Carly Ries, Centerfold

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 by Picture Speak (here). Hardcover (8.5 x 11 inches), 116 pages, with 80 color and black-and-white reproductions. In an edition of 1000 copies. Design by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Carly Ries, a New York-based artist and curator, works to re-frame the nuanced relationships between photographer and subject through images, photobooks, and archives. In addition to making her own work, Ries also supports the photographic archive of the New York collector Peter J. Cohen, managing and editing his massive collection of snapshots and vernacular photographs, currently numbering some 60,000 photographs, organized into over 130 categories. In 2021, she worked on a survey volume of the collection, 100 Photographs from the Collection of Peter J. Cohen, and she collaborated with the gallerist Julie Saul on the exhibition “Taking Pictures: Women of Independent Spirit” at the Tampa Museum of Art, which was on view last year. Using photographs from Cohen’s archive, the exhibition “charted photography’s momentum across the 20th century as a medium for self expression alongside the expansion of women’s independence.”

Last year, Ries published her first photobook. Titled Centerfold, it addresses the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity in nude portraiture. It appropriates images from softcore girl-on-girl magazines published between the late 1970s and the mid-80s, shot by men for the pleasure of other men, and recontextualizes them with her own photographs and selections from the Cohen collection.

Centerfold is a softcover publication, similar to a magazine in its size. The image on its cover – two eyes against a red background – is a reference to a 1959 cover of Playboy magazine. In the original photograph, Playboy bunny logos were superimposed on the model’s pupils, removing her perspective and simply reducing her to an object. Ries gave the model back her eyes, also making a statement about the direction of her own series. The title of the book is placed vertically along the top right corner, repeated twice in a mirroring mode, again alluding to different ways of seeing. Inside, the images appear in various sizes and placements across the pages,  creating a dynamic visual narrative. Numerous vellum overlays also appear throughout the book adding extra layers of interaction, and a short text by the artist is placed at the very end. 

The visual narrative is built by liberally intermingling images from the various different sources, without particular specific identification. This makes the sequencing and editing of the photographs particularly important for this book. Formal similarities in shapes and movements create an exciting back and forth visual dialogue, moving between images and pages. Ries re-imagines the images from the magazines by cropping out certain details, covering parts with white blocks, or reversing them into negative tonalities. The final visual flow incorporating all these approaches is rather open-ended, full of allusions and associations.

The book opens with a photograph of a photograph: an open palm gently holds a small plant branch, and this photo is hanging on a wall, dangling off a strand of white thread. This is followed by a nude portrait of a woman seated against a white background, the sunlight gently falling on her body and dappling it with spots; her face is outside the frame, her long hair covers her left breast, and her hands are on her lap. This photograph feels gentle and elegant, but also confident. It also stands in contrast to the image right after it. An image inverted to a negative shows a woman lying down, her mouth and legs are slightly open. Her sex is covered by a flower shaped illustration, and two hands, also in negative, appear on the page over the image. 

Throughout the book, Ries includes photographs of flowers, jungle greenery, and ornate conservatory architecture she made during a residency at the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. These photographs appear in juxtaposition to details of floral patterns, lace gloves, decorative bed frames, and tattoos of roses from the soft core magazine shots, creating another set of visual echoes. Another nude photograph of Ries’s friend Ruby T is placed in full spread in the center of the book. It depicts her laying down on a surface, twisting her body as she looks straight at us. A red binding thread runs through the center of the shot, almost like it is cutting her in half. 

Using vellum pages and other collage techniques, Ries creates transparencies and layerings, where various images are brought into conversation. In one sequence, a small shot of a flower leads to a full bleed vellum image of a woman standing with a camera by a bed with a superimposed image of another woman, which is then followed by a small photo of two women in a playful photoshoot. In another spread, a negative of a nude woman is placed into a shot of a plant, both printed on transparency paper. Ries also interrupts photographs with overlays – in a full spread photo of two women kissing, she suggestively places a photograph of a mirror on top of the lips.

In the past several years, more and more female photographers have offered their own visions of representing and seeing women, untethering themselves from the dominant male gaze. Ries’s work also challenges common stereotypes in the representation of the female body, aiming to forcefully shift the power between the object and the subject. Acting both as an archivist and an artist, Ries explores the artistic possibilities embedded in these vernacular images, and as she combines them with her own photographs, smartly extends them into new meanings and interpretations. 

Collector’s POV: Carly Ries does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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