San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA
Viewing Anita White’s self-portrait series “Absent”, I am struck by the deep irony and tension between these images and the current ubiquity on social media of what we call the ‘selfie’, which the Oxford English Dictionary dubbed the word of the year in 2013. Selfies and social media are, as we all know, practically synonymous.
If selfies are about surface appearance and public spectacle (think Kim Kardashian’s Instagram feed), then the traditional self-portrait documents an altogether more private landscape. As Lucas Samaras said of his many self-portraits, “I am my own investigation territory”. Maybe that’s it: if selfies are about performance, perhaps self-portraits are more about investigation; if selfies are formulaic rituals, then self-portraits document authentic exploration.
The body is a place where our mind resides, and that’s what I photograph. – Mona Kuhn
In inviting us to look at her body, White is really asking us to think; to not just look, but to really see; not an object on display; not an image for consumption, but a person clothed in her own skin. There are ideas here, mapped onto the terrain of the artist’s body.
In comparison to the typically brash and superficial images of self currently clogging the arteries of electronic social media, White’s images possess a refreshingly quiet honesty, beauty, and depth. They project a voice that is courageous and mature, thoughtful and introspective.
Her imagery is simple and direct, yet simultaneously complex. There are multiple art historical references – the Dutch School palette, metaphorical mirrors and windows, symbolic references to the props and poses of the painter’s studio; and there is a chorus of influential voices, other artists whose work also focused on the body – Francesca Woodman, for example, and even Francis Bacon.
But unlike the majority of contemporary art – particularly anything that wears the badge of post-modernism – viewers don’t need an advanced degree in art in order to appreciate or understand White’s work. In tandem with the intellectual references, there is a poetics and lyricism in her images, a sensuous and visceral language, that is accessible to anyone who invests time and gives attention to what these pictures show.
And there is also a deeper and important question at work here:
What does it mean to be seen (or unseen)?
I point this out because these are not just self-portraits, they are nudes. And they are not the type of female nudes that viewers typically encounter, namely young women presented as objects of desire. This woman is not particularly young, she is middle-aged, and she is more accurately described as naked rather than nude: revealed, exposed, awkward, uncomfortable. This woman is vulnerable but also defiant.
“Men act and women appear. … Women watch themselves being looked at.” – John Berger, Ways of Seeing
In 1972 the British art critic John Berger published a follow-up book to his BBC series analyzing the power of media images. Titled Ways of Seeing, Berger’s rhetoric was direct and spare, his arguments surgically incisive. In one chapter, Berger articulated a fundamental calculus of gender and power, one with deep roots in our cultural history and continuing relevance to our present historical moment.
Berger lays it out with absolute clarity: the history of the nude in western painting is essentially the history of men looking at women. This male gaze has constructed the female body as a passive object of desire, a subject to be looked at, possessed, and consumed – as opposed to an actual person with a history and agency. The contemporary version of this, the full spectrum of tropes and clichés, litters electronic social media. Sites like Facebook, Fotoblur, and 500px are chock full of inane girly shots and pin-up poses – images of objects not people – that are the distant electronic descendents of our art historical past, just the latest node on the evolutionary ladder called culture.
In this mythology, men act. They gain power through what they control and acquire, and display this power through their possessions – large homes, fast cars, ostentatious watches, expensive suits, and generically seductive women.
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” – John Berger
Women appear, gaining power by being seen and displaying this power through their presence (Kim Kardasian on Instagram, again). But in order to be seen, women must conform to a rigid set of implicit rules.
A primary lever in this equation is youth.
Male power tends to increase with age – their responsibilities and their paychecks typically increase well into middle age. But female power typically wanes with age. In our youth-obsessed culture, women slowly fade from view as they approach middle age, until they become invisible. Unseen.
These visual politics act as a larger cultural framework for “Absent”, extending White’s work beyond the realm of a purely aesthetic gesture, propelling it into the political realm, and transforming her images into an act of resistance, subversion, and empowerment.
The beauty of Anita White’s work resides in its visual pleasure. But its importance resides elsewhere, in the ideas and values that the images serve. They remind us that there is always more at stake than just pleasure and aesthetics, entertainment and distraction. Even our most personal images express ideas about the world that transcend the individual and speak for or about the tribe. Pictures matter.
images: © copyright 2016 Anita White. No use without permission. Contact: anitawhitephotography.com
words: © copyright 2016 Joseph Squier. No use without permission. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org