"Can I take your picture?"
It's an ostensibly innocent question...until you put it in context. Then the age and social position of the photographer and the photographed come into play. Then the location becomes important, the other subjects and observers even more so. Realize the relationship (parent-child, adult-teenager, moneymaker-moneytaker, etc.) and the power dynamic becomes paramount. As a photographer, you're an amateur but you know about light, composition, and perspective and how to meet or at least mitigate the photographic challenges presented by the situation. But for the life of you, you can't get that stupid expression off of the face of the subject.
"Relax," you say as if it's simple magic, as if even after 30-plus years of psychoanalysis that word doesn't still put you on edge.
"You just told me to smile."
"Not like that...Now don't frown. And don't raise your left eyebrow or curl your lip like your uncle."
"Because he's in prison?"
"Because it doesn't look attractive on you."
"His facial expression when he used to kick your ass at ever game you ever played or the specter of prison?"
"Just don't smile or look into the camera."
"Could you stand better and not flare your nostrils."
"This is how I stand."
"For posterity's sake."
"Who's that? Someone else who used to intimidate you?"
"How about I just take a couple random shots and you show me how to use Photoshop?"
Chances are if your thumbs aren't your most dexterous digits and your entire life isn't encapsulated in binary code in "the cloud", you've faced this challenge many times. If so, you will love the photographs in "A Girl and her Room" by Rania Matar at De Santos Gallery.
The show is nothing more than it advertises: pictures of girls (mostly Americans) between the ages of 16 and 21 in their rooms. In our reality obsessed, live 24 x 7 culture, that sounds pretty unremarkable, so two-seasons ago. It would be if televised "reality" was authentic. Yet, like butt implants or Botox smiles, it only appears so at first glance.
Matar is an excellent photographer as her website attests. She's a professional. She's a teacher. Of course, the technical aspects of these shots are of the highest quality. But their allure lies neither in their formal composition nor their post-production values. The power of this show lies in its authenticity.
These aren't drama shots. No one's being harmed or violated or confronted or molested. No one's being prompted or provoked. The subjects are simply "being" in their own personal sanctuaries, in their locus of control, in their rooms.
The images feel like Matar and the subject are having a conversation. Randomly, Matar asks, "can I take your picture?" The subject looks away for an instant, then says "sure," and continues the conversation. It's this level of casual intimacy that makes these pictures so radiant. For me, it's where the genius of this exhibit lies. These images are much more revealing than the celebrity portraits (some would say costume farces) that made Annie Leibovitz's career. These images cut through the drama (of Leibovitz and Reality TV) and get to what I suspect both are after, totally real live people.
Matar captures these young women in the chrysalis of their rooms. (True, the butterfly metaphor is trite and hackneyed and the self-actualizing, bad-ass adolescent women of today resemble the praying mantis more than Monarch pupa. But mantises molt, and the metaphor falls flat.) It's Matar's ability to gain access to this inner sanctum--physically, emotionally, psychologically--that's makes these images' power possible.
In some pictures, the subject is physically surround on one side by toys of childhood (stuffed animals) and on the other side the tools of adulthood (make up and images of models, actors, singers, and sports figures).
In others, the subject's shyness or complete comfort allows you the viewer through Matar's indirect gaze to see a perspective you might never be allowed to see or might fail to pay attention to if you were. The challenge is not to construct a narrative from the photographic evidence before you but rather to absorb the complexities of the one laid bare.
Matar's website has a quote from Constantine Manos of Magnum Photos that attests that her photographs aren't political. Don't believe it. They are political with a small "p". Her photographs shed light on the beautiful, the ugly, the routine aspects of life that hint at why we endure the burlesque that is politics with a capital "P".
The images included in this review are just a sample of what's at De Santos Gallery. Drag a surly, uncooperative adolescent to see the photos. Afterwards, you'll view both of them in a different light.