March 11, 2014
Woman as madman. As the grotesque. The primal and primitive underbelly that society erases all but the most glaring trace. She who is disturbed is disturbing for her lack of feminine grace. She who reminds us of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, of Medea, of Medusa, of gorgons and monsters of yore. The archetype of a woman who will destroy rather than create, who unleashes demons into this world like Pandora opening her box, this is but one of the many archetypes of the female that Cindy Sherman offers us.
Never one to shy from the discomfort that the unpretty reveals, Cindy Sherman’s work can be as revolting as it is beautiful. In Cindy Sherman: Untitled Horrors (Hatje Cantz) we are witness to the darkness that lies beneath, a darkness that is menacing as it creeps and crawls out of its resting place to reveal itself. The book is the catalogue for a show of the same name at Moderna Museeet, Stockholm; Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo; and Kunsthaus Zurich in Switzerland.
Dispersed throughout the book are a series of essays by seminal contemporary authors including Kathy Acker, Sibylle Berg, Miranda July, Karl Ove Knausgard, Lars Norén, Sjón, and Sara Stridsberg. The essays provide a linguistic complement to the visual form, giving us an aesthetic response to Sherman’s catalogue of horrors. As Stridsberg notes, mellifluously, “Cindy Sherman’s pictures have a similarly unsettling effect on me, they break over me like a storm, she slits something open in front of me and within me, something I cannot face encountering; she upends the roots of the beautiful trees in the forests and bares their crawling undersides: roots, earth, insects, darkness. She massacres, she maims, she tears to bits.”
Read the Full Story at
LE JOURNAL DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE
March 9, 2014
March 8, 2014
“Pity little girl. Why are you behaving like death will not come to you? Pity you… May God save you… Hmmmmmmmmmmm.”
This comment was submitted to my blog for approval after I posted a story on Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, the twenty-year old communications major who gained worldwide attention when she posted a naked photograph of herself on Twitter with the hash tag #nuderevolutionaryphoto in October 2011.
In the black and white photograph, she stands facing the camera, the intensity of her gaze heightened by her thigh-high stockings, red shoes, and red bow. Elmahdy told CNN, “I am not shy of being a woman in a society where women are nothing but sex objects harassed on a daily basis by men who know nothing about sex or the importance of a woman. The photo is an expression of my being and I see the human body as the best artistic representation of that. I took the photo myself using a timer on my personal camera. The powerful colors black and red inspire me.” Red, black, and white, the colors of the Egyptian flag.
One year ago, the people of Egypt ousted President Hosnu Mubarak from power after he served some thirty years as head of the state. And in his place a temporary government came. It is run by SCAF, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which has since shown the world that violence and repression are the orders of the day, sparking the flame on the revolutionary spirit of a people who have yet to find their way.
The art of revolution is a powerful thing. It is carried forth by the instantaneous matrix in which we now live. The self-portrait of Elmahdy stands in striking contrast to the traditional representations of Egyptian femininity. In a culture where repression masquerades as modesty, where women are defined by the absence of their individuality, where sexuality is man’s right and woman’s wrong—the naked self portrait is a political act.
In the West, where the female nude has long been considered an object of art, of beauty, and an object unto itself, Elmahdy’s act raises a new set of questions. We have transformed the political into a matter of economics. Women have become celebrities by trading off their bodies. There is money to be made and fame to be paid for baring all before the world. In the twenty-first century West, the nude has become a global industry. The fine line between commodification and self-exploitation is easily blurred in a culture where cash is the ultimate reward.
In the West, women are free to use our bodies for any purpose we wish and no longer is this political because that moment has passed. From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party to Kim Kardashian’s sextape, we talk about progress like it’s a good thing. But maybe it’s more complex than this.
“Aliaa, what a nice name, good physical features, I mean young, fresh and blossoming only with a strong and probably negative heart and ego, surely there are many ways of expressing your feelings and motives than by showing your precious body to the whole world, what now remains for you is to start moving around NAKED. I wonder what religion you are practicing because NO religion promotes this sort of act neither do our (African) traditions and morals. Please find another decent way of expressing yourself, though I don’t know you but I feel I like you to the level of giving you a sensible advise. Thanks and I pray for good things in your life.”
Hassan Aliyu Shehu left this comment on my blog. It’s made me think about the grey areas of the nude self-portrait. To be a woman in Egypt today must be strange. Fighting for freedom from repression, only to encounter it at every turn. Female protesters were subject to virginity tests, where they were stripped naked and checked for an intact hymen in front of army police. That’s rape, and Samira Ibrahim sued. Though she won in civil court, the government representative’s words still send a chill down my spine: “Those tests are not considered a crime or else the file would be in the Criminal Court.”
Ibrahim and Elmahdy are fighting a government and a culture that see the female body as the property of men. The fight over the female body is really the fight over who controls the creation of life. In Western culture, we have finally acceded that women have the power to make the supreme decision: to abort or not. That in of itself is a strange thing, but laws are written in black and white, and shades of grey only get in the way.
But the body is more than just the site of life. It is also the representation of the self as Nature has designed. And the impulse to reveal or hide the female form remains disconcerting for the East and the West represent two extremes, neither of them balanced or healthy.
When will the body—both male and female—be seen as a work of Nature, rather than a product of Society? Can we look with love, with admiration, with respect, or will our hearts always fill with lust, with anger, with disgust? Will we celebrate or condemn, will we wrap our fears in religion and groupthink? Will we support or fight her wish for freedom on her terms?
There is no right or wrong answer because the subject of nudity, sexuality, and the female body is a political game no matter who gets to play. Ideas are currency, currency is power. Perhaps the answer is not to be found in the examination of her ideology, but in the way she triggers us to answer for our own.
An anonymous commenter posted these words on my page. I think they best sum up the challenges Elmahdy raises. “I have a daughter her age. I wish Aliaa el-Mahdy protection in her quest to find her voice and her purpose. Although she has the body of an adult woman, she is still a child in her fearless, innocent belief in her own immortality. Her actions hold no more real-world harm than a small baby pulling off her own clothes. I lived for 25 years in Japan where both my daughters were born. They grew up with no shame to join me at the public baths surrounded by men and boys — even into mid-elementary school age. Let us send Aliaa el-Mahdy our most compassionate goodwill, thoughts of safety and success. We must protect this innocently passionate young woman against the storm of rage that threatens to envelop and destroy her. Respect. Love. Protection.”
Originally Published at
Le Journal de la Photographie
6 February 2012
March 7, 2014
A French photographer of Egyptian origins, Myriam Abdelaziz was born in Cairo, a city that would later be home to the Revolution of 25 of January in 2011. The Revolution was a diverse movement of demonstrations, marches, plaza occupations, riots, non-violent civil resistance, acts of civil disobedience, and labor strikes, with millions of protesters from all walks of life demanding the overthrow of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Since that time, control of Egypt has gone back and forth between different groups; most recently on 3 July 2012, a coup d’Etat lead by Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah El-Sissi reinstated power to a government of military rule. Under the military, many things have changed, not the least of which is life a palpable paranoia of photographers and journalists.
For Abdelaziz, who resides in Cairo, life is no longer the same. She speaks to The Click about what it is like to be a woman—and a photographer—on the streets of Cairo today.
Read the Full Story at
March 6, 2014
It began as a series of interviews, of films made, of speeches taped, of conversations, ideas, people. It began when Swedes began sending journalists out into the world, and those that came to the United States were attracted to the civil rights and black power movements of the 60s and the 70s. They had access, and they had nerve, and they never shied away from asking uncomfortable questions, because they could. And what became of these moments caught on film forty, fifty years ago, was first a documentary film, and now a paperback book titled, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 by Göran Hugo Olsson (Haymarket Books).
The book and film feature vintage footage made available for commentary by contemporary artists and intellectuals invoking nothing so beautiful as a tapestry, a fabric that weaves together the past and the present, the ancestors, the heirs, and our shared inheritance. For what this era begat was nothing short of fearless, of an unstoppable force in the face of one of the most treacherous regimes known to humanity.
The book is an expansion of the film, charting the course of the Black Power movement as a natural outgrowth of Civil Rights, charting the course of both movements that spoke truth to power. It was the American Revolution, this time from within, a period of resistance and rebellion sparked by the eternal flame of freedom and self determination, the very things that the United States had been founded upon, but denied the people it kidnapped and enslaved from the continent of Africa.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 takes us back to a time and a place where standing against the system was to stand in one’s integrity. It was to refuse to surrender, to submit, to be complicit in the exploitation of the status quo to line the pockets of the rich. It was a statement against the propaganda that projected the crimes of the oppressor onto the oppressed, and tells the truth about a time when the Truth refused to be silenced.
Read the Full Story at
L’OEIL DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE
March 5, 2014
Monday morning, maybe ten am. I finally have a day to myself. First thing I do is hit the Piedmont. Because… I’m addicted. I mean, in a bad way. Like my heart starts racing when I am on the airplane. Just the thought of it. Walls of earrings, cases of jewels, baskets of lace gloves, porcelain flowers on clips that slip into the hair. I wish they had birds. Yea, that’s my look. Birds, trapped in my hair. The Birds, like Hitchcock, only they’re happy not mad.
But they don’t have birds. Just feather boas. PVC. Latex. Rubber. Fishnets. Fetish. Ohh, legwarmers… You know me.
Hmm… I was going somewhere with this. Yes, my trip to the Piedmont. It was 2007, I think. Might have been 2008. But probably not. I remember I was wearing that William Klein Films t-shirt that I wore til it disintegrated. That’s my favorite part about t-shirts, the moment they come undone against your skin. There’s something alluring about the idea that your garments will give out. So yea, there I was on Haight Street, all black er’ythang with fuschia highlights.
I didn’t look distinctive. Not by my standards anyway. So I wasn’t really paying much attention as I walked by a group on the sidewalk. They had some electronic equipment, am not sure just what. Looked like a video and a sound guy, and some woman directing them.
Just as I reach my spot, I hear this clattering behind me. Shoes pounding the concrete, and me, Noo, this is not happening. It can’t be. I’m stoned. Come on, yo.
But it is and it does and so it goes. “Excuse me, ma’am?” the woman’s voice asks over my shoulder.
I steel myself. I turn around. I’m facing a video camera. It is pointed at me. Okay, yea sure, I love a camera. But wait, this isn’t my scene.
“Hi! We’re from Ambush Makeover,” the host cheeses in earnest. “Would you like a makeover?”
I’d like to say the earth opened up, but it didn’t do that. I’d like to say something, but all I could do is stare. At this woman, with camera-ready make-up. Now I love a good foundation but this is ridiculous. And her hair. It’s straight but it has so much body. Like Styrofoam, it’s not the kinda thing you want to touch. What’s with her outfit? A blazer and jeans. Do I want a makeover from this lady? Let me think about that.
I notice that the cameras are waiting. They are pointed at me. I look at the woman and she is eager for a reply to her offer some time, like, today.
“You think I need a makeover?” is all that I can manage to say, my emotions swirling on the surface, a mixture of horror and pride.
”Ma’am, Ma’am, would you step over here?” the host asks as she backs away from the front door, in an effort to get me out from underneath the shadow that lingers below the Piedmont’s legendary awning of legs. I wish the camera man had the sense to back up and get the shot from a distance. But no, no one is listening to me. I’m not even speaking. I’m frozen, realizing the show must go on.
With a nod towards stage left, I turn my back on reality tv, preserving my fifteen minute virginity. Fame is for other people. A girl like me likes status, which is to say you may know my name but not my face.
No words are spoken as I slip into the store. My friend Jim, who has been with me the whole time, is at my side remarking how things always happen whenever we’re together.
Then a production assistant nips in for a quick signature. “Would you might signing this standard release form so that we can use your No at the beginning of the episode?”
“Can I get a copy of the segment?” I ask, hopeful.
“No,” the production assistant assures me with a cheery denial. There’s nothing for me except the possibility that I might catch it sometime, like, in my next life.
So yea, I sign the form because why not. Me saying No, I know a few people familiar with that side.
Then the production assistant leaves and the sales people are curious so I’m giggling about my near miss til the production assistant returns. He asks if I can step outside. It sounds so official. Camera is waiting. I need to pose for a Polaroid.
“So we can file your picture with your consent form.”
Sure thing, yea. I back up against the building and strike a pose because you know I love cameras. Polaroids especially, they’ve got that magical flash happening. All eyes and eyebrows and lips. Nothing else exists.
The production assistant seems surprised by my fluidity, or vanity, who can tell. But what really knocks him over is when Jim lifts his camera. Where he was once my mild mannered escort, he easily becomes Jim Jocoy, photographer unparalleled.
Jim pulls out his Polaroid and takes a shot. Mostly I think he was photographing the production assistant hard at work.
“Who’s he?” the production assistant asks, now totally confused.
“Jim’s my personal photographer.”
And so it goes…
March 3, 2014
Perhaps there is nothing so compelling as the human face. For all the beauty it holds, the experience it hides, the emotions it shares, it is a map of personal history. It is the thing we cannot see on ourselves, unless we look in the mirror, and once we behold our visage, we reconsider. It is hard to know what we broadcast, except to say chances are we are telling more than we know. It is written all over the face, who we are, what we believe, what we know.
The photograph then, becomes the record of but one moment in a long string of moments that make up each of our lives. About Love: Photographs and Films 1973–2011, by Gay Block (Radius Books) is a glorious catalogue of lives that have passed before the photographer’s lens. It is a massive tome, beautifully produced and elegantly crafted. The layout is deceptively simple, understated elegance at its finest, with enough white space to allow the eye to linger, to rest, to roam, to consider the people that sit before us.
Block’s work is About Love in the most pure sense, about being one with his subject so that they speak to us without saying a word. She presents them on their terms and allows us to enter their world, from our vantage point to see their lives through his eyes, and mediate the subject, the photographer, and ourselves. Each subject is treated with a dignity and a respect that belies the formality of portraiture, yet each of these images is just that.
The portrait, the story of a life in a single frame. Block’s wealth of knowledge of the human condition is captured here in each image she creates. “I’ve always loved exactly what somebody looks like. That’s what I wanted to photograph, and almost as much, and maybe as much, I’ve loved exactly the words they use to describe their lives, events in their lives, feelings, and things like that. I love exactly the way people talk.”
It is this penchant, nee devotion, to the exact that marks these images. There is a feeling of truth, of that new and honest space that exists between two people. These photographs are private conversations, spoken to the world. We as viewers are listeners, flies on the wall. Through our eyes, we are being told stories. Stories of lives lived, of people we shall never otherwise encounter. And it is Block’s affection and respect for the individual person, for the dignity and integrity of the human experience that allows us to share in what is not ours yet is available for consideration.
Block explains the way in which she uses photography as a means to something deeper, to the psychological study, to the spiritual connection. “Portraiture for me has always been so personal. I never felt like I was out to advance the medium. It wasn’t about photography for me; it’s about the people. They are inseparable from the work and yet I’ve always understood that I wasn’t going to advance the photographic medium; that wasn’t even an interest for me. I used photography to advance myself in an internal, personal way.”
Each image is a collaboration between subject and artist, and the result is a feeling that we are stepping out of ourselves and into other people’s lives. As Block observes, “In the beginning, I was practically non-directive except for asking that my subjects sit where the light was the way I wanted it, and asking them not to smile. I’d say sit on this couch not that couch—that kind of thing. But I would be doing the interview and then they would naturally move into a position on their own. I would interrupt and say, ‘Please don’t move anything. I’m going to turn off the recorder, because I want to take your picture just the way you are now.’ and that’s how it would happen. I would wait until I found them in a fascinating position.”
And so it is that what has fascinated Block will fascinate us, because the human face is the most compelling thing to contemplate, in person or in art. We want to know, we want to understand, we want this connection, the one that Block discovered is all About Love.
First published in
LE JOURNAL DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE
6 January 2012
March 1, 2014
Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows this,
Yet no one puts it into practice.
Therefore the sage says:
He who takes upon himself the humiliation of the people
is fit to rule them.
He who takes upon himself the country’s disasters
deserves to be king of the universe.
The truth often seems paradoxical.
~Tao Te Ching, Chapter 78
February 28, 2014
The fashion moment is everything. It’s that je ne sais quoi that drives men and women to an image, a look, an energy that is expressed through style, through attitude and profile. The fashion moment is when the fates align and the image transcends and comes alive.
Ohio-born designed Michael McCollom began his career in New York as design director of the ISAIA NYC collection and was named one of the “Designers to Watch” by Vogue in 1990. Recognized as a designer and a photographer. McCollom’s clients have included Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton and Julia Roberts.
McCollom is also the author of The Way We Wore: Black Style Then, which has just been re-released by Glitterati Incorporated. Featuring snapshots from the personal photo albums of over 150 black men and women, the book features never-before-published photographs of Oprah Winfrey, James Baldwin, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Tyran Banks, Patrick Kelly, Kimora Lee, Bobby Short, Bethann Hardison, and Portia LaBeija, among countless others.
From the Harlem Renaissance to the birth of Hip Hop, The Way We Wore celebrates the personal style of African Americans over the larger part of the twentieth century. Each image reminds us of the space where the public and private spaces intersect, where style is the bridge between the individual to the world, telling a story of self through the fashion moment.
The Click spoke with McCollom about his personal style moments, about the things that he both saw and created that shaped and influenced his world.
Read the Full Story at
February 28, 2014
We alive today are witness to the transformation of the world, from a place of physicality to a more conceptual space, a space that is as infinite as it is vast. With the promulgation of digital culture, the photograph has been liberated from the page. No longer is it an object held to is physicality. Now it exists in its ability to exist immediately and simultaneously everywhere at once. Art in the age of digital reproduction has virtually destroyed an industry, and forever altered the form. It is now that the days of film, paper, and processing have been rendered obsolete, though they retain their charms so much so that the ubiquity of photography now allows us to reconsider our assumptions of the art. So much so that it becomes a subject worthy of contemplation and veneration itself. Stand witness to the death knell of an industry and record its last days for posterity.
Robert Burley traveled the world with a 4×5 field camera to document the factories that were shutting down en masse. The Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era (Princeton Architectural Press) presents seventy-one of Burley’s large format photographs inside and on the grounds of the plants that were closing down. Alongside the photographs are brief texts that set a tone for the story of worlds going, gone, slipping forevermore into oblivion, and we feel a sense of the complete vastness of this loss in the large scale buildings, estate planning, and the detail of design itself. From the buildings we see the very life of business itself.
The people. They are gone. There is nothing more to be done. Befitting it is, then, that Hurley should include George Eastman’s suicide note, found on his bedside table that read, “To my friends my work is done why wait?”
See the Full Story at
L’OEIL DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE
February 28, 2014
“After a freak motorcycle accident left me with two crack vertebrate in my back and neck, two broken ribs, and a four-month confinement in bed, I realized what direction my career as a photographer would take after my recovery. I recalled a photograph of a tiger I had taken a few years back while at a zoon. I was struck by what had jumped out of the picture—a personality, a soul. It dawned on me that what the lens had somehow caught could be best portrayed in black and white. The essence of a creature’s spirit captured solely through motion and light,” Boza Ivanovic writes in the introduction to his first monograph, Out of the Wild: Zoo Portraits (Glitterati Incorporated).
I first met Ivanovic a few months before the accident, and when he told me of it, I began sending him books. After the accident, he began sending me photographs: portraits of animals behind bars, behind glass, only their trappings were invisible and what remained was a life anonymous, unknown but living for public viewing. The animals Ivanovic captured with his camera were living in captivity and each photograph reflects their singularity, their separation from all that is their natural reality.
It is in the instance of the lion, that a grandeur is conferred, because in Ivanovic’s lion we know the greatness that graces us, from within and from without. There is a pride and a humility, a purity and an honesty that the lion evokes. His visage takes my breath away, over and over again. Perhaps this is a tribute to the patience and discipline that Ivanovic exhibited to secure this shot.
Read the Full Story at
L’OEIL DE LA PHOTOGRAPHIE
February 27, 2014
February 25, 2014
In February 1965, Martin Delany was received by Abraham Lincoln art the White House. There, Delany told the President, “I propose, sir, an army of blacks, commanded entirely of black officers.” Shortly thereafter, Delany received a commission as major of infantry—the first African American appointed an army officer. As Frederick Douglass reportedly stated, “I thank God for making me a man simply, but Delany always thanks Him for making him a black man.”
The story of Major Martin Robison Delany, Fifty-second U.S. Colored Infantry, is titled “Most Defiant Blackness” and leads with his portrait, dressed in Union blues. This photograph is a cartes de visite, taken with a specially designed camera that produced eight images on a single glass plate, from which the resulting paper print. It was then glued to card stock and measured 2.5 x 4 inches in size, the perfect keepsake that was economically possible at this time. From 1961–67, “cartonamia” was unleashed, with some three million cartes de visite sold. This was the first time almost anyone could record his or her own image for posterity, and they immediately became decorative objects that made picture giving a cultural phenomenon. Not to mention a resource for an author as industrious as Ronald S. Coddington.
Coddington has just released his third book, African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album (Johns Hopkins University Press), a beautiful and meticulous presentation of the likenesses and lives of seventy-seven men whose stories are part of the complex and compelling tapestry that is America. These stories offer but a glimpse into the vast ocean of men, some 200,000 African Americans, who served the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War. Some of them were born free, others escaped from slavery or set free by owners sympathetic to the war effort.
And, if only for a moment, imagine what it must have been like, two hundred thousand African American men army and dressed for combat on American soil, ready to fight the white man for freedom, the right to self sovereign. “I am for war—war upon the whites,” Delany wrote during the 1950s in a novel that stood in marked contrast to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Delany’s words are seen in the stories of men who served not only their country but something greater than this. As soldiers in the Civil War, they stood for what the United States was founded upon: Independence.
The stories provide a reverent context for the images we witness here. They lend a gravitas to the images, which charming in their dated stylistic iconography, the way in which the photograph easily replaces the painted portrait while assuming all of its conventions. Consider the portrait of Corp. Jeremiah Saunders, Company K, 124U.S. Colored Infantry, and his wife Emily. His master died in Kentucky in February 1965, he was not free for the Emancipation Proclamation only liberated those in the seceded states. Nevertheless, Saunders left the tobacco fields and headed straight to Camp Nelson, a Union establishment. There he signed his enlistment papers with an “X” and joined the 124 U.S. Colored Infantry, a regiment composed of men between 3545, considered too old for active duty. And though he was not on the front lines, still he served. For this book proves that for all the darkness of humanity that does occur, the wheel of fortune will always turn. And though one might be born a slave, degraded in countless ways, there might just be another destiny that is meant to be. African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album serves us well to remind us of those who came before and honor them for these are the heroes we need today, the lives and lessons of humble greatness.
First published in Le Journal de la Photographie
21 November 2012
February 24, 2014
Janette Beckman spent the summer of 1983 in Los Angeles, staying in the home of a good friend who was then managing the pop group, The Go-Gos. While in town, she came across a newspaper piece on the East L.A. gang scene; the story had no photographs, so Beckman took to the streets to see for herself. Although she was warned against visiting the area by local acquaintances, Beckman was young, brash, and bold and armed herself with just a Hasselblad and a box of prints to share her work.
Beckman drove her rent-a-wreck car to East LA, and began hanging out at El Hoyo Maravilla, a park in the neighborhood, which is also the name of Beckman’s newest artist book, a limited edition of 500 published by Dashwood Books. The photographs were culled from the collection of negatives that sat in her closet for over twenty-five years; she showed the photographs when they were first taken but no one expressed interest in it at that time. Today, it is a different story, as the photographs have taken on a new life, having been published online and spurring contact from the subjects after all these years.
Beckman’s portraits are of a time and place that at once foreign and familiar, people strongly tied to the culture and the community from which it sprung. For Beckman, who was a rock & roll photographer working for Melody Maker, a weekly music magazine, and shooting album covers at the time, this foray into a new culture had the hallmarks of a world that was just as misunderstood as the world she had left behind.
Like the punks, skinheads, mods, and rockers that Beckman shot during the late 70s and early 80s in London, the gang members she met in Los Angeles were a people of a time and place, who made themselves part of the group by conforming to social codes that dictated behavior and appearances. It was these appearances that first drew Beckman in, with their definitive style that included perfectly pressed jeans and pants with a top crease, bandanas and shaved eyebrows, and white t-shirts and tank tops worn without anything else. The women wear strong make-up, dark eyeliner and hard lips, with long tresses of flowing hair while the men are also perfectly groomed. The gang codes of Los Angeles included hang gestures, graffiti, and tattoos, all signifying an allegiance with the group that protects and defends their neighborhood.
As Beckman came to discover, the deeper story is one of family, of a group of people that were native to California before, during, and after the Spanish and American occupation and acquisition of the land over the past three hundred years. As Beckman connected with her subjects, she was invited into their homes, meeting mothers and grandmothers and relatives, hanging out with older brothers, learning about the structure of gangs and the way in which they played a role in the community. “It was like meeting a big family They were all delightful,” Beckman observes, before noting how one kid wanted to show her his machine gun, though she doesn’t have a photographs of the encounter itself.
This is because Beckman’s photographs are not about the negative side of gang life. They are not an expose on violence, politics, or the economics of an historically oppressed people living in America. Instead, Beckman focuses on the love that exists in the community and the self-love that comes from pride. The only photograph that displays a weapon is the one of a couple standing in front of their home, where she is playfully holding the knife to his neck as he smiles comfortably, a bottle of Pepsi in his hand. It’s the “American Gothic” of 1983, Chicano style, reminding us once again that America is a land of opportunity, passion, and love for the world that we together build.
All photographs by Janette Beckman
Essay first published in Le Journal de la Photographie,
19 November 2012