The Academy Award-winning actress shares her otherworldly photographs
A gay fanboy going to great lengths to interview his favorite actor is by now a trite story, but I hope this one is different. For years, I had been transfixed by Jessica Lange, not only as the actor who won two Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, three Emmys, and a Tony, but also as a photographer. Her black and white photos, taken on a Leica camera and printed on silver gelatin, display a deep knowledge of art history, and reference photographers that even a Ph.D. candidate in art history like myself, was ignorant of.
When I heard that Anne Morin—curator of diChroma Photography in Spain—had put together Jessica Lange: Unseen—a show of Lange’s photography at the Camerimage International Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland, I applied for a new credit card and bought a plane ticket the next day. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
How can we understand these photographs as being an endeavor based on your skill as a photographer and your knowledge of art history?
We are always drawn to certain artists. In the world of photography, I’ve always loved Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Manuel Bravo, Josef Koudelka, Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank— these photographers are observers. I have always surrounded myself with their photographs; wherever I’ve lived, they’ve lived with me on the walls of my house. I’m constantly, even on a subliminal level, being influenced by them.
And I’ve drawn from some of them on a technical level—I noticed very early on that Cartier- Bresson always printed full negatives. There is always the negative line. So, that was the decision I made at some point—that I wouldn’t crop, that I wouldn’t adjust the negative in any way, that this was just what it was. Or, Koudelka with his
very high contrast, grainy prints—I loved that as well. So that’s another thing I adopted, but the eye you can’t copy. It was Robert Frank who said, “The impulse to take a photo is an emotional reaction,” and I think that’s really what it is—you see something and you’re drawn to it. Your camera comes up; you focus and you try to capture that image somehow. I do think it’s emotional, and the photographs that I have collected, and the ones that I most appreciate, move me somehow. It’s not about composition and it’s not about abstraction. It’s about a moment.
When Mary Ellen Mark wrote about your work she theorized it more along the lines of documentary, and it’s interesting that the people you’re citing are largely associated with documentary photography.
Yeah, more or less, although I wouldn’t say that except for a few, say, Koudelka’s work with the Gypsies, or Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang (1959)—that are unified pieces. Otherwise, I think with Cartier-Bresson or Bravo, it’s just observation, really—photographing what’s in front of you—not necessarily approaching it as a documentarian. They’re not trying to explain something. They’re not trying to represent something. It’s an experience more than anything. The only real documentary that holds together as a piece from my work is the Mayan Festival that I shot in the Chiapas. For those photographs, I did go down for two weeks, shot that every day for five, six days, and tried to represent it, that particular kind of ritual, fiesta. But otherwise I don’t work that way.
There is a Siegfried Kracauer quote, “In a photograph a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow.” I’m thinking about the layering in your photographs, the materiality of the prints, so maybe the larger question is: where are you in this snow of the photograph?
I’m reminded of the photographer Brigitte Lacombe, who has photographed me many times over the years. When I first started taking pictures, I asked her if she’d come look at them because I wasn’t working as a photographer or anything. I remember her looking through them and she stopped at one point and said, “Why are you still so lonely?”
Well, that’s what she’s sees in them. Yeah, this kind of loneliness, and I thought, well that’s probably right. So, maybe that’s what is under the snow—a sense of loneliness.
David Benjamin Sherry is the reason I became an art critic. Until I discovered Sherry’s work and the conversation surrounding it, I considered myself a historian and nothing else. However, when a prominent art critic (someone I admire very much) wrote a critical review of Sherry’s last show in New York, I felt the need to respond. I thought to myself, there is something about this that people just don’t understand. Sherry isn’t just creating pretty landscapes, and his adherence to analogue printing techniques is not a gimmick.
As a gay man who had only recently come out, there was something about his photographs that provided a vision of a community I never had, and I wanted to figure out why. So, I secretly slipped in a quote—without a credit or indication of the source or even quotation marks, simply dropped into the last sentence—from my colleague’s unenthusiastic review into my own piece in Artforum. I have never told anyone this, because my editors would never let me do such a thing, but I finally believe that I should come clean.
Alex Prager is difficult to place, which has, I think, scared off many critics and historians. She has worked with celebrities like Elizabeth Banks and has created glamorous fashion editorials, which, I would suggest, are the roots of a sexist discomfort around her photography and film. As with Marilyn Minter and Laurie Simmons, the charge has frequently been levied against her (in subtle and overt ways alike) that her work is too slick, too staged, too pretty. I’ll translate this for you: too feminine, too anti-conceptual, too fashion, too LA for New York and too New York for LA. This is still the case in 2016, and somehow people forget that she was a critic at Yale and has influenced a generation of photographers my age. Moreover, as a result of these sexisms, Prager has always been associated more forcefully with film than photography, since the former, as a result of melodrama and film noir, has at least some precedent for the establishment and appreciation of a limiting écriture feminine.
This laundry list is not meant to sound defeatist; it is rather to illustrate the backdrop against which Prager nevertheless continues to excel. In La Grande Sortie, on view at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Prager premieres a film about the post-pregnancy return of prima ballerina Émilie Cozette. The film contains Prager’s trademark shots of excited, lazy, napping, beautiful, comical, humdrum audiences alongside Cozette’s hyper-real and deadly serious performance. It is not a scary film, as some have claimed. Instead, I found myself nearly moved to tears. It’s an exercise in the dramatization of self-loathing. Fear suggests a remove, that something out there is frightening, but there is nothing more powerful than interiorized hatred. That you can’t run away from.
But I have to pull myself out of this hackneyed soliloquy. I wanted initially to see La Grande Sortie along the lines of David Lynch’s Inland Empire or Lars von Trier’s Melancholia orNymphomaniac, but Prager insists that we see her as a photographer, and I have decided to take her lead. The main gallery room is filled with stills from the production of the film, but they stand on their own. The velvet frames create a sense of separation from any narrative, and I began to realize that Lynch and von Trier are not the way to go, but rather Julia Margaret Cameron, William Eggleston (Prager’s inspiration for becoming a photographer), Laurie Simmons (who also credits Eggleston for her deciding to shoot in color), Stephen Shore, Gregory Crewdson, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.
Above all, her true counterpart is Hiroshi Sugimoto. While Sugimoto shows us time-lapsed photographs of the movie screen, which fades to a glowing white, Prager reveals the opposite – she documents, with intense precision, the audience who might be watching the films Sugimoto chooses to photograph. She thus makes literal the divide not only between the audience and the film, but also, more generally, between the spectator and the image – a site where bodies cannot linger. As Roland Barthes notes in Camera Lucida, “My desire to write on Photography corresponded to a discomfort I had always suffered from the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical…” Prager can do it all – she can make you cry and then direct you toward the history of art. She can move effortlessly between the academic and the affective.
Joan Semmel is an icon of feminist art alongside Judy Chicago, Marilyn Minter, and the Guerrilla Girls, but she (like her activist colleagues) is foremost a virtuosic painter. Her nude self-portraits celebrate not only the unedited female body, but also Semmel’s painterly acumen and nuanced historical awareness. In this way, we might compare Semmel’s work to the stunning nudes of the Impressionists, but in the same breath, also see her concern for color and composition to be reminiscent of Agnes Martin’s lyrical minimalist works. Semmel provides an opportunity to think about the paint, the canvas, and the brush—the building blocks of activist work—instead of just relying on a cursory look at her chosen content. Semmel is currently exhibiting new work at Alexander Gray Associates in New York. Her work is also included in “Coming to Power” at Maccarone Gallery, New York.