Tania Franco Klein, Positive Disintegration

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Éditions Bessard (here). Hardcover (wrapped in velvet with a tipped-in image), unpaginated, with 52 color reproductions. Includes 6 half sheet double-sided newspaper inserts. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 500 copies, each with a signed limited edition print. Design by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context:  The atmospheric photographs in Tania Franco Klein’s photobook Positive Disintegration consistently capture a particular mood, a place where heightened emotion tips over into psychological exhaustion. Her pictures pull us through a wandering road trip of anonymous spaces, where solitary women seem to do battle with their own demons, their desperations and escapes never fully articulated. The glamour of their lives has faded a bit, and a hangover of anxiety and estrangement has set in.

At the center of the Mexican photographer’s open-ended narrative lies a series of performative female characters dressed in a variety of wigs, large glasses, and red lipstick. Often lost in introspective thought, they stand in empty parking lots, vacantly gaze out windows, curl up on carpeted floors, and sit slumped on motel beds, seemingly muted by the unseen forces that have worn them down. The staged scenes liberally draw from film noir and Mexican telenovelas, but the dramas they present are much more subtle and introspective.

Given the broad influence of Cindy Sherman and her images of female archetypes, it’s difficult for any young photographer who decides to use herself (or other models) to stage scenes to find her own distinct voice without seeming derivative. Contemporary photographers like Alex Prager and Anja Niemi have worked hard to separate themselves from Sherman’s shadow, finding their own bright pathways into the inner lives of their female characters. In this case, Franco Klein has taken a more indirect approach with her fictional subjects, focusing less on their confident individuality or the precariousness of their situations, and more on their ability to evoke complex states of vulnerability and emotion.

One way Franco Klein keeps us at a distance is by cleverly employing visual strategies of misdirection, interruption, and distortion. She repeatedly turns her characters away from the camera, uses cast light and shadows to complicate scenes, and inverts her shooting angle to place women upside down. Faces and bodies are reflected in the metal side of toaster or a hand mirror, clouded by the frosted glass of a shower door, covered in light dappled water, obscured by sofa cushions, interrupted by a red balloon, or made shimmery by a crinkled sheet of metallic paper. And in a few cases, she arranges her images into cinematic multi-image sets (printed on black backgrounds), giving the passage of time and the evolution of the scenes a more prominent position.

Many of Franco Klein’s photographs are, in a sense, all setting, the absence of the characters focusing our attention on the details found in claustrophobic rooms and outdoor spaces. Several pictures return to the idea of being blocked in – fences, overgrown greenery, exit signs, nighttime roads enveloped by darkness, and even curtains. Others allude to traumas large and small, via phones hanging off the hook, a charred couch on fire, stove burners left lit, a vacuum cleaner clogged with hair, a pair of dentures on the side of a glass, and a number of black and white TVs playing for no one. Sequenced in among the images with female protagonists, these pictures provide moodily calm interludes, where the stories (and implications) can unroll with more patience.

Franco Klein’s interest in and command of color are among her strongest aesthetic assets, and several of her most notable compositions are controlled studies of rich color and its variations. Shades of blue tie together an arrangement in a carpeted room, including an upholstered chair, a stool, an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, and a telephone. In another work, Eggleston-style red seethes in a corner, where puzzle pieces and a woman in a red dress break up the strict geometries. Layers of green enrich a number of pictures: a train seat and a nearby half-open curtain; the tile, door, and shower curtain in a bathroom scene; and the architectural planes of walls, pillars, and a door on a front porch. In still other pictures, she plays with soft yellows and rusty oranges, smartly using them (like Nan Goldin does) to help set tone and emotional timbre.

The design of Positive Disintegration is well matched to these priorities. The cover is wrapped in a tactile orange velvet, and the end papers and first pages shimmer with metallic copper-colored retro glamour. The photographs themselves are largely given plenty of room to breathe, the white space making the sophisticated color choices in the images that much more obvious. And half sheet newspaper ads are intermittently interleaved, obliquely referencing nearby pictures and contributing to the sense of competing voices (and aspirations) swirling around in the heads of the women. The result is a photobook that plausibly feels like a self-contained world.

For a young photographer like Franco Klein, finding a unique artistic voice can often be a process of working through a series of important influences, absorbing and discarding fragments and ideas with equal fervor. The photographs in Positive Disintegration certainly recall a variety of other esteemed image makers, and Franco Klein can’t be unaware of those echoes. But what’s exciting is that her images synthesize those influences into a style that is her own. This book is full of mysteries and anxieties, its unsettled emotional landscape providing her with plenty of creative space to explore going forward.

Collector’s POV: Tania Franco Klein is represented by Rose Gallery in Santa Monica (here), where a show of this body of work runs from October 22, 2019 through January 18, 2020 (here). Franco Klein’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remain the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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