peripheral vision

photography by Kate Wilhelm

peripheral vision blog

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

Archive for the ‘stuff I like’ Category

The Manor

Tuesday, 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.“

practical changes and big dreams

Monday, May 20th, 2013

One of the first people I met through the local homeschool group was Wendy McDonnell, who hosts Family Matters, a weekly radio show on the local university station. Given that we’ve been on homeschool hours, I haven’t always woken up on time to listen to the whole show, which starts at 8 am on Sundays. The last few weeks I’ve almost grumbled that I woke up too late to even hear any of it, but I quickly shushed the grumbles since it meant I got to sleep in – still a luxury with my youngest.

But a change is coming in our lives. My husband and I are trading places starting on Tuesday. He lost his job, along with about 25 percent of his colleagues, a few weeks ago. With only four weeks’ severance, the pressure was on us to figure something out sooner than later. When I was searching around for freelance opportunities, I came upon a recent posting for my old job. I took a few days to think about it, and the more I thought about our options, the sweeter this one seemed. I know the job, I know a good chunk of the people, and it’s only a 20-minute walk or 5-minute bike ride from my house. With my husband staying home, I no longer have to fit drop-offs and pick-ups into my schedule. I’ll be able to enjoy the walk or bike ride in solitude. We won’t need the second car, which was always more expensive than predicted and about which I’ve always been ambivalent. My working will take the pressure of my husband’s job search, so he can find the right role and circumstances for him. It could even move some of my dreams forward.

So I’ve been practicing waking up earlier, and yesterday morning I was up early enough to hear all of Wendy’s show. And what serendipity! She interviewed Alex Baisley, a local person I’d never heard of before, who helps people connect with and work towards their dreams.

I have two big concerns about going back to work (one of them is not relevant here and is totally irrational anyways). The second concern is that I will need to stop pursuing my passions outside of work. Photography has largely taken a back seat in recent months, but I still want to finish my derby project and start another one. And I want to keep learning about sustainable food production and growing my own food and cooking nourishing meals. I had pretty much come to the conclusion just last night that maybe I need to choose between food and photography, and how much does that suck?

Anyways, yesterday morning’s show with Alex Baisley. It turns out it was actually a rerun from 2010 but that doesn’t lessen the serendipitous feeling for me. (I’m paraphrasing based on my memory, so I apologize for any inaccuracies or misrepresentations.) Baisley said that people often see dreams as a luxury (I know I do! And it makes me feel guilty about pursuing them) but he doesn’t see it that way. He says dreams are our way of growing and of being and doing more than we might have thought possible. He points to trees. It seems that the point of their existence is to grow as much as they can with the resources available to them before they die. Why would people be any different?

He talked about how he often has people write a list of 50 big dreams. And how they start out thinking that would be impossible but they manage it just fine. And then he has them pick just one and do five-minute actions to move towards it. It could just be Internet research (one of my own favourite obsessive tendencies). It could be a conversation with someone. It doesn’t have to be big at all. But he said that as you get further in your research and conversations, the dream seems more and more possible. As well, you may discover that four or five other dreams get taken care of in the process of chasing the first one. He pointed out that your dreams aren’t in conflict with one another because they all come from the same heart (yours), and maybe you just can’t see how they’re connected yet.

He also said that it’s important to talk about your dreams with other people. You can be self-deprecating and talk about what a crazy idea it is so you don’t sound obnoxious, and good things may come from the conversations. If you want to run a half-marathon, for example, you could find yourself talking to an experienced marathoner who gives you hot tips for training regimes or specific races. Some people may try to downgrade your dreams but you need the big dreams to get you off the couch. Running a 5k might be more doable than a half-marathon but it’s not exciting enough to get you training. And you’ll likely do a 5k on the way to the half-marathon anyways. It’s important to do things that you find at least a little bit exciting and a little bit scary.

The show gave me hope that I can find a way forward without giving up my other dreams and passions. In fact, I can imagine a future in which my husband and I say that his losing his job was the best thing to happen to us. I’ve learned so much about myself in the last two years, and I’m looking forward to applying that learning to my work life.

Do yourself a favour. Settle in with a cup of tea of glass of wine and listen to the whole podcast. I was rapt.

And if you’re local, don’t forget about my upcoming photography workshop. It’s one of my dreams to teach at least one workshop (preferably more), and the thought both thrills and terrifies me. I’d love to have enough people sign up to actually run it.

Get thee to the Mac-Stew

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

Today I took my kids to the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre to see Janet Morton’s 20-year retrospective, The Ravelled Sleeve. I confess, I had never heard of her before I found out about the exhibition. This seems insane to me, since she lives here in my very own town, and her work (now that I’ve seen it) thrills me. My six-year-old was equally rapt throughout the exhibition. We watched one of her videos, Strange Music, all the way from start to finish without a pause, and we both agreed that it was our favourite piece of the whole show. We were spellbound.

Shiny Heart (promo image) - WEB

What I loved about that video in particular was that it was so compelling, I enjoyed just experiencing it. Normally at galleries, my mind is in a rush. I buzz from piece to piece, deciding quickly whether I like it or not and moving on. If I’m good, I will be sure to take long enough to find one reason for my opinion. But with this video, I just watched and listened (the tuba music was absolutely lovely) as the tuba player played and the gray yarn knitted up the tuba. Every once in a while the yarn would move under the player’s hand, and I felt a moment of mild tension, wondering if it would get tangled or pause the music (it didn’t). Sometimes the camera zoomed in on the player’s hand, fingering the valves, or other details.

As I watched and listened, different thoughts and details came into my mind. I noticed the player’s breath, and how the sound of it didn’t sync with the movement in the video. And I thought about intimacy, how intimate it is to hear someone’s breath and to notice the faint marks on the backs of their hands. I thought about the person behind the video camera, and wondered if she felt uncomfortable with that intimacy. (I assume the artist was the one unravelling the yarn?) I noticed the visual rhythm of the yarn’s backward unravelling and enjoyed how it met the song’s rhythm.I thought about what mad knitting skills Morton must have, to have figured out how to knit around the tuba’s winding details, about how long it must have taken, and what it must be like to spend that much time making something only to unravel it. I thought about the impermanence of life and art.

I say that’s my favourite piece, but I loved them all. This one, “Cozy,” was a close second. It really does feel cozy, and it reminds me of that amazing workshop with Alec Soth.


I felt like the whole show was about impermanence and vulnerability, but maybe that’s just because of my tornado thing and the fact that two of her pieces had funnel shapes. It was just all so brilliant. If you’re in the area, do yourself a favour and see this show before it closes Nov. 11.



Monday, August 27th, 2012

I have adored Jen Davis’s work ever since I first saw it a few years ago. I love it for so many reasons. She’s one of the few self-portraitists whose body is not slender. Her photographs are complicated. They engage with the experience of having a body that becomes almost public property in the way that our fat-hating culture loads so much bullshit on it. People see a fat body and easily leap to ideas, assumptions and judgments about the person, the whole life inside. Many people have written smarter words about this than I can at the moment, so I will quote liberally from them.

First, a note on my use of the word fat. “[T]he word ‘fat’ is usually a put down. Fat, when used as an adjective describing a person, has become synonymous with some really negative words like-lazy, ugly, smelly, stupid and disorganized. It is often assumed that fat people have no will power or have ‘let themselves go’, it even prejudices some people on the quality of a persons parenting or work ethic depending on their size. But the big one is health. If you are fat you are automatically unhealthy and any or all health issues are directly related to your weight, which is not always the case.”

(from Free Range in Suburbia)

I am using the word fat as a neutral adjective, without the value judgments that can often be associated with it. I want to reclaim the word fat so it doesn’t carry all that other bullshit with it.

“There is nothing I can do, as a person with a fat body, that is deemed acceptable by my society except not have a fat body. Actively trying to not have a fat body while loathing my fat body and policing other fat bodies and agreeing yes I am disgusting no of course I am not working hard enough yes I’m lazy no you don’t have to like me yes hate me hate me more I’m sorry I’m sorry I’ll diet more and more and more eat less and less and less — this is the one thing approved of. It’s the one thing I’m allowed to do. And it’s still not enough, never enough, because then I am pathologized for hating myself (because they demanded it) for focusing too much on food (because they demanded it) for still, despite all that STILL, existing as a fat body.”

“My not dieting is pathologized by a culture that says fat = unhealthy. My not having dieted is pathologized. My having accidentally lost weight is pathologized. If I admit to “less than perfect” eating, now or in the past, I am pathologized. If I talk about eating “well”, in a way that doesn’t endorse restricted eating, if I hold up having a healthy, loving relationship with food as my ideal instead of weight loss, I am pathologized. If I say I eat healthfully, I am called a liar. If I reject the paradigm of “healthy” food, I am called delusional and in denial.”

(from Feeding my Boychick)

“In our society as it is today, fat people are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.  If a person is caught eating in public (going to a restaurant, even a nice one and not the stereotypical fast food restaurant), many people think they have the right to comment on what the fat person is eating.  If the fatty is having something high in calories or carbs or whatever-the-latest-diet-baddy-is-today, the person feels justified in telling them how to eat better.  ”Are you really sure you should be eating that?”  I’ve heard that all too often.

“However, even if the fatty is being a Good Fatty (TM), and only eating a salad (with low cal/low fat/low taste dressing on the side!), they are still subject to revilement.  ”That’s not going to help you!” and “If you ate that way all the time you wouldn’t be as fat as you are!” are said to fatties who dare to eat in public.

“It is commonly assumed that all fat people are lazy and never, ever, EVER exercise.  After all, it’s evident because they are so fat!  When a fat person DOES try to exercise in public, they shamed by hearing cat calls.  They are told they are deluding themselves because if they really did exercise they wouldn’t be that fat.  They are told they should never attempt that exercise until they lose weight.

“It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t world, if you happen to be fat.

“[...] To get get rid of my fat body, you have got to get rid of me.

Almost everything that is being aimed at fat people is being aimed at getting rid of them, of us. ‘I don’t want to see you, you are gross, disgusting, a slob, stupid, lazy!  I don’t want to know you even exist!  Get out of my sight.  Preferably, go eat a gun!’”

(from A Day in the (Fat) Life) (The horrible sentences in her last paragraph have actually been said to the author.)

And in case you think that the concern with fatness is really about health, here’s just one study to contradict that idea.

* * *

Jen Davis’s photos subvert some of that bullshit, and they resist the typical weight-loss narrative we see everywhere. In her photos, you can’t NOT look at her. There is great ambivalence in the photos, for sure. She’s not always comfortable being looked at, I think, but I don’t see misery. When I see emotional discomfort in the photos, it’s often a result of the outside world pushing in on Davis, or its potential to (it’s the too-tight jeans that are the problem, the people looking at her and maybe thinking some of the thoughts I’ve quoted above, not Davis’s body. Or at least that’s how I see the photos.

The Oprah magazine just did a story on her that makes me very sad. And I don’t know how to write about it without disrespecting Davis’s right to live her life however she damn well chooses, without finding myself among all the shitty and supposedly well-intentioned commenters on fat bodies. But I still feel deeply sad that we live in a world that is so fucked up, it makes sense, after a lifetime of pain and isolation, to ask someone to cut into your contentious body and tie up a part of it — with no less than a 40 to 50 percent chance of failure — in an effort to make it less contentious. Davis made herself vulnerable in doing the story, and I don’t want to shit on that or her in any way.

What bothers me the most is that the Oprah story just reduces Jen Davis and her wonderful, complicated self-portraits to parts in yet another weight-loss narrative, where the person loses weight and lives happily ever. Now the photos are relegated to the role of evidence of that time she used to be fat and unhappy, a time on which the door is now closed because she has lost weight and become happy and confident. Of course, it’s just Oprah, and of course they would do a story like that, a story that just trots out all the usual narratives we have for women. This is why I avoid those dumb-ass magazines. But I still just feel so sad about this whole state of affairs. (I wonder if every blog post I write now will be about how fucked up this world is.)

The story begins with a description of Davis’s physical appearance, reinforcing the idea that the only way a woman can realize her true potential or selfhood or whatever is through physical beauty (She “has the kind of straight blonde hair the rest of us have to fake.” Imagine if women could find a way to just love ourselves as we are; what would the Oprah Empire do then?). The discussion of her accomplishments — exhibitions in France, Spain and Italy; the New York freakin’ Times featuring her work; awards, grants, residencies and invitations to give lectures about her work — merits only one small paragraph on the second page of the article. No, what really matters is her appearance and the age-old story of The Ugly Duckling. What really matters is romantic love, as the story is book-ended with quotes from Davis about how she wants a romantic partner and she’s 34 and has never had a boyfriend (you know, the Never Been Kissed story, except that in Davis’s case she’s not exactly virginal – there is tremendous sexuality in some of her self-portraits and especially her webcam series). (Don’t get me wrong, romantic love is great and important and I think she more than deserves to experience that. But the Oprah story makes it sound like the problem was always centred in Davis’s body, not our fat-hating world and the wounds it inflicts.)

I feel like this article has reduced a full, rich, complex human life to a trope. I don’t know Davis personally at all, and this is the first interview with her I’ve read. But I wish I could give her a big hug. I would tell her that she is beautiful and awesome now, but she has also been beautiful and awesome all along and she will remain beautiful and awesome for the rest of the her life, regardless of her body’s shape.

Do yourself a favour and look at all the her beautiful work on her website.

Bill Hunt

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

For the last couple of years I’ve been entering competitions and juried exhibitions madly. But this year I’ve kind of stopped. It gets expensive fast, and I’m trying to live economically (yes, Canada has paid maternity leave but the legal amount is only 55 percent of your income to a maximum of about $400 a week). Not only the entry fees but the printing and framing and shipping. And of course, my time is short these days. Anyways… the other day I discovered one that I’m seriously considering. The juror is a renowned curator/collector/author but more than that he clearly took a lot of time to write about what he’s looking for. It makes him seem so human and approachable and passionate that I really want to try and please him. I want to see if it might be my work that “rings his chimes.” (Yep, I’m nothing if not ambitious… perhaps dreamer is a better word.)

And then today I saw this video

and this one

I love his advice for collectors. It seems to me that it’s good advice for photographers:

“When you look at the photograph you want it to push back at you.”

“The best part of the education is not only looking… but reacting and having a sense of how stuff plays on you.” “The best thing you can do is make yourself available to the experience. Do you like it? Listen to it. What are you responding to? It doesn’t have to make any rational sense but what’s doing it for you? … You can get a sense of what your taste is. … When you have an eye you walk into a situation and you go, ‘that one.’ … “It’s experience and instinct and the ability to hear yourself.”

more Critical Mass Top 20

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

It’s been forever since I posted here, I know. We’ve been buried in illness since Christmas. We’d get a day or two of beginning to think we’re better and then it would start all over again. But I’m hoping there may actually be light ahead. Fingers crossed.

I haven’t forgotten about my Critical Mass Top 20 that I started months ago. In fact, some of my favourites are still to come. I was going to throw up a photo or two of my own, but then I decided to challenge myself to get closer to finishing that damn list. I think I won’t do this again. But I committed, and I’d like to finish.

First up, Ronit Citri’s Plan View of an Inner Life. I was almost just going to click past it, but this image stopped me in my tracks.

Citri is an architect in her other life, where she uses plan views to show what a space looks like from above.

The photos at first seem cold and distant but as you look, they suddenly become honest and raw. The inner states I imagine her experiencing may or may not be what she actually experienced. But I like that. I don’t need to know if what I’m imagining i ‘true.’ What first looks like emptiness becomes space for me to insert myself and imagine those are my own feet, and it’s me contemplating the distance to the cat or the baby or the cold tub.

I adore Bob Carey’s self-portraits wearing nothing but a pink tutu. I love them all so much, I want to post all ten images that he submitted to Critical Mass here and not choose three. So I’ll choose five. Unfortunately I can’t seem to get a better size here, but if you go look at them larger on his website (choose Personal from the menu), you can revel in the details.






At first glance, it’s tempting to write the series off as a sort of practical joke, documented in photographs. But when I look at them, I think about gender and conformity, about trying to fit into a world where you simply don’t fit. Of course it’s entirely possible that if you showed me an orange or a plate, I’d think about gender and conformity just because that’s big lens through which I view the world.

Carey’s submitted statement talks about different ideas. He does mention moving from Phoenix, Arizona to Brooklyn, New York. But he sees the pink tutu as a way in which he transforms himself into something he’s absolutely not. He sees the series as being about humour, play and introspection. I see that, but I also see more.

In almost all the photographs, visually, the pink tutu stands out from the visual field. I see it as a metaphor for the things about us that just don’t fit. Usually we try to keep those things at least a little bit private but Carey lets himself stand out. And all his imperfect and vulnerable skin is what our nightmares are made of. Look at where’s his naked toes are in the subway image: he’s crossing the yellow line. A man wearing a pink tutu in public is playing a dangerous game. And look at the spectacle he makes at Times Square, arguably the biggest spectacle of the known world itself. People are literally pointing at him and several have their cell phones out to photograph this strange man.

Writing this small amount has take two hours with my kids’ various interruptions. My oldest wants to watch a program on the computer now so I’ll sign off here.

more Critical Mass top 20

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

For some reason I have developed an aversion to black and white photography. I’m kind of prejudiced against it, even though it’s not fair or rational. I think I’ve just seen it employed too much as a way to signal This Is A Very Important Photograph, when it may not be an important photograph at all. I’m sorry, but just shooting with Tri-X film or converting your files to grayscale does not make Very Important Photographs.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered some black and white work on the Critical Mass cd that I’m really taken with.

Kirsten Hoving uses ice and 19th century objects and photographs to represent various constellations in the night sky. I adore the square, and the use of circles echoes the curvature of the earth. I love just contemplating the imperfections of the ice in the photographs. I can’t really imagine the patience (not to mention cold fingers!) required to create this kind of work. I also love Hoving’s colour work (shocking I know) — you can find it on her website in the Obstacles and Roots and Wings portfolios.


Ursa Major and Ursa Minor


I don’t really know how to talk about Jennifer Hudson’s series, Medic. At first view I thought they were showing weird experiments. But somehow I couldn’t be sure. So I went to her artist statement:

“Medic is a sensitive, intricate glimpse into human relationships during times of need and recovery and a complex, heartfelt exploration of sacrificial love. The work began wholly on one sentence whispered by my husband while we were enduring deeply frightening times together. He held my hand, lay close to me and said softly “I just wish I could take the pain from your body, and put it into mine.” I have been fortunate to know incredible love all my life, but at that moment I became suddenly and intensely aware of the magnificent power that exists between people who care for one another. When I was anxious and fighting to fall asleep each night, I began to invent miracle machines; contraptions that heal, deliver hope, legacy, remedy, and redemption. Each image from Medic is a thoughtful invention, strange and tender, revealing facets of the delicate human heart.”

Even with the information from the statement, I find these difficult to read. In this one, I imagine the man is contemplating his mortality, perhaps not entirely peacefully.


And this one just breaks me.

Rachel Phillips submitted a series called A Thousand Words. Each image is inspired by words from a 20th century letter. I find them absolutely stunning to look at, and the phrases she chose are quietly evocative. I want to know what was in the whole letter, but then again maybe I don’t. Taking the phrases out of context may be what creates the magic I find in the images. I couldn’t stick to just three images.

S.S. Song

Still waiting for the perfume

this fast going old World

I slept in the afternoon

Her series called Fieldnotes, of transfers onto vintage envelopes, is also seriously intriguing. If you like it, be sure to watch the video of how she makes the transfers.

Did you notice that all the above photographs are of scenes or objects crafted by the artist? I’m noticing a definite fondness on my part for this kind of work. I’m not sure why this is, but I think I’m becoming disillusioned with traditional documentary photography and photojournalism. So contiuing the theme of work along this line, I’ll move onto some colour practitioners.

Nicole Dextras submitted her series of Weedrobes – garments she created out of plants. Again, I can’t believe the patience and craftsmanship, not to mention urgency (I mean, a dress made out of lilac flowers???), that went into the garments. They are tremendous. On her website, she’s created a sort of comic strip-like presentation for some of the garments, sort of documenting performance pieces. The photography itself isn’t super fantastic, but I can’t resist what’s IN the photographs.



But the work I was most spellbound by is her installation, “Icicle shift.”
You should check out her website but I will tell you [SPOILER ALERT] that the dress blew away before the winter was over.

I couldn’t help but notice a whole lotta photographs of abandoned spaces on the Critical Mass cd. I feel the pull of these kinds of spaces and the signs of life left behind too, but when you see the same kind of image over and over again, it loses its appeal real fast let me tell you. But Alejandra Laviada has a refreshing approach to this subject matter. I’m just going to post most of the statement she submitted, because it’s a fine example of an artist statement: clear, concise, down-to-earth, it provides an entrance to the work without telling me so much that I no longer need to look at it.

“Over the past few years, I have been photographing different spaces that are in the process of being demolished or redeveloped. I use the sites as a temporary studio and photograph my interventions in each space.

For Re-Constructions, I gathered discarded material from the Hotel Bamer and used it to create a series of ephemeral sculptures off-site. The Hotel Bamer was a landmark in Mexico City in the 1950’s and a site I had previously photographed in 2006. It was left abandoned for several years and is now being redeveloped. Throughout this period of time, I have revisited the site several times to photograph various aspects of its decay and transformation.”



I just love to look at them. And study the texture of the wall, the floor, the materials, the shapes they make. Delicious.

David Welch creates totems to make comments about our consumer culture. I like that they make me think about all the stuff in the world, but I also just enjoy their form.




When I showed this work to my husband, he expressed surprise that it was submitted to a photography competition, since it’s really more like sculpture. I see where he’s coming from, and I had the same response myself when I saw Kevin Van Aelst’s work in last year’s Top 50. But if had found these objects as is, that would unquestionably be photography. And it’s unquestionably photography when someone sets up a shot in a studio. To me, this is just a small step further, and it’s still photography, since photography is necessary for sharing such physically local and temporary art.

more of my Critical Mass Top 20

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

I think it’s high time I continued with my favourite 20 photographers from Critical Mass. First up, let’s talk about Susan Worsham. I’ve loved her work for a couple of years now, since she won an award in Blurb’s Photography Book Now competition. She submitted new work to CM, By the Grace of God, which looks promising, but I think she still has some work to do (editing at least for sure – she has 73 images on her site alone in that body of work.). Some Fox Trails in Virginia, her other body of work is just so beautiful… the colours, the light, and all that fruit. (These are images from By the Grace of God.)



I love her work so much that I even made homage to her image, “Fruit.” I was really hoping she would win the CM book award so I would get a book of her work, but sadly the finalists were just announced and she’s not one of them. I’ll say it again: sometimes democracy really sucks. Go look at all her beautiful beautiful pictures. And then you can read this lovely interview with her from last week.

I love the way Beth Lilly plays with our ideas of mental illness, memory, veracity and dreams. She opens with this image.

(You probably can’t read the text at this size, but it says, “My earliest memory is finding my cousin’s birthday presents hidden in a closet. Later, I asked my mom why she’d wrapped them in black paper. She said it had never happened – that it must have been a dream. Maybe, but she has schizophrenia so I’m not sure I can believe her.”

To me, this opens up a whole can of worms about truth and whether we can ever know it or whether photographs can ever show it. The fact that she’s photographed the very thing that may or may not have ever existed tells us we can’t trust anything about her or this project. And I love that. The rest of the series recreates dreams and memories in a super compelling way.




See? It kind of gives me chills. Her Oracle series is equally compelling. She takes phone calls from strangers asking important questions. When the phone rings, she takes three photos very quickly, then finds out the question she just answered. (I hope I have that right.) Check it out.

While I’m on the memory theme, I should probably mention Yelena Zhavoronkova. It was this orange in the blue mesh bag that first caught my eye. It was like a puzzle and I couldn’t stop looking at it, trying to figure out what it was about, what was going on. There is a clear reverence for the objects, with the careful lighting, that I know something important is happening. But what?


Memories in Red is a series of still lifes incorporating Zhavoronkova’s red school tie from growing up in Russia and other objects from her family. When I went to her website, the photos are accompanied by text, sometimes lots of biographical information about her family and the significance of the objects and photographs. I have to say, I think the images are stronger on their own or with just a sentence to give an opening. When they have all kinds of information, the image is reduced to an illustration. Plus, if I already know everything about the stuff in the photograph, then I’m not going to look at it for long. I mean, if I made the photographs and it was about my parents who were gone, I would want to savour and share every detail about them. But still… I guess I’m just glad my first experience of this work was without the captions.


My Critical Mass Top 20

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Last week I got my Critical Mass All Entrants CD. Last week was also the week they announced the Top 50. I didn’t make it. I was actually way more bummed than I expected. When I entered, Top 50 seemed way too far for me. I was just hoping to be one of the 200 finalists (which I was). But between being named a finalist and the announcement of the Top 50, somehow it didn’t seem so far away. I started thinking why not me? After all, 50 people need to be named, why couldn’t I be one of them? So I was pretty disappointed when I didn’t make it. But I was only bummed for a few days.

When I realized how many great photographers didn’t make the Top 50 or sometimes even the top 200, I felt a lot better. From this juror’s post, it sounds like each juror chooses their favourite 20 photographers. To be chosen among 20 seems a lot harder to me than being chosen among 50, which was what I first thought.

I went through every single one of the 700 or so photographers on the cd. I didn’t click on all or even most of the individual images, but I looked at all the thumbnails. I had a bit of an ulterior motive: this post had mentioned roller derby people as one of the subgroups entrants were exploring. So I wanted to see how other people were photographing derby girls. (Side note: it seems she was talking about me! Because I didn’t see any other derby girls on the cd. Another side note: I kind of love how uncomfortable people are with using the word girls to describe grown women. I had the same discomfort when I started the project, but it really does seem to be an acceptable term.)

Having gone through the entire cd, I’ve decided to choose my own favourite 20 photographers. Ultimately, this is a pretty arbitrary list. I had moments when I got exhausted and probably didn’t give the photographers I was looking at a fair view. Or if there were several slightly similar photographers in a row, I probably didn’t give them a fair view. I suspect that if I went through them all again, I’d pick a different 20 photographers. If I were a real juror, I’d probably spend more time trying to choose the 20 best photographers but instead I chose 20 whose work I most connected with somehow. I was going to just post a list of the 20 with links, but instead I think I’ll take my time over a series of posts and challenge myself to write about why I like this work.

I actually found I was drawn to work that is quite different from mine or work that I’ve enjoyed in the past. Well, except maybe for Alix Smith’s States of Union and Meg Birnbaum’s person/persona. Not that it matters, but neither of them made the Top 50. Sometimes democracy really sucks.

I’d actually seen and loved Alix Smith’s States of Unions before. In fact, I recently went hunting for it a couple of times but I couldn’t remember the photographer’s name so I had no luck finding it. (YOU try googling ‘State of the Union’ photography and see what YOU come up with. Apparently I also had the title wrong.) States of the Union shows queer couples and families in their homes or outdoor settings. These images are meticulously lit, directed and photographed. They play with historical images of The Family and also with stereotypes of queerness. Some of the subjects in the photographs may conform to stereotypes while others subvert them. In short, they are beautiful. They make me keep looking and thinking.




The CM cd was my first time seeing Meg Birnbaum’s person/persona. It is a series of diptychs portraying people who have developed costumed personas or alter egos. I love this work. What I like is that, to me, the diptychs are often not a simple duality: ‘real’ person vs their alter ego. The ‘person’ side seems as much a performance or construction as the persona side. (Apologies for the small image size. I can’t seem to get them to a size that is more visible without cutting off the image. Anyways, you can click on an image to see them correctly on her website.)




I’ll cover my other 18 favourite photographers from Critical Mass another day.

*Edited to add: sorry… just realized the images aren’t working as links. I can’t seem to make that work. Instead, check out Alix Smith and Meg Birnbaum from here.


Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Jessica Todd Harper


Doug DuBois

Tony Fouhse

Philip Lorca diCorcia

Tierney Gearon7
Tierney Gearon

Philip Lorca diCorcia

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