Carmen Winant, Arrangements

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2022 by Self Publish, Be Happy (here) and Images Vevey (here). Softcover (24 x 30 cm), 320 pages, with each page containing one or more arrangements of photographs. Design by Bruce Usher. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Carmen Winant is a visual artist and writer based in Columbus, Ohio, who uses appropriated and archival photographic imagery to explore representations of gender in visual culture. She represents an important voice in a new generation of artists who are tirelessly highlighting the importance of female authorship, female representation, and the female gaze, and who are making women’s stories more visible. Her groundbreaking project My Birth (presented as an exhibition at the MoMA in 2018 and also published in a photobook) used an extensive archive of imagery to expose the uncensored experience of giving birth, offering an unvarnished look at both its terrors and pleasures. In her book Notes on Fundamental Joy (reviewed here), Winant reconsidered archival photographs of women’s communes, where the absence of men and natural nudity provided space for personal creativity and individual freedom. In yet other projects, she has also explored instructional guides to craft, female pleasure, women at work, domestic violence, and more.

While Winant’s background is in photography, she rarely makes photographs herself, and today her practice is very much about sourcing, collecting, and repurposing images. She confesses that over the years it has turned into an obsession, with piles of materials gathered all over her house. Her new photobook is a playful and clever exercise in bringing these found pictures together in a striking visual narrative. Simply titled Arrangements, the book is a deep dive into Winant’s archive, and while it doesn’t have any particular overarching theme, it smartly focuses on the dynamic relationship between images as placed on a page.

Arrangements is particularly exciting as a photobook object. It is a slightly oversized softcover book, with an open spine, and its cover is the same light glossy paper as the rest of the book block. A page with a photo of a bird in two positions takes up most of the cover, and the colophon details are placed on top in an elegant gold font. Inside, the sheets of papers from the Winant’s archive are arranged on the pages forming a new visual narrative. There are no texts, no explanations, no captions, or any other design elements, allowing the images to simply flow. The result is an exercise in watching Winant study “the possibilities of juxtaposing found juxtapositions.”

Of course, sourcing these images in the first place is a skill and art of its own. Winant says she usually avoids purchasing things on the Internet, as the exciting part for her relates to the process of touching and opening, feeling paper, and figuring it out. She usually searches “under the women’s section, puberty section, sports section, parenting section, if they have them” and appealing book titles might include something like “weight lifting for women”, “fitness training for women”, or “how to water train your baby”. This project draws from her collection of about 2,000 intact sheets of paper.

The sheets reproduced in Arrangements are pages ripped from books and magazines, and retain the original full page object. Fragments of texts, captions, and page numbers are now recontextualized in this new presentation. Most of the sheets (and images) are black and white, and they are mostly commercial photos, ordinary and functional. They are arranged in pairs based on a common topic or form or often just randomly. A quick flip through the book reveals a wide range of themes – there are images illustrating bodybuilders posing, rock climbing, jumping over a pole, surgical birth, condom testing methods, and dog training, and there are also shots of plants, galaxies, sunsets, snakes, etc. The overwhelming flow of images raises many questions: what and who is pictured? who is telling the story? how is this story told? how do we read images? and over time, how do we learn to read them?

The book opens with a page that has three vertical photos of kids making soap balloons, the word “children” appears underneath the images. The image on the right shows two black and white shots of galaxies, and page number 17 is also included. The pairing of children playing around and galaxies is a clever juxtaposition. An image of a leg post surgery with rough stitches is paired with a woman on a bed in the hospital during the postpartum, drawing parallels between visible and invisible suffering. Another great juxtaposition pairs a page with text reading “Your father is a male. If you are a boy, you are a male, too”, and the images show a mother with a baby, and a father with a son while the page on the right depicts an egg hatching. Through reframing and recontextualizing the images, more complex narratives emerge, inviting us to see them anew.

Many images included in the book echo Winant’s interest in what she calls “instructional photographs”, these kinds of photographs usually serving as guides or tools for learning. Many of them were published in a separate book titled Instructional Photography: Learning How to Live Now. Can photographs teach, in and of themselves, Winant asks? And who has the power to present the “right way” of doing things, and how can it be deconstructed? In Arrangements, these instructional photographs function as part of wider narrative, with an exercise sequence appearing next to a page with photos of women’s breasts at various ages. And a couple of spreads later, a sequence of nine images showing an athlete jumping over a pole placed next to a sheet with three horizontal photos showing children running around in Kenya, United States, and Japan. Suddenly, there are parallels (in movement and dynamics) between these very different sets of images. 

As an artist’s book, Arrangements represents a thought provoking archival study. It’s a wide-ranging intellectual exercise in rethinking and recontextualizing found imagery, and in creating new possibilities and reinterpretations. Its functional and neat design, along with its clear structure, come together to create an energetic and often unexpected photobook experience. Arrangements is an exercise in active looking, offering an open-ended journey into how images function. 

Collector’s POV: Carmen Winant is represented by Fortnight Institute in New York (here). Her work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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