peripheral vision

photography by Kate Wilhelm

peripheral vision blog

because making photographs exposes as much about the photographer as the subject

is this thing on?

April 5th, 2014

Ever since Christmas I’ve been pretty deep in hibernation mode. It was a very busy fall, with me working full-time, teaching a 12-week workshop, working on a new project and applying for grants for it. So when I slowed down for various winter storms around Christmas, I needed the rest. Three months later, and nothing has progressed on my photography, although I’ve been reading and dreaming and also learning to sew. (I’ve also binge-watched two and a half seasons of Once Upon a Time and five seasons of Gossip Girl and I read pretty much the entire 9-year archive of a popular crafting/homesteading/mama blogger.) A few weeks ago, my husband got a full-time job in another town so we scrambled to get childcare while I also kept working full-time. I was planning to quit, but a few days before my last day, my husband got another job offer, which felt riskier and also amazing if it works out. So he switched to that role last week, which has been absolutely crazy, and I decided to stay in my current day job at least until we have a better sense of how things unfold. My head is kind of spinning.

Last week, I also received two rejections for the grant applications I made in December. Rejections are part of this gig — a big part — and I’m mostly resigned to the fact that not everyone’s going to love my work. Probably not even most people. But what’s really hard about these grant rejections is the total silence on why you didn’t get it. Was it the quality of my idea? My budget plan? Or the quality of my past work? It’s so hard to figure out how to improve your next grant application, and for me, that’s always something that pulls me through the grief of rejections: working on improving for next time. But it’s all so much guess work.

The project I was working on last fall involves women farmers. But it hasn’t been going well. I had a lightbulb moment during my last visit in December, when I realized that what I need to do is get comfortable enough with the people to ask them to stop what they’re doing so I can make a good photograph. I tried to fight it, mostly because I feel really uncomfortable about slowing down people’s work, especially when I’m already uncomfortable because I’m standing around watching and not helping. But I think this is what I need to do if I’m going to proceed with the project.

That’s the big question though. Does it make sense to struggle on with a photography project about women farmers when what I really want to do is to learn how to become a woman farmer myself? I’ve been pondering this over the last couple months, and of course I couldn’t blog about it, because I knew those grant applications were out there. But do I really want to carry on with this project? And if not this, then what?

Of course, there is work I need to do. I need to finish my derby girls project. I’ve been struggling with that too, unable to figure out how I want to integrate all the various parts and without a mentor. I have some very exciting news I’ve been sitting on for months related to the derby girls project, but given that this post appears to be about feeling torn between interests and feeling rather stuck about photography in particular, I’ll save it for another time when I can give it the celebration it deserves.

In the meantime, if anyone out there believes in my work and fancies mentoring me, please drop me a line.

Happy holidays!

December 25th, 2013

the problem with Vivian Maier

December 24th, 2013

Nothing like a wee feminist rant to start out Christmas Eve Day. If I were cleverer, I’d make a little ditty to the tune of the “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” but I am not. So instead you get this post.

It starts with this tweet.

tweet_maier copy

I was keen to read an analysis of “the hidden history of women’s photography,” because I’ve been interested in the subject for a long time. Not only was I disappointed, but it’s possible that I ranted a bit loudly at my husband about it.

I mostly skimmed through the article, eager to find the meat about the hidden history of women’s photography. I had to skim all the way to the final paragraph and then it was just a mention.

“In Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits, Vivian Maier finally finds her audience, but one that can’t tarnish the purity of her work. In that work lies the hidden history of women’s art—expression for expression’s sake, despite all the odds. How many other Vivian Maiers remain out there, waiting to be found? How many more will never be found? As Vivian Maier’s self-portraits prove, the loss is not theirs, but ours.”

On the one hand, I get what the author is saying: part of the fascination with her work is precisely because she spent her whole life making it, and the very fact that much of it was never even developed shows that she never planned to show it to anyone. It would seem that she really made pictures purely for the sake of it.

But I have to say, I’m a bit troubled by a few things about Vivian Maier, the main one being that a bunch of white guys are making money off her work when she never made a dime from it. A huge chunk of her work was never printed in her lifetime, likely because she didn’t have the time or money for the printing or for the storage of the prints. Her main collector, John Maloof, found her work after it was auctioned because she couldn’t pay the rent on her storage.

This narrative (or should I say myth?) of the starving artist only getting recognition posthumously, is not new. Van Gogh’s probably the most famous victim of it. But in Maier’s case it’s problematized by a few things. I find it particularly interesting that her livelihood was nannying – a hugely important job that remains undervalued thanks to systemic sexism. Where Van Gogh’s brother was an art dealer with access to audiences (and new thinking seems to be that he was well admired by people who knew his work during his lifetime), Maier was effectively a servant for upper-class families. Even if she had access to someone like that, what is the likelihood that they would pay attention to the artistic intentions of a female servant?

The article says that her work has found its audience but “one that can’t tarnish the purity of her work.” Since when does an audience tarnish the purity of an artist’s work? There are plenty of working (male) artists with big audiences who don’t seem to mind their impurity. In an article that also mentions the fact that Maier never married (she remained ‘pure’ to her art?), I can’t help but read “virgin” into its praise of her pure vision. No doubt someone will complain that I’m reading too much into the statement, but it smacks of the same sort of virgin-whore thinking that for so long has pervaded ideas of women’s sexuality.

And the fact that other women artists may remain undiscovered like Maier being our loss and not theirs? I beg to differ. The woman died in poverty, unable to pay for the storage of her life’s work! That’s a huge loss for her! That’s a horrible loss that we should be striving to prevent from ever happening again. Shame on the author for not, at the very least, linking to the Guerrilla Girls, who have been working for decades to raise awareness of the erasure of women’s art from the canon.

The article pays lip service to “the restrictions imposed on [women]” making art, but does a major disservice by ignoring the systemic barriers to women gaining recognition for that art in the art world. As I’ve blogged about before (links in the second paragraph of this post), women have been involved in significant ways in every major photography movement. But if you look to The History of Photography, say, to see a whole picture of that history, (which would be reasonable given its title isn’t “The History of Men’s Photography,”) you will see virtually no women.

The “hidden history of women’s photography” is not “expression for expression’s sake” because of course women could never tarnish their reputations by seeking An Audience. The hidden history is an explicit erasure.

I don’t mean to suggest that the author of the article supports such an erasure, certainly not consciously. But the lack of depth in exploring “the hidden history of women’s photography” shows just the kind of thoughtlessness that allows the status quo to remain.

 

a new project

October 26th, 2013

It’s funny the images that become emblematic of a project. I couldn’t plan them but when I see them, I know them.

I think of Inna’Goddess Da-Vida at her piano with her Dread This helmet, Goddess shirt and Shock Me underwear.

I think of the man on the bench in Woodstock, Cape Town, in front of the graffiti: Where will I spend my happy days? which became the title of the series.

And now this. I could probably do a better job on the photo, and maybe I will later, if the chalk remains (it’s already been up for months), and it likely doesn’t contain the future title of the project, but it has that same emblematic feeling.

newproject-9471

WARNING: THIS BARN CONTAINS

* Some cows that can beat you till you beg for mercy
* Horses that are gigantic
* A dog that looks like a polar bear
* A woman who is probably stronger than any other gals you’ve seen.

My new project is still so deep in its infancy it’s squalling and sensitive to bright lights and cold drafts, so that’s all I’ll say for now, and likely for a long time… this one is proving a lot harder to sort out my process on than Yes these bones shall live was in its early days.

blogging the chickens

October 20th, 2013

After too long building a coop, they arrived last week.

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I actually took 400 photos of them today when we let them run free around the yard.

art 21

August 26th, 2013

I just discovered dvd’s of art 21 at my public library for the first three seasons of the show. I started watching season one tonight, and the first section looks at artists concerned with place. Sally Mann is one of the artist’s in this section. If the section is concerned with place, why did they open her sequence with her son talking about what kind of mother she was (lacking)? Granted, she may be most well-known for her photographs of her children, and it is certainly interesting to hear their experiences in front of her lens, but the discussion was meant to be focused on the element of place in work. Not her motherhood.

I can’t help but think that it’s because a mother must, above all else, be a Good Mother. She must be selfless and passive and kind and nurturing and she must never ever place her own needs — for self-expression or anything else — above her children’s. A father can be an artist, and his fatherhood — whether a critique of his quality of fathering or an analysis of his experience — is barely a topic of conversation. But a mother artist must first be a perfect mother before she makes art.

I will be interested to see if the series covers any other artist parents and how the subject is treated. And whether it is treated differently for mothers than for fathers.

Beyond the Single Image

August 8th, 2013

I’m teaching another workshop this fall: Beyond the Single Image. I suppose it’s more of a course, really, since it goes over 12 weeks. I confess I did find teaching the June workshop exhausting with a full-time job and nursing toddler, and it was exhausting for my husband. At the time I decided I wouldn’t teach another. But when I reflected on the value of being able to design my own workshop and teach it, I just couldn’t resist. Also, I just really, really enjoyed myself. It feels so good to share something you’ve spent years studying passionately with other interested people. And so, this fall, I’m going to teach again.

From the blurb:

These days, almost anyone can make one great photo. The technical aspect of making a photo is not complicated. The real skill lies in making a collection of powerful images that is greater than the sum of its parts. Working on a personal project also helps you gain insight into what motivates you photographically, discover the photographs that only you can make and avoid wasting your time on the photographs that everyone makes.

In this intensive class over 12 weeks, you will work on a photographic project with the goal of having a complete body of work at the end. You will learn about different ways of working, as well as starting, ending and editing (as in selecting and sequencing, not post-processing) a photography project.

It will kick off with a full-day session that includes a lecture, viewing a portfolio of your 10 best images, and defining or assigning your project. Then we’ll have three group critique sessions, one every two weeks to give you time to shoot new work, and then a dedicated session on editing. We’ll wrap up the class with a slide show of your projects and a big celebration. Throughout the entire 12 weeks, Kate will be available for email and phone conversations to help you through periods of self-doubt and uncertainty, which are a natural part of the process.

The more you put into this class, the more you’ll get out of it. You will be expected to come to each critique with new work (even if it’s just a few images or an experience). Plan to spend at least two to five hours between classes connecting with your subjects, shooting, reading and reflecting.

If you’re in the area, please consider joining us. I’m super excited about this course. It’s labelled as an intermediate course but I’m sure advanced photographers could benefit from the structure and community to develop a project. There’s an early bird discount for just two more days and, depending on enrollment, a scholarship may be offered. More details are here.

Orange is the New Black

July 26th, 2013

I’ve been watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. It’s a Netflix original, meaning it was produced by Netflix itself rather than a network, a model I’m rather intrigued by. I’ve only got one a half more episodes to go, and I’m at the point where I’m watching a bit more slowly to make it last and waking up with the theme song in my head.

It’s about a young blonde woman who goes to prison for a crime she committee 10 years ago, apparently while under the influence of her then-girlfriend. But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is how many fascinating women are in prison with her, and we get to know many of them through flashbacks.

I may not be in the best position to say, not having cable, but I think these are the most complex women on tv at the moment. Which is great. But they’re also completely disempowered and marginalized – literally outside normal society. Men in the show are almost exclusively jerks who primarily view women as objects for their desire. Even the most sympathetic male characters show this predilection. The main character’s fiancé writes a column about his experience of her incarceration and, somewhat privately, she protests, “I’m not just a girlfriend.” One of the first things he says to her on his first visit is how nice her cheekbones look. Of course, she’s being starved out by the matriarch cook because she insulted her food.

All the time, however, we are reminded, implicitly through the flashbacks, and explicitly through Piper’s arguments, that inmates are people too.  And most of the time the circumstances for their crimes involve abuse, neglect, and/or poverty. It is heavy-handed and obvious at times, and there’s a whole lotta raunch. But, as this post pointed out, it’s telling stories that aren’t often, if at all, told in popular culture. I’m hoping for a second season.

new derby work!

July 4th, 2013

When Critical Mass opened for entries this year, I realized that I had no new work to submit. The last shoot I did was last October, and the one before that was July 2012.

So I panicked and booked a bunch of shoots, with no real plan of how my family and I would actually manage it all with my full-time job. I did four of them in just over 24 hours. That was an exhausting day for us all, and we’re still recovering. I think this effort may match my total work produced in all of 2012. I’m done for at least a little while now.

I still don’t know if I’ll submit to Critical Mass, because I’m not sure it really makes sense to submit the same body of work (although different photos within it) three years in a row. I think a lot of the jurors judge year over year, and it seems a legitimate risk that they might be sick of the work. I don’t know. I’ve got a few more days to decide.

In the meantime, here are my best offerings from the shoots.

Sofanda Beatin'-8141
Sofanda Beatin’

Bitter Pill-8002
Bitter Pill with Trixie, Ruth and Ursula

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Teargas Tamara in her new Room of Her Own

Extermi-Knitter-7939
Extermi-Knitter

Miss Universe-8086
Miss Universe

Krunch-Bone Kitty-8105
Krunch Bone Kitty, 10 days overdue, and James

The Manor

June 11th, 2013

For those of you who don’t live in Guelph, the Manor is a beautiful, Victorian mansion with an attached low-rise motel on the edge of town. If you follow the signs for downtown Guelph from the 401 to Highway 6 North, it’s the first thing you see of the city as you exit Highway 6 onto Wellington Road. It was built by the Sleeman family, of Sleeman Brewery fame, and the brewery was once across the street from it.

The Manor is a strip club, owned and run by the Cohen family for the last thirty years.

Shawney Cohen, one of the sons, has produced a remarkable, feature-length, documentary film about his family and the club. I was primed to love it: not only do I enjoy the genre (it’s a lot like the Queen of Versailles, which I just watched a couple weeks before), but I am just so impressed that a local person created a feature-length film that was screened at HotDocs in Toronto, to positive critical reviews, and for the last week in Guelph at the Bookshelf, a local book store, restaurant and cinema that just celebrated its 40th birthday. I got the chance to watch it last weekend. I think that may be the first time I’ve watched a movie by myself in a cinema, and what a luxury.

The film is unflinching in its view of Cohen’s family and the motley characters that surround it. His dad, Roger, is morbidly obese , and has moments when he’s kind of a jerk, along with moments of tremendous vulnerability. His mom is severely anorexic and makes for a big part of the film. His brother loves the money and the lifestyle working at the club affords. To me, it’s Bobby, a Quebecois man Roger took in 25 years earlier, I think after he got arrested for robbing a Brinks truck, who steals the show. But maybe that’s just because he volunteered at the Drop In Centre at the same time as I did for at least several months. I was intensely curious about him, even then, but too shy to ask about his story. His story comes out through the film in a series of poignant and humorous moments that I find so well done.

I also loved the scene when Shawney’s new girlfriend, an artist from Toronto, comes to visit. The meeting with Roger is so awkward, with her trying to make small talk about living in Toronto and it just fizzles. Then a naked dancer comes in to give something to Roger and squeezes between Shawney and his girlfriend. Could there be a more awkward first meeting with your boyfriend’s dad? I can’t imagine one. While I’m on the subject, Cohen’s handling of the dancers in the film was brilliant: they’re there and they’re often naked, which makes sense given the nature of the family business, but they’re always shown with a slightly ironic eye and not titillating at all. (Mind you, I’m not usually titillated by naked ladies, so perhaps I’m not the best one to say.)

I have only one real criticism of the film: whenever Roger eats, the sound is turned up so high you hear every squelch and crunch. It’s getting dangerously close to fat hating and mockery for my taste, and seems out of line with Cohen’s sensitive approach throughout the rest of the film. In one scene, the motel’s manager has just been taken to hospital in an ambulance, for a suspected suicide attempt by overdose, and Roger is already moving all her belongings into storage. Shawney protests, “It’s just an insensitive thing to do. She’s at her lowest point and it’s just insensitive to move her stuff so soon.” It’s clear that he applied that same sensitivity to his filmmaking.

As the lights came up in the theatre, the word that repeated itself in my mind was pathos. In a family that could easily come off as sleazy and exploitative, instead they are shown to be wrestling their own demons and wounds, often without much success. And of course, I got to find out about a place I’ve been curious about for ages. That said, this film is likely not for all. The person ahead of me immediately proclaimed: “Well there’s an hour and a half I’ll never get back.“

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