Talia Chetrit, JOKE

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by MACK Books (here). Embossed hardcover with tipped-in image, 128 pages, with 63 color and black-and-white photographs. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown and the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Washington-born, New York-based photographer Talia Chetrit started making photographs in the mid-1990s, at the age of thirteen, first turning the camera on herself and subjects immediately available to her, like her friends and family members. She explains that “as a teenager, the camera provided a way for me to connect with my environment, but it also put up a barrier and became a coping tool to help me get through that notoriously complicated time.” Much of her work today fearlessly embraces the freedom of female sexuality, ultimately shifting the power dynamics of perception in the depiction of bodies.

Chetrit’s first photobook Showcaller (reviewed here) mostly captures the artist alone in her studio, reclaiming the female body using a range of subtle provocations. Her new photobook titled JOKE is a natural sequel, as it “riffs insouciantly on themes of life, death, and birth through a variety of visual languages,” reflecting on the cycle of life, and pregnancy and parenting in particular. 

JOKE is a hardcover book with an embossed photograph on the front that shows a pearl cross on a baby, taking up the entire frame. The artist’s name and the title appear in all caps on the spine. Inside, the photographs vary in their sizes and placement on the pages, but usually have a good amount of white space around them. The page numbers appear on the edge of the left pages, placed in the middle, and the list of captions is placed at the end, closing the book. 

Since publishing her first photobook, Chetrit had a baby and, like many of us, spent the pandemic years at home with her husband and their young child. In JOKE, Chetrit continues her autobiographical approach, including in varying degrees of undress, portraits of Chetrit’s husband, their toddler son, and the artist herself, as she explores their new terrain of domestic life. The selection of photographs includes many modes of making pictures, from self-portraits and quotidian family snapshots to city pictures and meticulously staged portraits. The book opens with an image of a baby on the floor playing with toys shot from the back, while a patent leather black high heeled boot boldly interrupts the quaint scene; it seems that in her new role as parent, Chetrit revels in subverting domestic life with scenes of kink and camp glamor. This image is followed by a smaller black and white photo of the artist’s father seated on a sofa in a mesh tank top as he looks straight into the camera. 

Like in the previous photobook, Chetrit resists linear narratives, mixing more recent series with photographs from her teenage archive. In one picture, the family has gathered to celebrate her grandfather’s birthday, while another shows a view of the Twin Towers in the Manhattan skyline; both of them were taken back in 1995. Other images capture Chetrit’s friends, including staged murder pictures, which add a layer of nostalgia to the visual narrative.

Chetrit’s self-portraits appear throughout the book. As always, her photographs are carefully staged and framed, and the camera trigger and the tripod often appear in her photographs to emphasize their precisely controlled environment. In the full bleed image titled “Align, 2019”, the pregnant artist appears on her knees wearing a t-shirt and underwear, and she holds a camera close to her eye while looking straight at us in a mirror; a can of soda appears at the edge of the left corner, perhaps a reference to her earlier photo “Soda,” 1995”. In another black and white portrait, Chetrit is nude capturing herself squatting downwards, as her pregnant belly and heavy breasts pull down, while across the spread, people look out the windows of a nearby building, as though watching her, juxtaposing private and public. 

As we move through the visual narrative, a number of photographs depict unconventional scenes of childcare, as the husband, a cisgender man, playfully tries on female outfits in the quiet intimacy of his home. In the image simply titled “Guys”, Chetrit’s husband appears in a white tulle dress awkwardly posing next to a leopard-print loveseat, while their son makes a similar movement as they both look into the camera. In another black and white photo, the husband stands in a long black ruffled skirt with a leather bondage top, casually feeding his son seated in his high chair while looking straight into the camera; his fetish-inspired outfit is also complemented by four spiky fire pokers hanging on the wall behind him. These and other pictures freely mix their references, blending visual humor and the absurd, along with high fashion, gender roles, and the domestic environment of the kitchen.

In another provocatively sexy image titled “Seated Portrait, 2019”, Chetrit appears lying on the legs of her husband, he is nude apart from glasses; her pregnant belly is on top of his erect penis while both of them stare into the camera as she hold the trigger. Images like this carefully staged photograph plays with (and challenges) the symbols and norms of white middle-class heterosexual family life. The book ends with a small portrait of Chetrit’s husband holding their son. This intimate and gentle photograph captures them as they are, and the caption this time contains their names “Denis and Roman”. 

JOKE is simple and functional as a photobook, without any elaborate design elements, focusing all of its attention on Chetrit’s portraits. As she combines eroticism, fashion, sex, intimacy, parenting, and her own artistic career into one visual narrative, Chetrit also offers a wryly playful commentary on motherhood, recognizing the choices and tradeoffs women have to make. In this way, Chetrit is cementing her place as an important voice reframing the female gaze and the politics of looking.

Collector’s POV: Talia Chetrit is represented by Kauffman Repetto in New York/Milan (here), Hannah Hoffman Gallery in Los Angeles (here), and Sies + Höke Gallery in Düsseldorf (here). Her work has not consistently found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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