Curating the site

I'm going to be reposting my favorite entries (newest to oldest) as a way of organizing and archiving the blog so that when people visit Tethered they'll have quick access to the writings that I feel are most reflective of my work over the years. Many thanks to those of you who have been loyal readers, and if this is your first time to the site welcome, I hope you'll find something here that provides inspiration for your own work, be it artmaking or parenting.


Pale Fire

Cracked pane, 2002

Originally posted September 5th, 2008:

For the last couple of weeks I've been mulling over titles for my newest series and the two top runners are currently "Windowpane" and "Otherworld." The Windowpane title was inspired in part by the opening lines of Nabokov's Pale Fire, which begins:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

I read Pale Fire in college and decided to follow the book exactly: it's a postmodernist choose-your-own-adventure of sorts; each line of the poem by fictional writer John Shade links to "annotations" by the unreliable commentator/historian Charles Kinbote. One can skip around at random, visit some of the footnotes and not others, or vice versa, but I decided to go by the letter, visiting each page referenced to by the corresponding line in the poem, and I swear at the end there was a tiny rip in the fabric of the universe. I know, I know--I was nineteen and impressionable and all that jazz--and of course looking back I can no longer remember exactly what that peep into the unknown was like; all I do know is that everything felt washed clean for a short period of time, like a freshly Windexed window, pardon my obvious analogy.

Since then I often seem to have those Pale Fire opening couplets pop into my head at random times; something about the cadence and the import of the meaning sits well in my brain. I also am drawn to the implicit metaphors: the sense of the barrier caused by the window, and the division implied in the notion of the panes; you can see the world outside but are separate from it; you're both of and distanced from nature. Along with this comes the significance of glass: the geometric divisions, the ability to break the window and enter the world; sky and space seen in it, etc. All of this feels related to ideas behind my current work, in the way that I'm either manipulating nature or finding where there are patterns in the seemingly random; the symbolic value of everyday objects; our rituals and our desire to see order in the inanimate (pardon my overuse of semicolons)...Some of this isn't fully mapped out for me yet, but as I work on forming an artist statement, and seek to organize the images under the banner of a title, the concepts are crystallizing and I'll continue to be able to hopefully articulate more and more clearly the meaning behind the visuals.

"Otherworld" for more obvious reasons I think carries some of the same implications, which I won't elaborate on now, but I was amazed to visit my feed reader today and see a post entitled "the windowpane and the landscape" over on subjectify (I lately have been linking to Lexi's site quite often, I'll admit--there just seems to be some sort of synchronicity going on with me and that blog.) I hadn't remembered the Barthes quote she references, it's been ages since I read Camera Lucida, so it was enlightening as well as affirming to have the idea of the windowpane described in these terms:

"The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object: dualities we can conceive but not perceive."

Thus all signs seem to be pointing in the direction of using "Windowpane" as my latest title; I actually had it up very briefly on my site when I first made it live last week and then decided to simply stick with "New work," as I was unsure I was ready for the finality of using the title at that point. I think I'll ponder it a little while longer and play with a few other banners, stay tuned.

Motherhood and photography

©Robin Schwartz, ©Elinor Carucci

Originally posted October 7th, 2008:

I promised to write about the Women in Photography lecture at Aperture, and with such an extensive talk it's hard to know where to begin. Co-curators Cara Phillips and Amy Elkins did an excellent job of explaining the impetus for starting the project (which I won't get into as they describe it themselves extensively in an interview in Pop Photo which you can read here) and moderator Laurel Ptak also posed intriguing and thought-provoking questions to keep the discussion going. But what I was the most inspired by was hearing from two of the site's artists themselves: Elinor Carucci and Robin Schwartz were there to discuss their photography, and I felt particularly lucky that I was able to hear firsthand how they balance motherhood with their creative drives.

Carucci is known for highly personal work in which she documents various family members in an intimate and vulnerable light, along with her penchant for revealing and intense self-portraits. Starting off with her earlier work she spoke of photography as a form of communication, that her images became a platform for her family to be able to talk back to her, to speak the unspoken, particularly with her husband. Then four years ago Carucci gave birth to twins, and she showed never-before-seen work that I have to say practically made me cry (none of it is available online as of yet, but I hope it will be soon). As the first slide went up she said: "How complicated it is to photograph your children"--these words really reverberated for me. She spoke of wanting to show the beauty and the pain and how needy children are; "need" was a word she repeated often. I think it's a state of being that any parent can relate to, the sometimes relentless demands of your children, coupled with how to integrate their desire for things to be done right now with your own needs as an individual.

There was such a palpable rawness, a certain courage in her ability to show all of the cracks, chinks, and sheer physicality of motherhood. Images of breastfeeding, giving her son antibiotics, her daughter's runny nose, and the like were such recognizable moments from my own life, shot in Carucci's own "here it all is, no holds barred" manner. She did say a big issue for her was "will they be grateful or will they hate me? Probably both." I think this question is raised less often for me perhaps because of the fact that I do have a level of censorship in my own work--there are definitely images that I hold back. I see my photography as a mixture of both personal and allegorical--my work is about authentically representing my version of motherhood, and some of that for me is a certain privacy that feels in keeping with how I approach the world in general, but certainly when one makes work involving their own children the question can't help but come up. For Carrucci I feel that her vision of things is about exposure: there were a few shots of her children that were quite explicit, and for her work this seemed right--she continues the trajectory of laying everything bare.

Ptak asked how the highly personal role of motherhood impacted the work, and Carucci replied that she didn't feel it was a decision: it was just what she saw and wanted to photograph. I often feel this way--that this is my life, it's what surrounds me, my children are the most interesting, complicated, perplexing thing about my day-to-day existence and it has seemed only natural to interact creatively with what is most important to me. As I mentioned above, I do withhold a certain amount, but this, in and of itself, is part of what I'm addressing in my work, and I felt privileged to have Carucci show her own personal vision of motherhood.

Schwartz followed by presenting photographs from her series "Amelia’s World." I had only been familiar with her imagery through WIP, so it was interesting to hear another photographer who is a mother talk about her engagement with her child and the passion behind her work. Her original fascination was with animals, and after her daughter Amelia was born she began involving her in the process. She also spoke of intimacy and mentioned that her photographs were an attempt to "cheat time and death," which is right up my alley--I was sold from that line on.

For Schwartz I think the attempt is not only to freeze her daughter's childhood, but also about how animals have a much shorter lifespan than ours--the photographs are a means of capturing their limited time here on earth. In this sense childhood and animals share a kinship: both phases are fleeting, and it occurred to me that perhaps this is why children are drawn to animals in a way that adults generally are not. I got the sense that for Schwartz she never outgrew this kinship, and her sheer fascination with the creatures was palpable. I also loved hearing how in awe she was of her daughter's level of comfort and her ability to interact with the animals; she seemed to admire Amelia's ability to "speak" to them, and for Amelia to be given such an incredible opportunity through Schwartz's photographic endeavors spoke to me of a wonderful, mutually-fulfilling collaboration.

She also mentioned losing her own mother and how beginning to photograph Amelia opened a door for her. In this way she and Carucci are similar--I got the sense that the creative process for each of them is a means of healing and coping with their own emotional landscapes. In response to the question from Ptak about how being a mother impacted the work, Schwartz responded that she wants to be home and record what's at home, or within her immediate vicinity (which, like yours truly, is in New Jersey). I couldn't have said it better myself.


Originally posted August 8th, 2008:

It's late and I'm still up. The computer is very addictive for me, and I've been sitting here for the last hour plus going through old files and cleaning up folders. Believe it or not my MFA thesis at SVA was a video (called Counting Losses), and for the first time in a long time I looked at some stills I have in my archives. One of these days I'll get around to putting the actual video on DVD, but for now I only have it on VHS and Beta and we got rid of our VCR a few years back so I haven't watched it in a while. It was a response to my grandmother's death and the process of going through to her apartment and clearing out her possessions. As always mortality, the passage of time, and nostalgia were strong themes. These two frames struck me for their similarity to HandprintsThis particular hand belongs to my sister Annie; I made the video in 2001, two-and-a-half years before Edie was born. Hard to believe...

If nothing else, what I see throughout my work is that I have a particular way of composing images and am drawn to the same subjects again and again, within different mediums, and often without quite realizing it. The way I frame shots is highly intuitive, so in some ways it's a little uncanny to see how consistent I am. But also kind of nice, I must admit. 

Bumper car anguish

Originally posted August 8th, 2008:

An image from Wildwood on the Jersey shore, shot last week. Lest you think I'm a horrible parent, be assured that this is the only frame I got of Edie in such a sorry state. She turned around crying because she couldn't get her bumper car to bump to her liking and began screaming that she wanted to get off; I was already shooting and took one quick final photo as my mother, who you can see in the background on the right (next to my father who is also taking pictures--like dad, like daughter) was just about to move in to help. I then I promptly joined them and went to their aid. No need to contact social services, but I appreciate your concern.

Letting go

Originally posted August 6th, 2008:

As I redo my website there are certain images I'm feeling the need to let go of. In fact, I decided to remove the gallery "First days" altogether (the photos above are from that series). It was a project that meant much to me at the time, but was admittedly short-lived. It was one of those series that helped me confront my emotional reaction to my birth experience with Edie, but it was a fairly fleeting body of work, and one that I didn't continue to pursue. I shot a lot in a short amount of time, got it out of my system, and then it was finished. Still, it's hard to relegate images to the possibly never-to-be-seen-again archives. And now I'm struggling with how much to show in the space left over from deleting a gallery.

I have so many images from "Life is a series of small moments" but I'm wondering if it's better to keep it narrowed down and leave the viewer wanting more, or to create two galleries because there's so much of a story to tell, and to allow the viewer to better become part of this world. I also have this nagging fear that in redoing the site I'll make it worse, not better. The images are going to be bigger: will this remove some of the sense of intimacy, or will it allow details that may have been lost before to be fully experienced? I wonder if other artists struggle with this. You start to get some much-appreciated recognition and then you worry that if you alter anything the love will fade. This is that defeatist voice, the one that fears change, the one that desires approval, the voice that I think is so often present in the mind of an artist. What I need to do, as always, is to remind myself that if I personally think the redo of my website is better then that's what counts--critics (and supporters) aside.

This is what being dedicated to your art does I suppose: it forces you to confront those interior voices, to bring those doubts and insecurities to the surface and challenge them, to cultivate your belief in your work and, as much as possible, dispel the need for approval that is such a human want. But it's no easy task, and I must say it's comforting when I read that other photographers struggle with the same issues.

I've actually been rereading Art & Fear which is a nice little book that my sister Katie gave me years ago as a birthday present. I tend to think that if I were truly "enlightened" (whatever that means) that the doubts wouldn't be present, that I could create work in my own little bubble and be comfortable with the possibility of never being recognized. What this book does is show that a desire for recognition isn't something to be ashamed of. Unless you're some version of the "I make my art for moi," nihilistic, beret-wearing, social outcast, kinda-crazy artist stereotype that pretty much only exists in the movies, then you probably care. The trick is not to let the caring take over the work. You know what I'm going to say next, don't you? Balance, my friends. It's all about balance.

I'll leave you with a few nuggets from the book:
The line between the artist and his/her work is a fine one at best, and for the artist it feels (quite naturally) like there is no such line. Making art can feel dangerous and revealing. Making art is dangerous and revealing. Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be...What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those you don't, quit. Each step in the artmaking process puts that issue to the test.

Some people who make art are driven by inspiration, others by provocation, still others by desperation. Artmaking grants access to worlds that may be dangerous, sacred, forbidden, seductive, or all of the above. It grants access to worlds you may otherwise never fully engage. It may in fact be the engagement--not the art--that you seek. The difference is that making art allows, indeed guarantees, that you declare yourself. Art is contact, and your work necessarily reveals the nature of that contact. In making art you declare what is important.

Sexism is alive and well

© Rachel Whiteread 

Originally posted July 7th, 2008:

Cara Phillips brings our attention today to the disturbing point of view of the ever-controversial British art critic Brian Sewell on her blog. She cites Sewell and his sadly discriminatory remarks toward women as a means of explaining why she and Amy Elkins started Women in Photography. An article in the Independent yesterday quotes Sewell as saying: "The art market is not sexist...The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank. There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness."

In a separate article published in 2005 in The Guardian he stated: "Women are no good at squeezing cars through spaces. If you have someone who is unable to relate space to volume, they won't make a good artist. Look at Barbara Hepworth--a one-trick pony. Look at that pile of rubbish in the Tate by Rachel Whiteread."


The temptation is to get into a lengthy discussion about the multitude of first-rank female artists who are out there, past and present, and to begin a debate on the small-mindedness of implying that one of the reasons that only men are capable of aesthetic greatness is because, in Sewell's opinion, women can't drive. But his view is so full of his own term "rubbish" that I don't believe it even merits a full discourse.

What I will do is move on to another quote in the Independent article in which the author writes: "Pilar Ordovas, the head of contemporary art at Christie's, also rejected claims the market is sexist. 'There are many male artists who sell for the same as women...It is too simplistic to suggest that gender or age determines price.'" But is it?

In his book BlinkMalcolm Gladwell writes extensively on gender bias in relation to hiring practices among orchestras. On Slate he summarizes:
"Prior to the 1980s, auditions for top orchestras were open—that is, the auditioning committee sat and watched one musician after another come in and play in front of the judges. Under this system, the overwhelming number of musicians hired by top orchestras were men—but no one thought much of this. It was simply assumed that men were better musicians. After all, what could be fairer than an open audition? And weren't the members of audition committees, "experts" in their field, capable of discerning good musicians from bad musicians?

But then, for a number of reasons, orchestras in the 1980s started putting up screens in audition rooms, so that the committee could no longer see the person auditioning. And immediately—immediately!—orchestras started hiring women left and right. In fact, since the advent of screens, women have won the majority of auditions for top orchestras, meaning that now, if anything, the auditioning process supports the conclusion that women are better classical musicians than men. Clearly what was happening before was that, in ways no one quite realized, the act of seeing a given musician play was impairing the listener's ability to actually hear what a musician was playing. People's feelings about women, as a group, were interfering with their ability to evaluate music."
So here we have concrete evidence of gender bias in a creative field. This is not to say that those who did the hiring were overtly sexist or even aware of the preference, but the preference existed nonetheless. On a basic level gender bias is deeply pervasive in Western culture, and I believe it's so ingrained that even those of us who consider ourselves enlightened can fall prey. I remember instances in my (luckily) more distant past when I would be reading an article in a newspaper or journal, would think it was brilliant, and then on discovering the author was a woman feel my esteem go down a notch. I was always taken aback by this shift in my perspective, and it was only in challenging myself and even actively seeking out powerful artistic female role models that I now no longer have such a change of heart based on gender. Still--if I as a creative woman could experience such bias against my own sex, what about those who never question their assumptions? Or those who wholeheartedly embrace their misogynistic attitudes?

It makes me wonder: what if Brian Sewell had to judge a large group of individual works of art, receiving no information about the artist's gender--would he still conclude the female artists to be second and third-rank? As far as Christie's and the work of men selling for so much more than women, unfortunately there's no way for auction houses to put up screens, as it were, because the pieces are being sold for so much money largely due to the clout and reputation of the artists who created the work. But it does get one to thinking about the various shows and rounds of jurying that occur on a continual basis--would anything change if no name were included with submissions by emerging artists? Don't get me wrong, I think things are improving--at least where I've been paying attention, which is within the photography world--and as more female innovators like Jen Bekman rise to the top I can only hope that the playing field will level out--that the best, regardless of gender, will receive the accolades they deserve.


Originally posted June 17th, 2008:

The above images aren't necessarily a diptych, but I couldn't decide which I thought was stronger, so am posting both. They're another instance of spontaneous picture-taking that potentially looks staged. It was the week before last and I went into the bathroom to get Edie's toothbrush; when I walked back into my bedroom she was hiding under the dresser and only her hair was visible. It was very eerie and I really was startled for a moment. I told her to stay put of course, ran downstairs to get my camera, and the result is above.