|January 25-April 13,
Akin & Ludwig: The Women Series
Akin & Ludwug
The Women Series ,1992-1994
From the Collection of
the Chrysler Museum of Art,
Norfolk, Virginia, Anonymous Gift
|The photograph does
not call up the past. The effect it produces upon me is not to restore
what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what
I see has indeed existed. -Roland Barthes. 1
Gwen Akin and Allan Ludwig's The Women Series comprises over 200 images of women which the artists culled from our culture's ephemera and detritus, including yard sales, flea markets, used books stores, and friends' attics. The artists then rephotographed the images and placed all of them in similar black oval frames. They further focused on the women's facial features so that the women's faces (in frontal, side, and three-quarter views) all but fill the oval frames. Most communicatory elements such as clothing, accouterments, or backgrounds have been cropped out, leaving only these fragmented images. Dating from the late 19th century through the 20th century, the images include not only anonymous studio portraits of middle-class Victorian women whose severe hair styles, facial expressions, and collars emphasize their culture, but also recognizable figures as diverse as Dionne Warwick, Queen Elizabeth II, and former radical Angela Davis. Contrived glamour poses mix with what appear to be news-wire images, and casually beautiful starlets mingle with grim-faced Victorians. The photographs in Akin and Ludwig's installation sustain and attest to the past-all the women have lived-and portend the future-they will all die. Semiotician Roland Barthes writes, "in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past." 2The Women Series focuses on photographs of the past, from Victorian women to contemporary women, and allows the viewer to speculate on who these women were and what various meanings radiate from their photographs.
We often think of the photograph as one of our most irreplaceable belongings. For many of us, if our home were burning, photographs of our loved ones (particularly if they are dead) are among the effects we may be most likely to rescue. Perhaps it is because through the photograph, we may remember what has been. And what has been is part of our personal histories, informing not only who we are, but how we have come to be. Just as genetic coding can forecast what may be, images of our personal and familial histories reassure us (for good or bad) that who or what is depicted actually existed.
Photographs are cultural and social messages by which we decipher not only who we are but that we have been. While we may derive photographic meaning through an analysis of signs, systems, and theoretical discourse, we also know that the photograph is one of the most ubiquitous instruments of modern society. From its early-19th-century inception, it became embedded into the social grain. Daguerreotypes (the early and cumbersome photographic process produced on metallic plates rather than paper), cartes-de-visite , Victorian studio portraits, and images used by governments to identify agitators 3all contribute to the shifting social position, uses, and popularity of the photograph. For instance, the introduction of the daguerreotype in America allowed Americans to promote and preserve their changing country and themselves. "Americans were estimated to have spent between $8 million and $12 million in 1850 for portraits alone, representing 95 percent of photographic production." 4Even in its infancy, photography's social, political, economic, cultural, and personal significance was articulated by contemporaneous writers. In 1857, writer Lady Elizabeth Eastlake noted that Photography has become a household word and a household want; it is used alike by art and science, by love, business, and justice; is found in the most sumptuous saloon, and in the dingiest attic-in the solitude of the Highland cottage, and in the glare of the London gin-palace-in the pocket of the detective, in the cell of the convict, in the folio of the painter and architect, among the papers and patterns of the mill owner and manufacturer, and on the cold brave breast on the battlefield. 5
Lady Eastlake astutely circumscribed and even forecast photography's discursive uses and meanings. Socially, photography has been and still is an institutional and governmental tool of surveillance, documentation, identification, and civil status. Culturally, photography is an intimate agent through which we record our personal and familial lives.
Akin and Ludwig's choice of only women's images for this installation was driven by aesthetics rather than politics, although the resulting installation is charged with sociological implications. When they first began to collect images, Akin and Ludwig gathered both men's and women's images, however, when they started assembling them as an installation, they noticed a disparity between the men and the women. Almost without exception, the men were completely without expression. While the women demonstrated a range of gazes, from the sexual to the benign, and revealed some form of "character," the men's faces seemed blank, completely without revelation. The artists felt that the women's images simply constituted a more visually rich and intriguing installation. Therefore, the final installation, solely comprised of women, encourages us to examine diverse views of women, femininity, and sexuality, and more specifically, how images of women, particularly photographic images, function in our culture.
The way in which women are photographed contributes to how meaning is produced around an image. According to art historian Griselda Pollock, "Color, focus, texture, printing procedures, airbrushing, grain, and so forth, all constitute signifying elements that must be scrupulously decoded." 6However, Akin and Ludwig have rephotographed most of the original photographs, have then printed them all with similar printing techniques, and then framed and [re]presented them equally. Their manipulation of the image occludes the original signifying elements Pollock refers to, which might enable us to decode the photograph's meaning. While we may surmise, we cannot know the original production site of these images, which would help us understand their meaning. For instance, some may be from fashion advertising; some from Hollywood promotion; some, as in the case of Queen Elizabeth II, may be an institutionalized image. Conversely, her image may have been culled from the front page of a daily newspaper headlining a scandal. All these possibilities for interpretation create a frisson of expectation and new narrative possibilities. Akin and Ludwig have abducted the photographs from their site of origin, salvaged them from erasure, transplanting them to a new, yet fragmented site.
What is the traffic, then, between the images? What types of femininity are displayed and how? Is the sexually charged gaze of a starlet-a product of our culture's notions of sexuality-more feminine that the straightforward glance of another, plainer woman? While the images are all in black and white, photographed in the same manner, and absent their original and unique surface gloss (à la Pollock), we can still discern dramatic lighting and a gaze where lips are parted and eyes are heavily made up; these images contrast with starker, less staged images. And what of it? What new or contrived narratives might contextualize these images of women that have been revitalized by Akin and Ludwig's photographic intervention? Perhaps now that the images have been recontextualized, why they were produced becomes less important than simply the fact that they were produced and remain, in fragmented form, here. These synecdoches-the part that stands in for the whole-dispel any singular notion of woman, femininity, and sexuality. By arresting the images from destruction-the fading of the chemicals, the disintegration of the paper-Akin and Ludwig attest and affirm that these women, in their varying representations of the feminine, did exist.
Photography, whose historical roots lie partially in identification of the body politic, also functions as an intimate coinage of personal and cultural memorialization. It may help to examine one of the more personal relationships our culture has had with photography-its affiliation with death. In 19th-century middle-class America and Britain, postmortem photography functioned as part of the mourning process and paraphernalia. The photograph served as memento of the deceased, and was testament to what had been. Keeping and contemplating photographs of deceased loved ones enabled ritualized grieving. In Camera Lucida , Barthes dwells on a photograph of his deceased mother to sustain his grief. He writes, "In front of a photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself she is going to die: I shudder ... over a catastrophe which has already occurred . Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe." 7Akin and Ludwig's photographs of women, some dead, some still living, create a monument to both. We often keep photographs of our loved ones to stabilize ourselves against the loss that we know will eventually occur. And we know, with the only certainty we really have, that all the women pictured here have died, or will die.
The Women Series comprises a vibrant, new site for these lost, discarded, and dispossessed images. The myriad views of women allow and encourage us to examine their various presences and guises through the last century. Writing about the photograph's relationship to death and how a photograph seizes a fractured moment, Christian Metz suggests, "there [is] another real death which each of us undergoes every day, as each day we draw nearer our own death. Even when the person photographed is still living, that moment when she or he was has forever vanished."8 Akin and Ludwig's women attest to specific moments in time, signifying, as much as they can in their fragmentation, the ordinary, visual moments that coalesce into a life. In simple terms, the photograph reminds us: this is how we dressed; how we wore our hair; how we smiled, or didn't at this moment; how we looked. Its effect, then, states: we existed.