JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Hunters Point Press (here). Hardcover, 72 pages, with 31 black and white images (some hand tinted). Includes essays by Justine Kurland and Thomas Struth. Edited by Justine Kurland and Barney Kulok. Design by Ria Roberts. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: We have reached a cultural tipping point of sorts in the past year or two where the female nude as seen by a male photographer has gone meaningfully out of favor. To say that the genre has been entirely discredited is an exaggeration, for intimacy will always be a powerful subject for artistic inquiry, but the environment has clearly changed.
It hardly matters whether this new reality is a direct result of the #MeToo movement and the overdue reckoning taking place surrounding sexual harassment or simply due to incremental steps being taken toward more broad female empowerment and agency in society at large, but the outcome is undeniably real – the male gaze on the female nude isn’t seen with anywhere near the same assumption of acceptance that it once was.
There will always be a historical place, especially in the specific chronology and evolution of photographic Modernism, for female nudes that are largely (but perhaps not entirely) driven by interest in the simplicity of line and form as exhibited by the human body. That said, the female nude as seen by female photographers (both historical and more contemporary) sits on a bedrock of gender-based legitimacy that is hard to question, and the great female photographers of the past who tackled the female nude are slowly gaining in well-deserved esteem. We are finally coming to appreciate that women will undoubtedly see women with different eyes than men, and even when same sex attraction is at work, the undercurrents of exploitation, imbalances of power, and general male heterosexual leering that can twist the male/female artist/model relationship aren’t present to color the aesthetic outcomes.
Janice Guy’s self-portrait nudes were mostly made in the late 1970s, but given some twists in her life road as an artist (she has spent much of the past several decades as a respected gallery owner), they weren’t really rediscovered until roughly a decade ago – and so they enter the consciousness of the art world inside this evolving context for the female nude.
Guy studied photography under Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1970s, in the same now-prestigious program that produced many of the German stars of the photographic art world. (Thomas Struth was one, and he has contributed a thoughtful reminiscence to this monograph.) But as the teachings of the Bechers steered many of their students toward a rigorous formality of aesthetic vision, especially as applied to architecture and landscape, Guy was headed elsewhere artistically, turning the camera on herself and experimenting with a different and more introspective type of control.
Given that nearly every picture in this thin photobook is oriented around Guy looking at us with her camera in front of her eye, we might be tempted to conclude that she was primarily interested in performance, and in the ideas of female roles, stereotypes, and body images that might go along with such overt theatricality. And while Guy was of course meticulously staging and arranging these compositions, I think it would be a gross misunderstanding to conclude that her self portraits are dramatic in some way. To my eye, they are instead intensely ordered and systematic, where the representation of her nude body is just one part of a very specific kind of artistic problem solving that she is working through.
In many ways, Guy seems to be testing the edges of photography itself, using the self-portrait nude as the vehicle for that deliberate unpacking. In this short photobook, there is visual evidence of nearly a dozen different approaches to the nude, each one an attempt to undermine its usual conventions.
Guy generally uses mirrors to turn the view back in on itself, doubling herself or reorienting the perspective, always keeping the 35mm reflex Minolta in between the viewer and her own eye. Is she shooting us? Or herself? Is this a private exercise? Or are we meant to be watching her? The usual questions that inform the female nude are refracted and disintegrated by this first mirrored inversion.
Guy then experiments with a variety of compositional motifs to further build up her frames. She plays with multiple exposure and blur, softening the strict clarity of the imagery and opening up areas of uncertainty. She explores shadows as an intrusive device, bringing the ghost of the camera back into view as an overlay to her skin or face. She uses the pebbled glass of an open window as a veiling mechanism. And she uses her own fingers to interrupt the path of the lens, a single finger or OK sign doubled into itself and its blurred cousin.
Mostly, she poses herself on furniture, twisting her body into iterative sets of upside down angles and overlapped spatial relationships, and just like a Becher typology, we watch and notice the minute changes and differences between the serial arrangements. In various sets, she uses a puffy upholstered chair with brass casters, a rattan bowl with straight legs, a worn ottoman, or a pillowy white blob of squished drapery as her venue, each providing a different set of constraints and opportunities for her body (and her flowing hair). In some cases, she adds hand tinted color to the works, bringing skin and hair into warm tones that interrupt the severity of black and white; she also allows the grain of the analog film to become textural.
Still other works explore the manipulative properties of the mirror even further. Disembodied and distorted Brandt-like legs multiply, overlapped mirrors slash and fragment her form, and rephotographed portraits create doubled heads and faces that look at each other with eerie intimacy. And a mirror on the floor upends the usual flat frontal perspective, her camera-toting figure perched on a ladder looking down and flattened into a single plane.
While Guy was clearly an attractive young woman when she made these photographs and was likely aware of that beauty, her photographs find a point of tension that balances that self-representation with a clear tendency toward anonymity. In these pictures, she is both making herself visible and frustrating our ability to see her, the camera in particular becoming a kind of mask. Like Anne Collier’s Women with Cameras series, Guy’s images play with the duality of the camera as both a tool of agency and as a disguise.
As a photobook, this monograph feels more like an introduction or a sampler than an exhaustive history, a door opener rather than a definitive statement. But that pared down simplicity matches what is required at this moment in Guy’s rediscovery.
What’s exciting is that Guy’s 21st century timing feels just right, her rediscovery coming along at a moment when her cerebral approach to the female nude feels particularly resonant. Her eye isn’t syrupy sweet, or overtly sexualized, or combative, or even improvisationally performative. Instead, she comes at the female nude with a dose of smart experimental precision, disassembling it and reconstructing it with intellectual clarity and immediacy. Of course, these are photographic versions of a body, but mostly they are indirect pictures of a curious and probing mind, one who was actively searching for innovative photographic answers where few thought there was anything new to find.
Collector’s POV: Janice Guy does not have gallery representation at this time, although she has a solo show scheduled at Higher Pictures in early 2019. Her work has little secondary market history, so connecting directly with the artist remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.