, to another world under the tutelage of an informed tour guide: Beijing, Kolkata, Montreal, Afghanistan, Syracuse, Uzhhorod…the possibilities are vast.

For her contribution to LOST III, Alina van Ryzin focused on Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Although the name and rear-cover map could refer to the town at large, van Ryzin’s focus is on the eponymous school within, a small women’s liberal arts college of roughly 2,000 students. This is a place van Ryzin knows quite well. She attended Bryn Mawr as an undergraduate from 2013-2018. In fact she produced these photographs as a student. As artist ages go, that is quite young. But the strength of this body belies her youth, a rare example of energy and access triumphing over inexperience. Bryn Mawr reveals bits and pieces of the local terrain. But these photos go far beyond regional geography. This is an insider’s view of contemporary college life. For those like myself, whose college memories might be musty and dog eared, a modern glimpse into the ivory tower is both familiar and unsettling.

The opening spread shows college somewhat as I remember it, with a young student crashed on a greasy sofa, limbs sprawled akimbo, sleeping off the effects of a long evening. Van Ryzin has twisted her camera and added garish flash to keep the room spinning in the viewer’s head. A few pages later we see Molly and Roxanne huddled near a campus building to smoke a bowl, soon followed by a body and futon cradled improbably in the upper limbs of a tree. Whether a dorm room has exploded nearby or this is just more routine hijinks is unclear. Ah, the college life. Lesley A. Martin might be drawing on old school memories when she writes in the afterword, “the heady mix of different kinds of girls who run rampant and in-charge of van Ryzin’s photographs send a radical spark through the work.” 

Illicit pot sessions and tree climbing are just a foretaste. The spirit of revelry runs throughout. Joni’s Room shows a young woman pole dancing in her dorm room. Van Ryzin’s pictures of plastic beer mugs, raucous lecture halls, drinking, and lawn parties could be archetypes of freewheeling college carousals on any campus. These energetic bursts are interspersed with occasional scenes of recuperation. Gasira Stressed shows the titular figure crashed out in a grassy patch. Body Electric captures a group of coed sunbathers. Other photos depict students lolling in bed. Even when unconscious, van Ryzin’s subjects manage to convey a sense of purpose, as if in deep contemplation or resting up for the next adventure. But that just may be my college-friendly bias speaking.

The freedom and experimentation of adolescence is well documented here. But there are deeper undercurrents as well. Van Ryzin has included several great portraits which invite the reader to pause for a moment of human connection. Perhaps the strongest is one of van Ryzin herself, which appears just after the strung up futon. It shows the author chest up, shirtless, looking calmly back at the camera under thick brows, long hair, and striated muscles. The photo’s tonality is stark and skeletal, a good match for its subject which is, to my eyes, gender ambivalent. Van Ryzin’s introduction adds some context: “I staged and captured images that speak to both the complex nature of single sex spaces and to my own experience as a gender fluid latinx coming out in this space.” 

In an interview with Miss Rosen, van Ryzin compared the long process of coming out with her discovery of photography. Both life events were roughly synchronous, and they influenced and built upon each other. “I began this project before coming out,” she writes. “In that very difficult time, these images allowed me a space to look at, admire, and be in love with the women I was surrounded by in my everyday.” Photographs of straps ons, casual nudity, and provocative graffiti allude to her burgeoning sense of sexuality. It’s impossible to put oneself exactly in van Ryzin’s shoes but her strong self portrait seems a coalescence of these learning curves. The photo comes shortly after a picture which seems to poke fun at feminine norms. A woman in an elaborate formal getup, complete with queen tiara, makeup, and necklace might be a debutante, or a caricature of one. If it’s hard to tell which from this single photograph, van Ryzin’s selfie clinches the case: she is done with firm gender norms. 

Judging by her photographs, van Ryzin might also be done with men altogether. There are none in this book. To some extent that is just the nature of the material. Bryn Mawr is an all women college, and proudly so. Martin refers to Bryn Mawr as “a space where women can choose to behave or misbehave—can explore the full spectrum of what it means to be young and trying everything on for size: crushing or crying; resting or full-on raging.” It may well be an oasis of feminist exploration, but surely there are men lurking about somewhere. Their omission must have required careful editing. Van Ryzin has also excised any apparent signs of technology, an ablation which was probably even more taxing than the men. Tech runs through every facet of contemporary college life. But the women here carry on with no computers, phones, or screens of any type visible.

Without any screens to root them, the pictures become unmoored from the present. All were made in the mid 2010s but their raw facts might have existed forty years ago. Or eighty. Van Ryzin’s choice of square format monochrome exacerbates their timeless quality, as does the introductory photo pulled from Bryn Mawr’s early archives. When she embarked on this project she could not have foreseen the topsy-turvy college year that 2020 would bring, with its residential restrictions and distanced learning. But the pandemic has only heightened its anachronistic effect. 

Looking at the college life bursting from these frames, another omission comes to mind. Why are there not more photographs of this world shown in the fine arts? The college experience is widely common in the artistic class, and MFAs have become de rigueur. Raw numbers would indicate that there must be many photo ops similar to van Ryzin’s, and yet the ones which surface amount to a trickle. Thomas Mailaender’s photobook The Night Climbers Of Cambridge captured the lyceum’s halcyon, as did Daffyd Jones’ recent monograph The Last Hurrah. Some of Michael Jang’s wonderful Cal Arts snapshots appeared in his monograph Who Is Michael Jang? Andrew Moisey and Nathaniel Welch have captured college parties, while Sam Contis and Michael A. Smith have explored the monasterial isolation of Deep Springs. 

All are worth a look. All are exceptional, literally, for the college photo cupboard is mostly bare. I encounter projects every day from the talented grads of Yale, Hartford, ICP, Bard, and similar schools. Van Ryzin’s book sharpens the realization that I have no idea what any of these places or their students look like. That’s not exactly a complaint, but an acknowledgement that the subject might be overlooked and ripe for exploration. The lasting lesson of KGP’s LOST series, exemplified in Bryn Mawr, is that one needn’t venture far for rich material. It is all around in the daily fabric of existence, whether it be college dorm, home town, or further afield.

Collector’s POV: Alina van Ryzin does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, nor does she have a personal website. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via Kris Graves Projects (linked above).

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