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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Students Write | Maggie O'Hara

Images Within Images
by: Maggie O’Hara

Kenneth Josephson is a photographer who incorporates a style that resembles traditional black and white documentary photography with the ideas of a conceptual process. Josephson earned a BFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology where he studied under well know photographer Minor White. He was then sent to Germany by the U.S. army where he trained in photolithography. From here, Josephson was a professor at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago from 1960 to 1997. Josephson created images in the 1960s and 1970s that placed him at the forefront of Conceptual photography. During this time of his early photographic career, he focused on the act of picture making and poked fun at photographic truth and illusion. Josephson brought the idea that not all photographs are always truthful to the table. His playful, juxtapositions of photographs challenge our perspectives and invite us to consider different concepts of images. Josephson incorporates energetic compositions and creates beautiful objects with his printing. Yet, he is always consciously utilizing humor. His work suggests a span of perspectives beyond the physical boundaries of the photograph. He encourages the viewer to consider that what they are seeing is not just the single existence of the image, itself, but other occurrences or things that may have happened before to influence the production of the image. Josephson’s art includes a series of ideas and images that are beautiful, considerate, and humorous.

The specific photograph that truly grabs my attention comes from a series of pictures within pictures. The image is titled “Polapan, 1973”, and it assures us that we should question the trueness of photography. This image, along with many others from this specific series, definitely challenges me to dedicate serious thought to how an image works in the mind. Sure, I’ve seen images that resemble those of this series, but it’s something special about this specific photograph that leaves me pleasantly mystified in my own mind. The photograph exhibits an expressive subject matter: a short, black, and, what appears to be, corduroy skirt. Just beneath this delicate skirt lies a pair of pale, bare legs. These legs appear so perfect, almost like they could be made of porcelain and broken by a delicate touch. The legs are reclining against a sheet with a playful pattern of lines that invites me, nearly begs me, to look closer. I’m not sure what it is about the pattern, but my eyes are drawn to the very middle of the picture no matter what line of the pattern my eyes are first fixed on. No matter the definite direction of the line, my eyes are drawn to the center of the photograph. The black lines against the white background of the sheet lure my eyes to the blackness of the skirt.

The photograph is shot so frontally that the woman seems almost to be standing upright rather than being in her assumed position of lying. Resting on the skirt is a Polaroid of a woman’s naked thighs and abdomen. Again, I am invited to look closer. There is something so queer about the fact of the Polaroid of naked body parts being placed over where they would be had the subject not been clothed. The Polaroid, revealing the beauty of a woman’s naked abdomen, is, I’m assuming, strategically placed in the center of the image. It’s the darkness of the hair, next to the pale legs, against the dark skirt, above the pale legs that are resting on the patterned sheet that creates a beautiful movement. It’s a sense of repetition I get in looking at this image. I see the repetition of, obviously, an image within an image, but also a repetition of tones within these images. The formal elements of this photograph are undeniably wonderful.

The Polaroid is obviously lying on top of a woman’s skirt, yet the effect of this addition acts like a window. It allows us to think that we are seeing the whole truth, as if we were looking right through a window. The woman is clothed, but nonetheless she is revealed. The message of this image is certainly mixed but not altogether unclear. It seems as though it is the photographer who is in complete control. The photographer is able to capture and make permanent what he wishes. The subject is unable to hide from the lens of the camera; from the eyes of the camera. Josephson is playing mind games with his viewers. Although he has presented the image, the many interpretations of his photographs are left for the viewer to make.

I can’t help but wonder if this photograph would have the same appeal if it was an image of Polaroid of a naked male abdomen lying on a pair of jean shorts above a pair of masculine, hairy legs. I don’t know; I simply don’t know. However, I think it’s important that this is a thought of mine. Am I attracted to this image because I have been taught that the naked female body is “beautiful?” Possibly. Am I attracted to this image because I enjoy looking at a naked female’s abdomen? Possibly. Would I more or less enjoy looking at a naked male’s abdomen? Once again, I simply do not know. I am stupefied, yet in absolute bliss that a photograph has the power to bring these thoughts to my mind. Regardless, this is an image of a Polaroid of a female’s naked abdomen. To me, that says something. Can artists not take straight photographs of a female’s naked abdomen? Must we take pictures of the abdomen clothed then place Polaroid pictures of the naked abdomen on top? And, relating to my last thoughts, why female and not male?

Women have always been seen as being unequal to men and artists have always sought to portray the concept that the female body is beautiful. In looking at this image, I almost see Josephson making a joke of this. If he wanted to capture a beautiful image of the naked female body, he would have done just that. He wouldn’t have a clothed woman lying on a bed with a Polaroid of a naked crotch shot on her crotch. In this, I see Josephson somewhat poking fun of the now universal idea that the naked female body is thought to be this beautiful thing.

In the photograph “Polapan, 1973” by Kenneth Josephson, we are reminded that a picture of a naked woman’s abdomen, no matter how realistic it looks, is still not itself a naked woman’s abdomen. Furthermore, a photograph of a woman, dressed in a skirt, lying on a sheet, with a Polaroid of a woman’s naked abdomen lying on her, is not itself real. It’s just an image; nothing about it is necessarily real. One would assume this to be an obvious lesson, the Polaroid looking so two-dimensional and foreign when placed against the skirt of a real woman, until one realizes that the entire image is just a photograph. It is just as flat and fake as the image pictured within it. Kenneth Josephson demonstrates in his images that not all photography is truthful. While doing this, Josephson plays with the minds of his viewers, forcing them to take a deeper look into what photography is.

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