Molly Landreth, Embodiment: Stella Rose and Sterling Snow, Seattle, WA (2007). Archival inkjet print. Photo courtesy the artist
I’ve been Molly Landreth’s gushing fangirl since I first saw her “Embodiment” series of queer portraits at Montreal’s IPS Gallery in 2008. I loved them because they were gorgeous and sensual. Only later did I realize that they were also brave.
When Landreth began the series for her thesis at New York’s School of Visual Arts (she graduated in 2005), art star Catherine Opie was getting ready to take over the Guggenheim Museum with her own ground-breaking photographs of queer life. You just know people told Landreth, “Catherine Opie already did that.”
In grad school, the safe choice is to find a little niche that you can have all to yourself. If you take on topics that one of the Big Guns already owns, you risk getting shot down by words like “derivative” or “wannabe.” But anyone can tell that Landreth’s photographs are intricately connected to who she is as a person and why she became an artist. She clearly has skin in the game.
Maybe that’s why her portraits seem so intimate. The sitters trust her—and they should. While Opie’s photos can be unflinching, Landreth’s are unabashedly lush and colourful. They remind me of the way John Singer Sargent’s portraits both reveal and flatter their subjects. Everyone in “Embodiment” looks beautiful, no matter how far they may stray from conventional norms of beauty. You can immediately understand why someone loves them, or ought to.
Molly Landreth, Embodiment: David and Isaac, Detroit, MI (2007). Archival Inkjet Print. Photo courtesy the artist
The history of queer portraiture hasn’t always been so positive. Photographers like Diane Arbus veered into freak-show territory. I got into a lively discussion about artistic voyeurism with Montreal artist JJ Levine at last year’s Mois de la Photo. Levine, a Concordia BFA, points out that even artists like Nan Goldin, who took very sympathetic portraits of transgendered people, were outsiders looking through the lens.
Levine’s own queergender photos are different. Because Levine is part of that community, the photos are about identity. They make a personal political statement, instead of saying, as Arbus did, “Hey, look at the freaks!”
JJ Levine, Switch 9 (2009). C-print. Photo courtesy the artist
I especially like Levine’s “Switch” series, in which a couple poses for a prom, with each taking a turn being the “girlfriend” or “boyfriend.” At first glance, they feel like photos you’ve seen a million times: the studio lighting and posed smiles, the slightly tacky clothes that a teenager might consider glamorous. Somehow I’d never realized how gender-specific those high school keepsakes are. So when I saw Levine’s portfolio at Mois de la Photo, it was a mental wake-up call to look at things differently.
And actually, that type of experience is what I like most about art. Art gives us a chance to “try on” someone else’s brain, and see the world from a different point of view. There’s a sensory joy in trying to think like Picasso or Yoko Ono, even if only for a moment.
JJ Levine, Switch 3 (2009). C-print. Photo courtesy the artist
I guess that’s why I’m often so disappointed by the photography from emerging artists that can sometimes seem too slick or trendy. I try to put myself in those artists’ brains, and all I can hear is, “I want a gallery show.” Most of us tend to think of photographs as being of something rather than by someone. But the “someone” is irreplaceable in a great photo. As Landreth’s and Levine’s work shows, it matters who’s looking.
Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.
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