Woman with Camera
Anne Collier’s Feminist Image Critique

The image as commodity, the woman as object: Anne Collier investigates the ways in which photographs are reproduced and what messages they convey. Her conceptual works also function as a covert self-portrait. Jessica Loudis on the New York artist, whose works are part of the exhibition “Photo-Poetics” at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle.
In 1962, fashion photographer Bert Stern spent three days with Marilyn Monroe in a Bel Air hotel room while on assignment for Vogue. He shot over 2,500 images during the session, which would come to be known as The Last Sitting when the actress was found dead six weeks later. Many of them feature Marilyn come-hithering while wrapped in diamonds, a translucent scarf, or Chanel No. 5. The images have a sweaty intensity to them, and should viewers not notice the degree of male attention paid to Monroe, Stern underlined the point eleven years later by compiling them into a book featuring a long essay by Norman Mailer — a document of their mutual obsession with the star.

One of the more modest images in The Last Sitting is a close-up. Monroe is wearing black gloves, pointing a Nikon at the viewer, and though the camera obstructs the bottom half of her face, it’s clear from her eyes that she’s smiling. This photo, so familiar as to now be a visual cliché, was among those that Anne Collier selected for her ongoing Woman With a Camera series, which repurposes images of women holding cameras — a motif common in films and advertisements during the ‘70s and ‘80s, which was also the era in which the artist grew up.

Though these images claim to empower women, in reframing them, Collier cannily highlights their breezy underlying sexism. Should this sound like an updated version of a Pictures generation critique of advertising, it’s significant that the artist does not simply reprint these images — which include stills of Faye Dunaway in the 1978 thriller Eyes of Laura Mars and Steven Meisel’s portrait of Madonna — but rather, she distances them from themselves by photographing them as objects. Collier’s Woman with a Camera (The Last Sitting, Bert Stern) is in fact a photo of a photo of a photo — it’s an image of Marilyn, but the image is within Stern’s book, which is covered in Post-it notes and surrounded by white space. Meisel’s naked Madonna is neatly folded in half; not censored, exactly, but elegantly cropped so as to re-orient the gaze through omission.

These works, some of which were featured last fall in a retrospective at CCS Bard, are as much “about” their own processes of creation as they are meditations on their source material. Collier has said she is interested in “photographing objects that have complicated histories” and in “creating a tension, and perhaps an ambiguity, between what is depicted and how it is depicted.” The viewer is always aware of the dual status of one of Collier’s images — a glossy shot of an actresses’ face may turn out to be an LP cover, a calendar, or an inset from a magazine.

Collier is known for culling materials for her works from all kinds of sources, including thrift shops, eBay, and garbage. Several years ago, while walking in New York’s East Village, Collier found a manila folder full of colorful questionnaires on the street. These documents posed questions both existential and banal (“what does it all mean?” and “how do we know what we know?”) and, though they were already stripped of context, she abstracted them further, framing them against white backdrops like evidence on a psychoanalytic crime scene.

Behind sardonic conceptual humor and fondness for visual jokes, there’s also a kind of guarded longing in Collier’s work — thumbprints of desire and personal history are all over, so long as you know to look closely enough. Cut (Color) for example, depicts a paper cutter slicing a grayscale photo of an eye in half. This isn’t just a photography in-joke or a clever allusion to Un Chien Andalou — though it’s those things as well — it’s an image of Collier’s own eye. Once that realization settles in, the photo can be read as a commentary on how an artist’s personal vision might be threatened by the technologies that facilitate and eradicate it.  In works like these this, Collier evokes comparisons to Christopher Williams, whose conceptual photography obsesses at the intersection of consumerism and technical processes, and who, like Collier, studied with John Baldessari at CalArts.

In Collier’s work, personal resonances and meaning lie shallowly beneath contained surfaces. In Jim and Lynda, what at first appear to be paired landscape studies of the Pacific Ocean at sunset are revealed as tributes, and possibly portraits. Shot off the coast of Los Angeles, each photo depicts the patch of sea where the ashes of Collier’s mother and father, respectively, were scattered. Her mother passed away when she was five; her father followed two decades later. The images of the sea are shot from above, centered in the photo and framed by a by a series of concentric squares: The outermost is the periphery of the white frame, then the black of the photo’s borders, and within the image, enclosing the sea, the edges of the box in which the photos are stacked. Here lies pathos and tragic humor: filial bonds and nature itself have been carefully organized within cardboard boxes, ready to be packed up and put in storage. Collier has said that she doesn’t see her work as nostalgic, but “as a form of melancholia… a reconsideration and recuperation of the recent past.”

Several of Collier’s works appear in Photo-Poetics, a group show at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin. The show curated by Jennifer Blessing intends to explore the work of a handful of artists who, informed by the legacies of commercial and conceptual photography, take a “largely studio-based approach to still-life photography” with a focus on “printed matter such as books, magazines, and record covers.” In light of the abstraction of the past four decades, the Photo-Poetics examines a handful of contemporary artists who have learned to spend time with material culture in a way both familiar and reflective of our moment. With its focus on printed objects, an implicit question is this: What is the role of ephemera in a culture that fetishizes it yet no longer has a need for old forms? While, for instance, the shelf sculptures of Carol Bove present physical books as the raw material of identity and culture, the works in this show consider how that dynamic is now mediated, and the role photography plays in both documentation and abstraction.

Ephemera and mediation are at the quiet center of Collier’s Crying, one of her works in the exhibition. Seen from across the room, "Crying” looks like a photograph overlaid upon a painted surface, or perhaps a portrait integrated within a two-dimensional space. The image, indeed a photo, is divided horizontally; the upper two-thirds are white, the bottom third is black, and on the left-hand side there is a small square close-up of a distraught woman crying. The woman is Ingrid Bergman, and this is the cover of the LP that accompanied her 1943 film For Whom the Bell Tolls. The LP is upright, facing the viewer dead-on, and up close we can see that there are a number of records behind it and that the flat spaces above and below are actually a white wall and black floor. The work is in no way overwhelming; there is nothing bombastic about it. Rather, the thrill of it comes from the reading it requires. Collier deploys her references strategically — this brings to mind abstract painting, Bas Jan Ader’s I’m Too Sad to Tell You, Bergman’s films and unconventional life, and the joy of the collector in the record store. Should that not be enough, it also awakens the empathy centers that begin firing when we see someone cry. Crying is part of a series involving records — others are of The Smiths and Sylvia Plath — but it contains the tensions within all of her work: advertising and fine art, nostalgia and distance, the camera and the eye. Collier has said she is interested in photographing objects that have “had previous lives… been handed and used,” and these rely on a kind of slow intertextuality; the gradual unfolding of meaning and feeling working towards a dizzying remove. It’s disorienting and evocative, a poetics in which the camera is not just the set-up but the punchline, and all the previous lives can be felt lurking beneath the surface.

Photo-Poetics: An Anthology
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
New York