Images by William S. Burroughs.
Copyright © William S. Burroughs Trust, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.
Image above: Untitled, Tangier, scan from negative, 1964
William S. Burroughs was a shooter but not a straight one. He killed his wife while attempting to shoot an apple off her head. He shot dope. And he shot pictures— photographs as well as splatter paintings that he riddled with bullets from a shotgun. He was serious about all of it.
Not about killing his wife. They were fooling around, drunk, but he got out of it by bribery and going on the lam. His aim was truer with a syringe. You can tell as much from the novels that made his name as a writer, Junky and Naked Lunch. He drew another kind of bead with a camera, though not many of his readers were ever aware of it. The shotgun paintings that he made in the later years of his life got him a lot more play as a visual artist, though Burroughs’s relationship to a camera began decades earlier. He never went anywhere without it. And he went everywhere—Mexico City, New York, London, Paris, the Amazon, Tangier—slipping with it through time and space. With his pictures he reached into the recesses of his psyche.
Technically speaking, his photographs are not great. He had them developed at drugstores, like Stephen Shore, but he didn’t care so much about the prints because he didn’t think of them as art. What’s interesting about them is what interested Burroughs in them. They were source material for photo collages and the collages— he called them “a way to travel”—were his art. And his art is interesting for its seamless relationship to his experiments in “cut-up” writing.
A precursor to hyperlinked fiction, the cut-up method – visible in the anti-narrative of Burroughs’s novel, The Soft Machine—was inspired by his long-time collaborator, the English artist Brion Gysin, and popularized in their collaborative book, The Third Mind. The technique involved hand-scissoring bits of text, original and appropriated, and reassembling them to make new compositions, repeating some phrases but never the same way twice. Think of them as code. The whole idea was an attempt to undermine what Burroughs, who resisted any form of authority, believed was standard practice for corporate, political and institutional powers: to control the flow and dissemination of thought with language. Burroughs applied the same fragmenting approach to images – perhaps even easier to manipulate as words – as he did to writing.
In a new book, Taking Shots, Patricia Allmer and John Sears offer up Burroughs-the-street-photographer-and-collage-artist. He wasn’t much of a documentarian, really. He didn’t look for perfect moments that later might show up in his writing. More often he shot people or scenes that reminded him of those he’d already written. Eventually, he cut up his photos to make collages and then shot the collages to make new photographs that he could once again cut up, reassembled and reshot to make new, single images. For Burroughs, who compared the art of collage to flower arranging, this was not an aesthetic pursuit. All of the photos in his collages had personal meaning, and each had a subjective theme—family and friends, say, or familiar places.
While living in Tangier in the 1960’s, he started mounting the collages on glass and doubled the images with mirrors that also reflected the artist-at-work on them, then shot that image, documenting the process while assembling yet another amalgam of object, image and silhouette each time—anything to disrupt the ruling order of linear time and objective space.
The pictures here suggest that the Burroughs studio was outdoors, on the ground—or perhaps he just wanted to shoot his work in daylight and himself with it. He made layer- cake-like, transparent buildings of glass panes, with just a few photos arranged on each and empty space around them. Only on looking down through the layered glass could one see a complete, all-over collage—actually an abstract mosaic of a collage of a collage of a collage. The individual cut snapshots aren’t all that legible and the effect of the whole is unstable. The glass-and-photo constructions may be unique to Burroughs. Today we know them only as photographs, relics of a time, a place and a wandering mind.
Untitled, Tangier, scan from negative, 1964
Self Portrait III, Tangier, scan from negative, 1964
Sullied, from the series The Oldest Living Things in the World
Photos by Joshua Citarella
I have a distinct memory of being about ten, meandering with my father through the isles of the improbably-named electronics store Nobody Beats the Wiz, and suddenly stumbling into a luminous thicket of television displays, which somehow—miraculously, to my mind—were playing synchronized copies of the wildly popular computer graphics VHS head-trip The Minds Eye. As cheesy cinematic music twittered and swelled, I was plunged into a whirling psychedelic technoscape. Its architecture and its inhabitants alike were fashioned from simple, texture-mapped geometric solids gussied up in garish colors and patterns that called to mind a parallel universe in which God was a member of the Italian design group Memphis, everybody’s favorite purveyors of post-modern playroom kitsch. Translucent orbs, chromed dinosaurs, and baroquely rippled bodies of pellucid water reflected and refracted their digital surrounds as if acting in sympathy with the recursive images being broadcast on the monolithic walls of TVs—extending into infinity, a virtual Indra’s net. My mind was blown. It seemed as if the future—a tangible, epically futuristic future—was right around the corner, and I was sure to be a part of it. It was going to be great.
Of course, living in the future now, I find it has a more prosaic texture: no jet pack, but also no virtual reality helmets, no robot pets, and no Hoverboard. The technological wonders that now interpenetrate our daily lives, which would surely has struck me as magic back then, can’t seem to dispel the pervasive feeling that the future promises to be a very bleak place indeed, even—or perhaps especially—if the techno-gnostic visions of post-humanist singularity junkies like Ray Kurzweil come to pass, freeing us from the shackles of want, environmental catastrophe, and the very limits of the flesh itself. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the future of past.
Oddly enough, despite the fact that he was still a toddler when I skrying the future in the Wiz’s cathode-ray crystal balls, this tug of the future past reared up in me the first time I went by Joshua Citarella’s studio to see his enigmatic, heavily digitally manipulated photographs, which immediately call to mind the images I remember illustrating the old computer graphics and imaging software how-to books that are presumably still gathering dust in the basement of my parents’ house. All of the familiar elements are here: generic fruits (apples, oranges), label-free wine bottles, and even an hourglass seemingly materialized directly out of the old Windows OS display their curvature and reflective sheen, color bars pop up for calibration, mise-en-abyme techniques point to all the would-be digital Eschers that littered the 90s computer graphics landscape, and, of course, an ample number of comely naked women, because who could do without? But despite the well-worn quality of these tropes, there is something strange going on in Citerella’s images, something off. Why, for instance, in Hourglass and Apples and Oranges (2011) is the model’s body mostly—but not entirely—slathered in greasy-looking grey paint? And why, for that matter, is the hourglass hanging in mid-rotation to her right suspended by such obvious wires? Isn’t this supposed to be high tech? The same could be asked of Skew Merge Curves Clone (2012), which appears to be as classic an early computer graphics tableau as one could ask for, all simple solids and tacky marble surfacing, until you notice the tell: a space where the contact paper covering the chair makes it clear that—at least in part—things are not as seamless as they seem.
These little glitches, the cracks in the digital façade, certainly punch up the artifice of what has become the ubiquitous and largely invisible labor of contemporary image production, where everything is subtly shaped and smoothed to conform to an arbitrarily determined Platonic ideal. But this doesn’t explain the strangest glitch of all: that Citarella’s work is, for all its multi-layered meta references to the advanced Photoshop technology that both helped create it and that ostensibly forms the backbone of its concerns, pointedly anachronistic. In my mind, this seeming arrest of aesthetic development has everything to do with the intertwining of my naïve childhood hopes for an unimaginably stimulating and sleek technological future, and the reality of its present manifestation, which too often seems to be predicated a progression of evermore baroque illusions of change, masking the hum of evermore entrenched sameness.
While the same shining-eyed hope I felt for a future bright with technological progress lingers in Citarella’s images, it is one that now feels expired, but has managed nevertheless to perseverate, to our great detriment. When we began to imagine a world made clean, sleek, and futuristic, it seems that we forgot to pay heed to the textures of the human that we were leaving behind, the glitches and cracks in our lives and environment that, while not always desirable, are nevertheless essential if we are to avoid the transformation of the world into one vast, sprawling Singapore: pristine, efficient, but utterly repressive. With this in mind, the little glitches in Citerella’s work, above their function as earmarks of the ersatz, seem also to be faint glimmers of hope.
Photo by David LaChapelle
Tupac Shakur: When I Was A Slave, 1996
© David LaChapelle. Courtesy: Fred Torres Collaborations, New York
Pictures beget other pictures, often in ways that defy prediction or obvious logic. Could there be a less likely affiliation than one linking the austere images of Walker Evans from the 1930s and those of David LaChapelle, the master of Pop baroque? Between forgotten subjects of total anonymity and the celebrities of a fashion and media industry familiar to nearly everyone on the planet? The story of a single picture, LaChapelle’s 1996 portrait of rapper Tupac Shakur, When I Was a Slave, is a story of artistic inspiration, but it’s also a story of how pictures talk to each other through time, and how the present recreates – and reanimates – the past.
LaChapelle told it during a Dear Dave, magazine conversation in March, and a reprise requires some preamble. LaChapelle came to New York in the early 1980s with passionate artistic ambitions, but after a few gallery shows, little recognition and fewer sales, he made the not unreasonable decision to concentrate on what he was getting paid for – portraits for magazines like Interview and i-D. But he had a hidden agenda—to communicate about life, death, and society’s future in the guise of celebrity images—and by the time he came to shoot Shakur, his images were already shaking up the fashion world. Shakur had no idea who LaChapelle was and probably couldn’t have cared if he had. He was literally just out of a New York prison after a year for sexual assault, and this was a shoot with some white kid, part of the media maw Shakur figured he needed to feed.
But there was a difference, as LaChapelle later found out: the rapper had been to art school, and that was probably why the photographer’s idea for the session actually happened: Shakur knew how images carry symbolic freight – just as LaChapelle knew that making art is all about borrowing from past sources. Rapper and photographer came together on a bridge made by Evans’ photographs: “It’s early in the morning and I’m in bed with my boyfriend and in comes Tupac with his entire crew, two hours early. No rapper ever comes to a shoot early. He’d been up all night and he wanders into my bedroom, sits on the bed and wants to know what we’re doing. I scramble to get my notebooks and reference pictures together because I’m not ready to tell him, and I start showing him all these images from Walker Evans of people working in the fields down south. Finally he stops me and says, ‘Let me get this straight: you want to shoot me as a slave?’ I explained that I’d read that rap evolved from the call and response hollers that people used to shout to keep from going insane while working in the fields. ‘I’m down with that,’ he said, and we did it.”
No one knew Shakur would become a victim of hip hop’s violent milieu, a product of ingrained racial inequality. But the image stands out in LaChapelle’s body of work stark for its directness and weirdly prophetic intuition. It doesn’t comment on Shakur’s celebrity but does an end run around it to get at another issue. Referencing Evans’ portraits of prisoners and sharecroppers inserts an emerging Pop icon into history, anchors the gangsta myth in the American narrative of race. At the same time, the LaChapelle image sends us back to Evans’ 1930s photographs with a sharpened awareness of the questions they implicitly posed: Is stoicism the only answer to oppression? Is martyrdom the price of dignity? Is this America?
Photo by Walker Evans
Near Tupelo, Mississippi. Negro farming, 1936 Mar.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Malerie Marder, a noted photographer, recently published a book for her series, Anatomy, which has gained attention both in and out of the art world. An artist who developed her style in the late 1990s at Yale, Marder is known for bodies of work that explore intimacy through portraits and nude figure studies.
Anatomy consists of allegorically inspired portraits of Dutch sex workers. As an artist and a sex worker myself, Marder’s relationship to the women she photographed feels deeply unsettling. Why isn’t anyone talking about this series being problematic?
Photographed during multiple trips to Holland over a period of six years, she paid each of the women $480 1. While being interviewed, Marder has described the women she “collaborated” with as “part hallucinatory and part real, [they] intrinsically have a different relationship to their bodies…Women’s bodies hide as much as they reveal. I thought of Aphrodite, working single mothers, odalisques, adulterers and enigmas…. The thought of how they got there was deeply troubling. My camera was a passport into a gray, hidden world; the result of a liberal society where free will is a question mark.”2 After an extended period of working on a project that depicts sex workers, Marder’s insight into the relationship we have with our bodies and our communities resembles that of a 19th century sociologist.
Since the study and examination of sex worker’s bodies began, it has marked them as abnormal and diseased. Marder’s photographs depict little more than a modern continuation of this harmful legacy. Repeatedly, reviews of the work claim the images to be both revealing and haunting. The reviewers followed Marder’s lead, writing of these women’s world as dark and vulnerable, and concluding that the photographs are emblematic of that dark reality. What is left out of both parties equations, is the presence of the photographer. When the work is evaluated with her attendance accounted for, the facial expressions and postures of Marder’s subjects are haunting for an entirely different reason. They are haunting, not because through them these women’s daily conditions are revealed, but rather because the relationship between the photographer and her subject is revealed.
In these photographs the women look disassociated, apathetic and potentially exploited, because in that moment that might very well be their experience. By othering these women, Marder has recreated the patriarchal gaze. Marder has carefully constructed both the narrative and the poses of these photographs; she did not stumble into Dutch brothels and find these women in the condition of her images. Indicative of this agenda at the most basic level, is that all of the subjects are photographed either nude or in lingerie and fetish clothing. She describes how her intentions evolved with the series, “I set out to do a body of work centered on women. I wanted to explore the aesthetics of the female figure, and was looking for a theme that would address relationships between the body and society. I also wanted to examine a subject that was out of my comfort zone. I went to Holland for an exhibition and became fascinated with prostitutes and brothels.”3
Had she maintained the project as her personal exploration of female sexuality, and simply hired sex workers to model, that would have been one thing. Instead, she initiated the project with a particular theme in mind, used sex workers as canvas for her projections, and then presents the imagery of these women as a revelation of their authentic selves. Marder takes an exercise from the history of painting, and through a modern critical lens, promises revelations about the women and their true condition.
After she has revealed their condition to you, she diagnoses it. The name of her project, Anatomy, is stated to reference Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a prolific text from 1621 that catalogs and analyzes the human condition, and abnormal melancholy. Using Burton’s book translates Marder’s subjects as whole creations of misery. And by referencing the study of human anatomy, the photographs reinforce sex workers being historically abused and othered by science as isolated, diseased bodies.
To claim the project as a collaboration, as Marder has, is nothing short of astounding.4 I see no suggestion of Marder offering the women any self-identification or agency through the work. Any power or resilience in the images comes from the women, despite the photographer, not because of her. Largely, these women appear guarded in Marder’s fabricated moments, and for good reason. Marder is not the first photographer to exploit this community, and she will not be the last.
1 Lounes, Sonia. “These Gorgeous (and NSFW) Photos of Dutch Prostitutes Resemble Classical Paintings.” VICE. N.p., n.d. Web. Aug. 2014
2 Ochi, Pauli. “Malerie Marder’s Powerful Photographs Of Sex Workers.”BeautifulDecay Artist Design. Beautiful/Decay, n.d. Web. Aug. 2014.
3 Ebony, David. “Malerie Marder: Out of Her Comfort Zone.” Art In America. N.p., n.d. Web. Aug. 2014.
Text by Vince Aletti | Images by Kimberlee Veneble