As displayed in Francesca Woodman's hauntingly intimate photos, and Artpsan member Ann-Mari Broman's frank and powerful postures, certain photographers are unafraid to bare all. Others prefer to explore the human form and features while under the guise of powerful, and sometimes comical guises, such as Cindy Sherman and Artspan member Sally Stockhold. Such artists have created meaningful work that continues to inspire and enlighten critics and amateur photographers alike.
Francesca Woodman created a photographic legacy that has managed to remain relevant in the rapidly-changing contemporary art landscape of today. The photographer, who took her life in 1981 at the age of 22, captured dreamy photos that walk the line between demonic and angelic, disarmingly erotic and formally playful. Her retrospective in early 2012 at the Guggenheim featured 120 pieces that surveyed her brief, yet fruitful career.
Although using her body as a subject was certainly not a new concept—Ana Mendieta and Bruce Nauman were also doing the same, as was Cindy Sherman, who was just beginning to produce photographs of herself in various guises that would launch her career in the late 70’s. Yet something about Woodman’s style, a mix that NY Times writer Ken Johnson described as “borderline kitschy…a heated mix of Victorian gothic, Surrealism and 19th-century spirit photography,” set her apart.
Her admiration for the work of fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville is apparent in the shadowy and textured scenes shot in an abandoned house in Providence R.I. One such image from the “Space2” series shows Woodman covering her face and legs with blurred wallpaper, exposing her bare stomach like a ghostly resemblance of herself.
Although decidedly not student-like, many of her works were created in response to class assignments at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she was enrolled from 1975-1978. Her works display the high-low struggle between innocence and experience, always with a focus on the body. The fact that her works remain relevant decades after her death, is a testament to her talent.
Similarly, Artspan member photographer Ann-Mari Broman has created powerful series, such as “Broken Soul” and “Nudes,” which use the human form, often the nude body, to elicit complex emotions in the viewer. Broman, who grew up in Sweden, began experimenting with photography while attending classes at a community college in her area, was particularly inspired by working in the dark room with black and white images. “I love the contrasts in black and white photos and the mood they can convey to the audience.” Says Broman, adding “Even though, digital photography is the most popular way to take photos today, I still prefer the art of developing your print with chemicals.”
Like Woodman’s work, which for the most part was made up of small square prints, lending an air of antiquity, Broman has a similar penchant for digging into the depths of the history of photography. She enjoys taking pictures with her large format camera, which harkens back to the 1930’s, when most cameras measured four-by-five inches. Several of the photos in her “Nudes” series were taken with such a device. This particular series depicts men and women in vulnerable positions, which strongly suggest sadness and grief. In one, a man lies nude on the leafy ground, covering his face desolately with his hand, while in others, male and female nudes crouch dejectedly in the fetal position.
Much like Woodman’s work, the photos create an aura of isolation and inner turmoil. The photographs in Broman's “Broken Soul Series” are similarly powerful and slightly more surreal. Ghostly images of a bright-eyed doll are transposed onto an animal’s skeleton, which is then mirrored on a sleek black surface. “Both series,” says Broman “Came from deep inside my soul after experiencing a personal loss that affected me deeply.”
For her artistic influences, Broman sites Dorothea Lang's strikingly honest portrayals of people in America, Imogen Cunningham's beautiful Black and White photos of plants, as well as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon's portraits. She is also an admirer of Lennart Nilsson, whose pictures she was exposed to when growing up in Sweden and Diane Arbus' famous portraits of quirky people.
When it comes to quirky characters, one larger-than-life photographer takes the cake: Cindy Sherman. Sherman, who has transformed herself into hundreds of different personas over her 35-year career, bares everything but her true self, quite the opposite of the heart-breaking intimacy of Woodman and Broman's work, while no less striking. Audiences have seen the artist as a movie star, a sinister clown, a Renaissance courtesan an 80's prom queen, and much much more—rare is a view of the prolific photographer without a disguise.
“None of the characters are me,” Sherman told Carol Vogel of the New York Times in an interview earlier this year. “They’re everything but me. If it seems too close to me, it’s rejected.” In February 2012, Sherman witnessed her MoMA retrospective, which featured over 170 portraits and was her first in 14 years.
Sherman was among the first artists to come of age in the era of television and mass media, a generation referred to as the “pictures generation,” whose members produced works that combined Pop Art and conceptualism. The photographer got her start in the 70's, with the help of her “Untitled Film Stills,” portraits inspired by black and white movies and ladies' magazines. These works and those to come, put her in a category with artists such as Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler and Laurie Simmons, who were examining gender issues in a way no one had done before. In 1981, her Playboy-inspired “Centerfolds” portrait series, in which the women were clothed and displaying dissatisfied and often tortured emotions, launched her career.
“The contradictory and complex readings of her work reinforces its ongoing relevance to multiple audiences,” Eva Respini, associate curator of photography at MoMA told The New York Times last February. “More than ever, identity is malleable and fluid, and her photographs confirm this.” Respini added.
One of her first assignments in a photography class was to confront something that was hard for her. “I took a series of myself naked in front of the camera,” she said, “And that was when I started using myself, but at the same time, not as an art practice, just for therapy or something. I would transform my face with makeup into various characters just to pass the time.”
A boyfriend suggested she document herself in these costumes, and after the pair moved to New York in the late 70's, Sherman would often be seen gallivanting about town in costume. Since then she's portrayed herself as everything from the Roman god Bacchus to spray-tanned teenagers.
Artspan photographer Sally Stockhold has also garnered quite a bit of attention by photographing herself in a variety of elaborate guises. Her “myselfportraits ode to icons and absurdities” features the artist dressed as a variety of historical characters in surprising detail. Often comical in nature, such as the “Diane Arbus photographing the Doppelgänger Twins” photo, in which Stockhold portrays a striped and frightful pair of twins, as well as the photographer, her work often has a slightly more light-hearted feel than Sherman's.
The Denver-based photographer got her start slightly before Sherman, while studying under photographers Jay Maisel and Joel Meyerwitz at Cooper Union in New York City in the late 60's. “I started doing photography by default while I was in my second year studying painting” says Stockhold. “By "default" I mean that by 1969 painting was considered "dead." We were all splashing paint around and very few of us knew what we were trying to accomplish.” After taking a mandatory photography course, she quickly realized that the medium gave her the formal structure that was lacking in painting. “The moment I picked up a cheap little camera with a 50mm lenses I was hooked.” she said “I never left my tiny apartment without a camera.”
Stockhold was aware of Cindy Sherman's “Untitled Film Stills” but says she wasn't enlightened enough at the time to understand the importance of the work. Now that she has studied Sherman's work, she says, “I admire, respect and understand her place in post-modern art history.”
Stockhold took a nearly twenty-year artistic hiatus in the early-80's, picking up the camera again in 2002 after taking a local photography course. She began photographing teenagers and doing some politically satirical staged pictures, while showing work in galleries. At that time, she received the inspiration for her “myselfportraits” series, and later “myselfportraits ode to icons and other absurdities,” unabashed photos that feature the photographer dressed as various historical figures, mostly women. Stockhold clearly remembers the moment the idea came to her. “I came downstairs one morning and noticed fully blossomed Dahlia's in my garden.” she said “I Bobbi-pinned three of those flowers into my hair, found a shawl, tacked a lace tablecloth on the wall, added a little make-up and embodied Frida Kahlo.” She instantly realized that she wanted to embody women from history. “It was too much fun,” says Stockhold “and also emotionally gratifying.”
Stockhold prefers black and white images to keep her “balanced and under the radar of commercialism,” she explains. She enjoys selectively hand-coloring her photographs and limiting the number of prints she produces. “That way I feel I'm adding my touch to my pictures even though they are digitally printed.” she added. Sherman cites American photographer Duane Michals as her main artistic influence. “Being a story teller myself,”she said, “he gave me permission to eventually dive into story telling as I continue on my journey. Currently, Stockhold has begun to impersonate men “only as long as they played an important role in my chosen iconic woman's life” she says.
From the self-examining work of Francesca Woodman and Ann-Mari Broman to the outwardly reflective photos of Cindy Sherman and Sally Stockhold, these four artists have created a photographic legacy that provides powerful inspiration to photography fans and artists today.