Feeling Photography 3

Submitted by Paula Cameron


On October 16th and 17th, 2009, I was fortunate to attend Feeling Photography, an international, interdisciplinary conference about emotions and photography held at the University of Toronto’s Monk Centre for International Studies. This is the third in a series of articles about the talks I attended. I will finish this series with a consideration of Lisa Cartwright’s presentation on “compulsive [photographic] expression” in the photography of Catherine Opie.

Lisa Cartwright opened the closing plenary with a thoughtful focus on Catherine Opie’s documentary photography of individuals embedded in community. Starting with Self-Portrait/Nursing (2004), a startling piece depicting Opie topless in a Madonna pose, breastfeeding a child, Lisa focused on Opie’s autobiographical accounts of a life unfolding in a queer family. Opie’s physical deviation from the “feminine” norm (e.g., tattoos snaking along her right bicep; her large physical presence; her short hair signifying a butch aesthetic) as it meets perhaps the most intimate gesture of sustenance serves to disrupt, and I think, successfully extends, the viewer’s understandings of mothering practices. The softness of her unclothed body is undeniable, and beautifully works with and against her neutral expression and the supposedly neutral genre of documentary photography. (The photograph can be found here.)

Cartwright moved on to discuss Opie’s other works, including Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), the visual documentation of a performance in which it seems that Opie (aided by a collaborator?) has cut a childlike domestic scene in the skin of her upper back (image seen here). Still bleeding at its seams, the image contains a house, sun and clouds, and a lawn on which two women stand holding hands. I interpreted this difficult image as linking only one slightly normatively divergent element of the scene—i.e., a triangle of skirt for the second figure—as the source of the bleeding wounds that surround and shape the human figures. Cartwright discussed the teenage practice of cutting as a reference point for the image, highlighting Opie’s work for its educational potential for youth. Drawing from visual theory, Cartwright challenged assumptions about cutting as a solitary act; like photography itself, cutting is a reaching out for relationship, always an expressive performance seeking connection and community. Opie’s image is an invitation for engagement, dramatically embodying a teenager’s need to clearly and directly express her pain.


~ by artpoped on October 28, 2009.

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