Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Shooting Modern: Amy Jorgensen’s life in photographs



The documents on display in Amy Jorgensen’s The Body Archive: Residual Evidence must be among the most gregariously challenging photographs ever shown. (At the Central Utah Art Center in Ephraim through December 6 and at Art Access from 15 June through July 30, 2007.) Large and colorful, they are full of the optical pleasures and implied importance of the more accessible abstract paintings they resemble. The challenge comes from figuring out what they are pictures of. Judging by the enthusiasm of those studying them in the gallery, this question — which they have in common with other abstract art works — can be ignored without derailing the purely visual pleasures they so richly bestow. But to do so is to overlook a bellwether artist whose strategy for navigating the currents of present day photography reveals as much about her art as she means it to say about human experience.

There are several things that human children do spontaneously that no other species does. At about the age of eight months, we begin to point to things we see (blind babies point to things they hear) and to look back at our parents to see if they join in our discoveries. This is not the watch me behavior, the evidence of developing identity, that comes much later and may play a large part in socialization. Instead, this behavior marks the first appearance of something best described as intersubjectivity: proof that we are genetically predisposed to escape the capsule of our individual being, the metaphorical and literal skin in which we find ourselves marooned at birth, and forge a common subjective experience with what will become our community.

The second unique thing we do, as soon as developing manual skills permit, is to make images of what we experience. We draw, we sculpt—in one way or another we model our perceived and shared reality. In this regard, one of the great boons of modern technology was the deliberate invention, going on two centuries ago, and the subsequent development, of photography. It should be lost on no one that the most prolific and exploited image-making technology — our dominant way, if not of seeing, then at least of feeding images to our eyes — is also completely accessible to virtually anyone and everyone. Few of us can draw a credible likeness, but even in the presence of the thing itself we are likely to reach for its photo. And if none exists, or there is no recent portrait, then we reach for the camera and make one for ourselves.

Body Archive

Of course this universal accessibility had created a problem for those who would make art using a camera instead of a brush or a chisel. Amateur lenses continually erode the distinction between a snapshot and a work of art. Witness the publication and museum exhibition of mostly anonymous snapshots, usually presented alongside established names from the medium’s rich past. Last year the Getty took this one step further, showing Close to Home: An American Album, in close proximity to Cézanne in the Studio: Still Life in Watercolors. Blurring the line between life and art has often been a preoccupation of artists, but the collapse of the distinction where photos are concerned has thrown obstacles and opportunities in the paths of those who self-consciously pursue new means of using photography. Amy Jorgensen, who began shooting with a borrowed camera when she was eleven — one third of the way through her life to date — and quickly filled album after album with the evidence of her sensibility to the world around her, has labeled her most deliberate efforts “forensic” photographs.

No doubt complicating the matter of photography’s status is the rarely mentioned failure of the medium to find a place in the arts anywhere near as substantial as it has found in the broader culture. “Photographic art,” — a phrase that Stieglitz detested and Man Ray rejected as meaningless — has failed, not without trying, to take a permanent place alongside paintings on museum walls. Like the drawings they were meant to replace, photos live in drawers and boxes, from which they emerge like guests whose welcome is meted out, or reproduced in books where they serve more as historical documents than as companions to life. All this while the real history, the family snapshot, is permanently displayed even as it grows increasingly redundant and out of date. Comparing photos to paintings, the poet Robert Lowell contrasts paint’s “grace of accuracy” with the snapshot: “lurid, rapid, garish, grouped / heightened from life, / yet paralyzed by fact.”

Body Archive

Against the backdrop of a century of important photographs that remain minor art, many of today’s artists no longer use their cameras to reproduce the traditional subject matter of painting. After all, not all painters worked in the “Grand Manner” or considered History their proper subject. Amy Jorgensen distinguishes her recent work, which she labels “residual evidence,” from her earlier and ongoing documentary work, though it’s clear that one grows out of the other. In all of it, she pursues an enlightened belief that the specific visual image can reveal truths about being that surpass and outlast the instant of their making. She allies herself with Sophie Calle, a French artist whose projects resemble aestheticized versions of social science. Like some modern composers, both women like to create arbitrary mechanisms that when elaborately and judiciously carried out produce the sort of residue Performance art aimed for. Calle documents her relationships, for example, by asking 25 friends to sleep in her bed while she photographs them. Jorgensen has so far shown an interest in more public relations. She reminds us that forensic evidence includes, but isn’t limited to, crime scene photography: the forum in forensics refers not to criminal evidence but to public exposure and debate. But Jorgensen also knows that the barrier between the merely private and the criminally secret is often too thin to survive the light of public scrutiny. She’s already taken a side in the debate between photographic voyeurism and viewer scopophilia: she begins by indicting the gaze itself as an aggressive act as well as the origin of criminal intent.

Body Archive

For Jorgensen, the photograph is inevitably a constructed work of fiction, and her role in making it — whether she assembles props and scenery or limits herself to choosing the time and place –makes her essentially its author. Both Calle and Jorgensen actively reject the academic distinction between fiction and non-fiction, along with the notion of an ethical responsibility to be factually accurate. Each willfully contours the behavior that eventually produces the image she presents, and each finds frequent opportunities to place herself within that image. Through rigorous, self-imposed rules at one moment and manipulation of our curiosity the next, they cultivate and thus control the gaze directed at them. It is only from this distance, removed beyond technique, that we can appreciate the fundamental unity of purpose they share with Cindy ShermanNan Goldin, Eleanor Antin, and uncounted less-celebrated artists. They don’t just direct our looking, or tell us how to think about what we see. Nor are they content to make a show of acknowledging the ethical dilemmas raised by the decision to exploit the other’s real life explicitly for essentially fictional purposes.

Jorgensen’s documentaries should not be confused with journalism. Were she a journalist, presumably the primacy of her subjects would trump her use of them. Despite his appropriation of their appearance into his personal style, we believe that Sebastião Salgado wants us to look beyond the brilliance of his technique and see instead the humanity he depicts. There was no such easy out for Jorgensen in some photos she made while she was “growing up in Europe,” in which she takes us inside what appears to be abandoned houses. They may of course be used seasonally, or belong to absentee owners, but none of that matters. They bring to consciousness a time and events not present in them; a few serviceable if dust-clad personal effects make palpable the complex and inextricable relationship of time and space.

Body Archive

But philosophical labors don’t erase the ambivalent taste of voyeurism. Instead, Jorgensen often turns to herself as a subject whose copyright she owns. She has referred to some of these photos as component parts of larger works, but it’s not clear whether she means a single, extensively faceted self-portrait, or one of what might be several lesser projects continuously under way. Shortly after taking up her position as Artist in Residence alongside the faculty at Snow College, in the fall of 2005, she shot a sequence of headshots in which she is represented as eating an apple in 60 seconds.|5| While formally more than just portraits — since they offer the face in motion and the subject reacting to something decidedly other than either the camera or her own thoughts — they are also somehow other: reticence masquerading as candor, since the eating of an apple, while lying on the cusp between a public and a private act, nonetheless displaces the encounter between the viewer and the person being portrayed — what philosophers call the subject and the object — that we expect in a traditional portrait.

We’ve taken photographs to prove the existence of their subjects at least since Susan Sontag’s On Photography made it a cliché in 1973. In works like Jorgensen’s, though, they also evince the sensibility that creates them: a fact that conflicts with and undermines the cliché. As Sontag mentions in passing, the police were among the earliest agencies to take possession of the camera, and, she might have added, to exploit the uncertainty about just what a photo proves. Crime scene photography intrigues Jorgensen, but unlike WeeGee or Diane Arbus she seems less interested in the edgy subject matter and more in the formal language that official images of crime quickly acquired. While Conceptual artists sought in vain for objectivity in photographs, criminologists had already found it. By pointing their lenses indiscriminately, they sought to make sure that what seemed trivial in the moment would be available should it become important later. In essence, they sought to match the image-making machine with the closest thing to a mechanical operator. They wanted an omniscient image that preferences no one thing over another, but let the contents speak for themselves.

Jorgensen has explored this look in simulated crime-scene photos that continue her meditation on setting. In one, a grassy slope spills from among groves of trees down towards the viewer. Through this classic landscape threads a ribbon of yellow plastic tape that draws attention to something under a nearby tree. Urban and rural, natural and manufactured, dreadful and bucolic interpenetrate without comment from the artist. But this is still a conventional picture. She chose the place, the hour, and the point of view. She brought the crime-scene tape and the evidence it points to. What she got was a look, but she was after a way of looking.

We expect art to be about breaking down limits to what we can see or say, but the barriers are mental chimeras, and when breached they withdraw only to take up new positions and identities. Reconciling the objective eye, the evidence, with the necessary engagement of art is an absurd goal, but making the camera a more pure machine is not. From Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” to Ansel Adams’ “pre-visualization,” photographers have sought to control every element of a picture, the way a painter is responsible for every brush stroke: as though the genius of the camera were not in fact its inclusiveness. Jorgensen’s vision, like her camera’s, is the more open-ended. I recently watched her take a series of spontaneous portraits at Snow College (including one of me). The camera, on a tripod, was pointed at an empty stool, and while we were all sophisticated enough to know we should pose before it, not everyone chose to sit. She began by asking everyone who wandered by, giving no instructions but casually pressing the camera’s self-timer button while going about her business. The images that resulted, then, were both elaborately prepared and yet casual accidents. The artist’s contribution, primarily in setting up the procedure followed, was universal to the range of photos, and thus as close to objective as it may be possible to come. Her individual management, limited largely to choosing which images to show and which to discard, became essentially the same as the viewer’s, who chooses which works to peruse and which to ignore.

About a year after eating the apple, Jorgensen took a more direct approach to self-portraiture, spending a day taking a full-length photo of herself every half hour. The 48 resulting images, titled “Deprivation Study” — though she sagely left it open just what she may have been lacking — contrasts in a revealing way with the block of proofs produced by a visit to the portrait photographer. In the proofs, we expect a range of variation allowing us to choose between poses, expressions, and fleetingly expressed internal states. If the portraitist has done her job, one or two stand out as the way we want to be seen. Viewed as a whole, proofs produce a composite portrait made of fractions that don’t add up to anything. Jorgensen has made such faceted portraits on purpose: notably, an ongoing series of a ranch shed that has belonged to her family for six generations that she has shot from every angle in all seasons and lights. Although this compound image, like her self-portrait, can be viewed as a single work, in practice some examples more successfully evoke a response from viewers. In essence, these documents report on her search for the most telling way of seeing the place, just as a set of portrait proofs seeks to show us the one most desired, if not the most revealing, view of their subject.

As a medium, though, photography has always balanced this kind of idealization against a more subversive power: latent in the ease of making manifold images is the power to democratize. During her day before the lens, although Jorgensen knows in each case that she is about to be shot — she has set the timer herself — in order not to freeze into the grimace of a posed expression she adopts a succession of conventional strategies. At first she confronts the camera with a willfully level gaze. Then she chats with bystanders or reacts to comments. As she exhausts her stock of practiced faces, social fatigue takes their place. Slowly, in subtle shifts, an ineffable narrative emerges. Annoyance, resistance, frustration, and the desire to be done emerge in turn. Fatigue erodes her self-control. Studying the complete set of images, I recalled Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and I wondered if there are also five stages of coming to terms with aggression, invasion: with visibility. There must be only so many recurring paths through conscious experience.

The 48 individual photos make an equivalent claim to truth, and it becomes difficult to select just one from among them. They compound synergistically as the subject’s power to control her image wanes. As viewers walk past these stationary images, reversing the process of watching a film, they undergo a forced confrontation with a version of the artist that is neither fully fictional nor entirely true. If film pretends to be truth at 24 frames per second, these are not film stills, but frames cut at random, allowing pretense to slip. In them the artist strips herself of pictorial authority the only way she can: by turning it back on herself.

Body Archive

It could be argued that the only reason the works in Jorgensen’s current exhibit, The Body Archive, are photographs is because the artist who makes them says so, since in them her withdrawal of the conventional relationship of photographer to subject takes an existential step. Use of the automatic shutter, limited reliance on the viewfinder, and granting the subject more autonomy, though it did not eliminate a guiding creative intelligence, altered what 150 years of experience taught the visible world to expect from a photographer. The Body Archive takes the additional step of eliminating the camera altogether. Instead of placing her emulsion in a machine, the artist positions it directly on her skin before dressing and going about activities known only to her. The resulting images include apparently sharply focused structures that don’t exist, arguably identifiable shadows, and reticulated patterns of light and color that often generate impressions of vast space and great distance. Some recall the bright color fields of Helen Frankenthaler, others suggest Mark Rothko’s luminous fogs, but some don’t look like anything you’d expect to see, even in a gallery. That may be part of the argument for their being photographs: tied as they inevitably are to some behavior of light, with a photo what you see is what you get.

Though she identifies them as a kind of portrait, Jorgensen usually presents her Archive in landscape format, as though to press the logical connection between body and landscape, or to call attention to the importance of nature and environment in forming the result. If “What are they?” is the first question they bring to mind, others follow. What if skin could see? Or, since touch is the local analog to sight, what if skin could map sensation onto the brain with the same resolution as the eye? Could these images be the result? Their colors, while rich, are spurious; they speak not of wavelength but of other, equally valid values: temperature, humidity, and time. Like the false colors imposed on scientific images, they become optical metaphors for alternate ways of searching for sight. They quickly surpass the conditions of their creation and, like non-objective paintings, they become metaphors for alternate ways of knowing.

Jorgensen identifies her photographs as residual evidence: but residue of what? The obvious answers are that they are a residue of what is, or what happens, or what passes before her eye, or her lens. But there is a more pressing question for photographers than when to press the shutter release. It concerns decisions made years ago about what the role of the machine-made image would be in art. Ironically for those art-lovers who mistakenly believe that the closest resemblance to optical accuracy makes for the best art, the failure of photography to displace other forms of aesthetic picture-making — as it did in most applications — argues that its images lack some quality that is essential to art making. The twentieth century theorists who argued that objectivity was possible through the lens were clearly wrong about the camera, but they were also wrong about the requisites of art. Objectivity in an image reduces it to mundane experience, where the viewer’s subjectivity rules. Why would I, as a viewer, want that? Why should anyone? Meanwhile, artists like Amy Jorgensen press photography into making a more objective record of ever more subjective truths. And unlike today’s painters, no one ever looks at their product and says it’s too bad photography is dead.

“Deprivation Study”

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