- Versión en español
Laura Cottingham: The work that you first started
to show, say five years ago, looked like low-tech American secessionist
work, like Weston or Stieglitz or early naturalist photography.
Zoe Leonard: I couldn't be farther from a Weston
aesthetic. The heir to Weston is, not in terms of content but
formally, someone like Mapplethorpe.
Cottingham: I was thinking more of the types of objects and
places you used to like to photograph - the ocean, the aerial
Leonard: But Weston is about a kind of perfection.
It's about the light falling perfectly on that paper, about
sensuous shape and form. What attracts me in photography is
not so much a fine arts approach, but rather photographs as
documents. Not only journalism but the other roles that photography
has played outside of the art context: aerial reconnaissance
photography, science and medical photography, family snapshots.
All the ways in which human beings have documented the world
in an attempt to order it, in an attempt to consume it or rule
it or hang on to it in some sense.
Cottingham: But, you're obviously not interested
in a formalist exploration of photography. Your photographs
are so anti-formalist.
Leonard: I don't think of my work as anti-formalist.
I'm not really that interested in positioning myself against
other artists, other art forms, proving them wrong. I make the
work that I make because it's how I think. These are things
that move me. This is my kind of beauty. I like things to be
startling in a quiet kind of way. I've evolved a technical language
that works for me. I shoot black and white. I print full frame.
I never retouch. I usually shoot many pictures of any given
subject and then take months or years editing down, finding
the picture that works. I usually work with images for a long
time, printing them different sizes, trying different papers,
chemicals, exposures until I figure out a final print. There
are many formal decisions. The idea is to get the formal aspects
to work with the subject matter.
Cottingham: By formalist aesthetic, I'm referring
to an over determined formalism. I don't mean "no form."
Coming from me, 'anti-formalist', 'low tech' is no insult -
but artists get so defensive when I say "low tech"
because hyper-formalism is so entrenched as a priority in our
Leonard: But, I don't think that form and content can be separated.
Aesthetics don't happen in a vacuum. If you like a Chanel suit,
there's a whole set of reasons why you like a Chanel suit.
Cottingham: Aesthetics aren't just fashion
- or perhaps they are, but they aren't only that. Or perhaps,
fashion isn't only fashion is more what I mean. But are you
arguing against my comment that your photographs are low tech?
Leonard: No, I wouldn't argue that. But my work
is absolutely grounded in a certain formal approach. These aren't
drawings. They're not paintings. These are photographs. I want
the viewer to be aware of that. That's why I always print full
frame. If there's a scratch on the negative, I leave it there.
The roughness in my prints is my way of letting the viewer into
my process, the process of photography. I think that photography
has been considered a poor relation to fine arts for far too
long. The highest compliment you could pay a photographer is
to say, "Your work is so painterly". If I wanted to
paint, I would paint. My work is about taking pictures, using
a camera to observe what's out in the world. So I present them
very much as they happen in the camera: they're not matted,
they're not framed, they're not cropped.
Cottingham: But that's my question: is the
rudimentary technique a cue? A cue to the viewer to look to
the associations around the image, not the technical virtuosity
that either is or isn't there in the art object as it has been
Leonard: Yeah, it's about providing a cue. But
if we're going to talk about this, we should start with the
basic question: Why photography? Why this medium? Of course
there are many uses of photography, artists like Cindy Sherman
who essentially document a performance, or photojournalists
like Susan Meiselas or Donald McCullum, or fine artists like
Penn and Weston. For me photography is intrinsically about observation.
It's about being present in and having a certain perspective
on, the world around me. It's not so much about creating, or
my imagination - as drawing, for instance, may be. It's more
about responding. Choosing to look at certain objects or situations.
It's not just what I'm looking at but how I look. Photographs
play with the idea of absolute truth. When people look at a
photograph, they believe it. We believe that it exposes reality.
That a portrait can show someone's true character. If you see
a picture of something, you believe it really happened that
way. Pictures are proof. My photographs crawl along that edge.
I document the world, but from my own biased point of view.
I want to draw the viewer into the process of looking so we
can look at these things together. I want to show you what I
see. I take pictures of what moves me. Sometimes it's beauty
- the waterfalls, the ocean. Things that fill me with awe. Sometimes
it's gathering evidence, spying on our culture. Things that
scare me or disgust me or make me angry. The one part that's
frustrating is if I'm feeling a certain way or want to express
certain thoughts, I have to actually find something out in the
world that visually conveys that to me, something to take pictures
Cottingham: In the museum images the viewer
relationship is already contextualized by the fact that you
are photographing museum artifacts. So you have taken something
that has already been framed...
Leonard: I'm reframing. Asking people to take a second look.
Not just the objects themselves but how they are displayed.
I took pictures in the natural history museum in Venice. There
were rooms stacked with animal heads. There were no labels or
information - just the walls covered, floor to ceiling, with
trophies - mounted heads and animal pelts and stuffed animals
on the floor. It was creepy and disgusting. It says so much
about the people who assembled this collection. This is not
a display about natural history. It's about hunters and collectors.
About a need to own and control. And so, by implication, it
is about us. Later, I started photographing in medical history
museums. I first saw a picture of the anatomical wax model of
a woman with pearls in a guidebook on Vienna. She struck a chord
in me. I couldn't stop thinking about her. She seemed to contain
all I wanted to say at that moment, about feeling gutted, displayed.
Caught as an object of desire and horror at the same time. She
also seemed relevant to me in terms of medical history, a gaping
example of sexism in medicine. The perversity of those pearls,
that long blond hair. I went on with this work even though it
is gory and depressing because the images seem to reveal so
much. I was shocked when I came across the bearded woman's head.
I couldn't believe that here was this woman's head, stuffed
and mounted, in a jar. The bell jar was just sitting on a file
cabinet in a corner of the room, in an obscure museum in Paris,
a place completely closed to the general public (it is part
of the School of Medicine at the University of Paris). Her head
was placed in the jar to be looked at. But it's not just her
head that I see. I see the bell jar, the specimen identification
card, the carved wooden pedestal. I see a set of implied circumstances.
Who was in charge? Who put this woman's head in a jar and called
it science? I am moved by her, anxious to know more about her
life, the quality of her life. But, these pictures don't tell
us all that much about her. You cannot see her or know her by
seeing only her severed head. These pictures are about our culture,
about an institutional obsession with difference. Those anatomical
models were made in the seventeenth century, and that woman
was put under the bell jar in the late nineteenth century, but
I see these images as contemporary, because the system which
put her head in a bell jar is still in place. The world just
hasn't changed that much.
Cottingham: How did you ever get from taking
pictures of clouds to taking pictures of museum artifacts, from
taking pictures of "nature" to taking pictures of
Leonard: I take pictures of whatever fascinates
or compels me. I still photograph nature. But, you know, in
a way I think the AIDS crisis and getting involved in activism
pushed me in a different direction. Not in an obvious way. My
work is not about AIDS and most of my work isn't even overtly
political, but I just became filled with rage. I began to question
things more, and to want to look at history, to examine the
structures of our world, the systems and people that make it
so unfair and so cruel. That's when I started the medical history
stuff and began to feel connected to those images. I've also
felt tremendously inspired by the work of a few people, David
Wojnarowicz in particular, who began to be confrontational and
demanding with their work without ever letting go of their own
sense of beauty.
Cottingham: The first time I saw the bearded
woman photograph, I thought it was a man wearing a lace collar.
Well, of course, that's the point. Because we assume we know
the gender caste system of the nineteenth century that includes
clothing and personal accessories that are strictly gender-coded,
either the beard or the lace are taken to be "out of sync."
It's interesting that I decided it was culture (the lace collar),
not nature (the beard) that was "wrong".
Leonard: What I think is interesting about that
piece is that there is no proof of gender in the bell jar. That
could be a man with earrings and a lace collar on. I was told
that it is the head of a bearded woman, but there is no proof
of gender in the head. So the real question about that piece
is: what is this head doing here? If there's no proof of gender,
there's nothing to study, no scientific purpose. Why is she
in the bell jar? When I was at the museum, all that Professor
Delmas would tell me was that she worked in a circus and she
died at the turn of this century. I want to know what she's
doing here! I want to know more about her life and her treatment
after death. Did she donate her body before she died? Did she
get any money? Did she sign some sort of agreement? Did her
family? Where is the rest of her body? Was it buried? How did
the museum acquire her and why? I'm still trying to get more
Cottingham: I see a connection between the
"bearded woman" and the Documenta piece because, basically,
you put her genitals in the museum. In a way, you put "her
gender" in a different museum.
Leonard: I hadn't thought about it before in those terms, but
there is a connection. In fact, at one time I had thought about
installing the bearded woman pictures in the Neue Galerie. Both
pieces evoke a woman's presence in a powerful Western institution.
The Documenta piece is clearly more aggressive and irreverent.
I had an opportunity to actually intervene in the museum. I
had a lot of fun doing that. Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman
is a more serious piece for me. It's a really sad piece and
also makes me furious because I can show you what happened to
her, but I can't intervene. Because she's dead. I feel a lot
of responsibility for how I work with her, how I represent her.
She has no say in it at this point.
Cottingham: What about your installation at
Documenta? What responsibility do you take for representing
the women you photographed?
Leonard: Oh, come on Laura, these women were alive
and awake. They knew exactly what was going on and supported
it. Mostly they wanted to see the photos and get copies.
Cottingham: The Documenta installation seems
to be most coextensive with the fashion show images, such as
the Geoffrey Beene image shot from underneath, where the female
model's pantyhose crotch is visible. You seem to be adopting,
or trying to adopt, a "male" eye - a gaze that subordinates
women into objects. Is that to make the images more marketable?
Is the fashion-show crotch shot related to your Documenta piece?
Leonard: Well, I guess so. For starters they're
both crotch shots. Both pieces are bolder and more caustic than
my previous work. I kind of let go a little, let myself be more
humorous, aggressive. They both have a certain tension between
what I'm supposed to be seeing and what I'm actually looking
at. In both instances, I began with one idea and ended up with
something else entirely. I wanted to photograph fashion shows,
I had all these ideas about adornment and entrapment, theories
about buttons and corsetting. So, I snuck into a bunch of the
collections - the big fall fashion shows. I had absolutely no
intention of looking up anyone's skirt. I shot tons of pictures
- well over a hundred rolls of film. The most charged moments
were completely unexpected. When a model's dress flew up and
I could see her underwear. That was interesting. Those turned
out to be the best pictures. I worked with those and dropped
the rest. At Documenta, it was also largely instinctive. When
I first went to Kassel, the Neue Galerie was not one of the
sites offered to me. But something intrigued and bothered me
about the paintings. The sober, airless rooms, the satiny wallpaper.
I thought this could be interesting. I had feelings I wanted
to get at, but I wasn't sure how. I wanted to bring myself into
the gallery. And a strong female presence, address women as
artists, as objects of art (models), as viewers of art. The
paintings all seemed like a monologue, all going one way. I
wanted to inject my point of view, make it a conversation. I
wanted to make something positive and strong. The museum made
me uncomfortable, and I wanted to get at that. See if there
was a way I could change it. As a kid, I wanted to be Van Gogh.
But sometimes, I would want to be one of the beautiful women
in the paintings. I was torn. Do I want to be Picasso or do
I want to be one of these beautiful women. Which is more satisfying?
Do I even have that choice? I used to leaf through this one
book of Man Ray photographs in a virtual stupor over Meret Oppenheim
and Lee Miller. Of course, at the time I had no idea that both
of these women were artists. Similarly, at the fashion shows,
I watch the models. I desire them, I envy their beauty, I pity
their objectification and I am disgusted by the whole ritual-simultaneously
and in equal measure. I had a much more complicated set of images
planned for Documenta, but about six days before I went to Germany
to install, I realized that all these complex impulses were
contained in one image: a woman's sex. That one image would
be both passive and aggressive, that it would represent the
invisible, but implied sex of the women in the paintings, the
non-existent female artists, and the never-addressed sexuality
of the women in the paintings. So, I called up every woman I
knew well enough to ask if I could photograph her pussy. Six
women agreed. We shot the pictures in the next three days, I
printed them, and arrived in Kassel carrying about ninety prints
in my bag. It wasn't really what they had expected. I decided
to take down all the portraits of men, and the landscapes and
replaced them with the photographs. There are some paintings
with men, but they are either peripheral or engaged in very
specific interaction with the women. One man sits next to his
wife as she breastfeeds; another is painting a portrait of his
wife (she appears on a canvas in the painting); another is visiting
Cleopatra on her deathbed. Once the genitalia went up, the whole
gallery seemed to shift. Relationships between the photos and
the paintings were amazing to set up. The facial expressions
on the people in the paintings all seemed to respond to the
photographs. Some were humorous, some poignant, some sensuous.
One older woman sits with her hands clasped in her lap, a befuddled
look on her face. Next to that is a close up of a woman's hand
on her clit, next to that is a still-life with a large fish.
Some of the women are quite beautiful, seductive. Two young
girls, princesses, sit close together with knowing looks on
their faces. An older woman looks wistful. One looks stern.
For me, the primary visual relationships are between the women.
As they look across the rooms at each other and at the visitor
in the presence of the photographs. The women and their sex.
It's what was missing in the paintings.
Cottingham: Perhaps your photographs deliver
the explicit pornography that the paintings only imply. In that
sense they collaborate, rather than war, with the traditional
objectification of women that takes place in the paintings.
Leonard: Those paintings were all painted by men,
and largely for men. But I'm looking at them. I think the installation
underlines what's there, in the paintings, and also what's not
in the paintings - what's missing. I was aware of the omnipresent
male gaze, and I do think that the piece addresses that, but
what's far more interesting to me are the thoughts I had about
these women. That two hundred years ago these women had sex,
they had desire, they jerked off, some were lesbians. Some were
probably miserable and repressed, but also some may have found
great joy and power in their sexuality. Look, I'm not anti-porn.
I think imaging sex is good. It's fun, it's sexy. And sex is
for pleasure. The problems are with who makes porn, who profits
from it. And who it's for. The problem is that women aren't
treated as equals, and women are hated so much and abused so
much. It's not a photograph of a pussy that's the problem here.
I'm not interested in remaining trapped forever in a critique
of the male gaze. I have my own gaze to think about.
Cottingham: One of the things that becomes complicated in
the representation of female genitals is that a long history
of representation within the "pornographic" arena
precedes any contemporary attempt to re-situate the iconography:
the production and distribution of pornography are what define
it. It's not as if this image -of female genitals - has never
been seen. It's been reproduced in painting, usually for private
commissions - that's the history behind the famous Courbet painting.
Representations of female genitals, in painting and then in
photography too, were made explicitly to be sold to men so that
men could do in private what they couldn't literally do in the
museums: jerk off. I think it's also important to remember that
sexuality is not now nor has it ever been a "free space":
all sexual practices are circumscribed by other political and
economic determinants. Representations of female genitals are
not only for "sexual use"- i.e., as a catalyst to
orgasm for the viewer. They also function on other non-orgasmic
levels, such as designating (and "proving") female
difference or as "evidence" of female "lack".
So I don't know if the only way that your installation reads
is in terms of the kind of intertextuality between the photos
and the paintings that you're describing. You're also stuck
with what can't be eliminated: the male voyeurism remains, both
in relationship to your images and also to the eighteenth-century
paintings of clothed but still female-coded images. Because
the female has been constructed as the sign of sex, as the sign
of sexual object, the image of the female still reads that way
to us. Did that present a conflict for you; was it involved
in your considerations?
Leonard: I can't control male voyeurism. All I
can do is point it out. I had to just count on my own instincts.
Sure, I was scared, and I felt a bit defensive, a little bit
embarrassed at times during the installation. I thought it was
a risk worth taking. Another thing I wanted to try was to take
pictures of women's genitals in a different way than how I had
seen them pictured. In most art, the women's genitals are invisible,
a discreet curve or hairless mound. Or in most straight porn,
shaven into a tiny triangle, pink, shiny and neat. I wanted
to photograph pussy in a way that looked real to me way, each
(*) Laura Cottingham is an art critic who lives in New York
© 1993, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc.
- Versión en español
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