Behind The Lens Plus is an online exhibition of photographic-based work by women. It is the companion exhibition to Behind The Lens 2020: Women in Photography that was held March–October 2020 at the Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts.
The Only Known Home from The Stories I Have To Tell series, by Alexis Childress –– A visual testament to the trial of “belonging” within white-washed power structures.
“Deriving inspiration from Afrofuturism, I create surreal, digitally created compositions that use technology to explore the meanings of race, culture, and autobiography. Being raised in a majority white Midwestern community, I was exposed to a bland, biased explanation of African American culture, history and societal allowances, confused about the Black and white spaces in my life. My use of digital manipulation imitates the cultural manipulation I endured growing up in the Midwest, channeling technology as a medium for the visual representation of lived experience. By constructing combinations of photographs, digital marks and found imagery, I represent the strategically designed, fabricated culture of Black people that was presented to me while examining and critiquing my own Black history and the Black experience in America.
Integrating digitally created shapes into my compositions allows me to visually replicate the power structures that exist within and dictate Midwestern social systems as well as racially oppressive systems throughout the country. Through digitally transferred paint drips and smears, I symbolize the confusion and suspicions I have of what is inside of me and who I am, caused by propinquity to a non-inclusive environment that influenced my self-perception and instilled a distrust within myself. In addition, the photographic exploration of the pockets, curves and shapes of my body, provide me the power to rediscover my own Blackness, creating parallels between the body passed to me through generations and the true history of Black people.
Ultimately, I am allowing technology to demonstrate my mental and physical navigation of racial identity, cultural history and lived experience––creating final compositions that are structured and designed, yet hold meaning and information within every mark.”
–– Alexis Childress
In a 2016 interview with Aperture magazine, Autograph London’s senior curator Renée Mussai (1) shared that “the desire to find one’s place […] is a natural drive towards the validation of one’s existence, especially for artists working in a space defined or somehow marked by ‘diaspora,’ and affected by themes of displacement, whatever these may be.” Mussai goes on to acknowledge that “some of the most profound artworks are born out of this moment when subjectivity meets history, and in the act of inserting oneself into a grand narrative of absence.”
Alexis Childress digitally collages and conflates imagery as a way of processing, or instead building, a narrative that did not rise up to meet her. Childress uses materials that others have created, along with geometric shapes and photographs she takes of her own body, in an intimate exploration of placelessness, and a systematic pursuit of belonging.
In The Only Known Home, Childress isn’t necessarily inserting herself into a positive Black futurity. Instead, her almost macabre way of fractionating self-portraits serves to vocalize the stifling conditions in which she was raised. This process exposes the “bland, biased explanation” of Black history and identity that the artist’s white-washed Midwestern upbringing offered. There’s a condemnation of the “smile-and-the-world-smiles-with-you routine” as James Baldwin called it (also referenced in the Mussai interview).
Unlike analog collage, Childress’ digital manipulation fuses all of her source materials onto the same plane. Suddenly, her images are stripped of contextualization. I can’t help but think about how they are like im/migrant visual accounts of displacementand also, how they are very much not. This is an artist who could not parse out the shape of her own culture growing up, or even find a hyphen in her own name. These could be small studies of existentialism: how a self-arranged past connects, or doesn’t, to the unknowable future.
In The Only Known Home, Childress’ uncovered, truncated body folds in on itself at the bottom of two tangental walls. Architecture insists that triangles are the strongest shape, capable of withstanding greater forces on their walls than any other. They are “safe;” they are hard to break. But triangles are the shape of trickle-down thinking, and hierarchies. Triangles are the shape of pyramids––and the transatlantic trade. To quote artist and educator Sonya Clark in the context of her Afro-Caribbean roots, that trade “is responsible for my people being in the Western Hemisphere.” (2)
Childress’ work demands collective consideration: how much of these racial and nationalist powers structures are woven into American ideas of “home”? To what extent does history, art, and photography in this “homeland” fail to validate and preserve ideas of sanctuary—like a faulty patina that bubbles and melts under pressure?
Alexis Childress is an Atlanta-based photographer and mixed media artist born and raised in Illinois, then relocating to Georgia in 2013. Inspired by Afrofuturism, her work manifests as visual interpretations of her experiences growing up as a Black woman in the rural Midwest, confronted with racial tensions and generational oppression; using technology to examine race, culture, social transition, and self-identity. She received her BFA from Georgia State University and her work has been shown with Atlanta Photography Group Gallery, Day and Night Projects and published in Under the Bridge Zine. View more of Childress’ work here.
(1) I first came across Renée Mussai’s work by way of her Letter II: The Courage That Fuels Your Counter-Archival Impulse to Zanele Muholi in Black Futures (co-edited by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham, 2020).
(2) From a correspondence between Sonya Clark and curators at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, published in the catalogue for Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend (2021).
Untitled by Kayla Guajardo — A form of visual memoir that helps us cherish quotidian complexities, and muse on things unplanned.
Exploration through the lens offers me a present eye and active curiosity that has become the most important way of contextualizing and understanding the world around me. What do I see? Why do I see it? What does it say about me and my experience? A daily pursuit that allows me to access the beauty of my surroundings and the beauty within myself.
–– Kayla Guajardo
Kayla Guajardo’s photographs feel a little bit like a notebook of phrases that she doesn’t want to forget. Or, a collection of trinkets she’s found over the years. Like note-taking, or collecting, her images are a product of curiosity. But, these visual notations to herself also come from, and in turn deliver, a quiet and resolute gratitude. The world is her study, and also her treasure trove.
I can sense this in her piece shown here. I have looked through those cold diamonds. I have felt a small electric current when a tear in that fibrous wall was within sight. I have reveled at what is understood but not really meant to be seen: the dismembered mannequin between seasons, the ballet dancer catching breath offstage, the reporter laughing before the commercial break ends and the toll of the world is resumed. That bare skeleton of a structure before it is covered––the purple eyelids of a baby bird.
There is some guilt in witnessing things unprepared, in what feels like a polished world. Admittedly, what might come from a very American sense of privacy, there is an untaught desire for permission from the landscape, from inanimate objects. A cheek-burning awareness of the interiority. I don’t see the vat of salad dressing in the back of house, I see its pretty swirl on wedges of hard-boiled egg and slices of tomato.
In thinking about the purpose of collecting details, especially details so fragmented and unworked, one large importance might be its lack of agenda. In her visual form of collecting, Guajardo doesn’t try to reinvent the world. She does something harder, and also softer, helping us muse with her at its quotidian complexities. We are welcomed into her photographs because of her honest remark for small gifts, and her keen sense of arrangement.
We, too, begin to feel that wrinkles in fabric on a parasol, and the consecrated placement of Sharpie drawings on metro doors, are worthy of immortalization. We, also, want to turn little beautiful angles over and over in our hands; spread unexpected reflections onto our wrists like bergamot oil; pull from our pockets the corners and creases of our commutes, like talismans or the rings that we’ve outgrown.
Photographs like this one––the frame, after frame, after frame, which all came into sight together––are beautiful and vital because they were found this way. And because they show us a very precise perspective that doesn’t exist for too long after it is seen. To photograph such things is perhaps less an act of making, and more an act of safekeeping.
Shutters, from the Conversations with Myself series, by Jo Ann Chaus –– One arranged moment in which the photographer fully defers to the inevitable reel of life.
The images from Conversations with Myself are multi layered visual dialogs that intimately explore my relationships, between and within myself, others, and the world at large.
Inspired by a collection of found and inherited garments and objects, varied locations and good light, I conjure up cinematic tableaus that draw on memory and cultural iconography using myself as the main subject and perform what appears to be a moment captured in time, living in both the present and the past simultaneously.
My careful summoning of pose and gaze suggest a narrative beyond the frame of the image. The presence of absence is pervasive and nods to time and temporality.
In each image, the work suggests a resignation or surrender and a questioning of the many roles assumed and imposed by and on women societally as wives, mothers and lovers, absorbed and adopted as the norm from magazine articles, advertisements and film, generally from male dominated authorship.
The images instigate if and to what degree the terrain has shifted, as we collectively consider each scenario from the perspective of ourselves, male and female, our mothers, and our daughters.
–– Jo Ann Chaus
Shutters, by Jo Ann Chaus, reminds me of homes that have to change.
It reminds me of both the weight and vacuity of proximate loss––loss of family, loss of community, loss of previous versions of ourselves or former understandings of how we fit into the world. Any thing that we must accept will not be a part of our future.
It reminds me of the offensive speed at which the world moves, or moves on. It is one of those seconds before composure is regained, before returning to the party, the pot on the stove, the parked car, the pedestrian path. It is the winter lingering in your bones, while spring has already started to bloom.
It reminds me of the invisible labor of archiving life: the sometimes lovely but sometimes painful duty of holding details, for one’s family, one’s people, and oneself. And how this labor often falls to women. And how many cultures don’t recognize that this labor is our bedrock; don’t appreciate that this labor, these garments we were given from our grandmothers, keeps us as a people together, and that it is heavy and silent and hard. Women do live longer, sitting with (or moving through, yet still, always carrying) the silence of genuine empathy.
Much of Chaus’ Conversations with Myself series reminds me of these things. They are sacred, elegiac opportunities made for herself––scenes set and organized––to document the moments when Chaus fully defers to the inevitable reel and snare of life. If they are not rituals of closure, then they are tributes to futility, bouquets arranged and thrown in honor of feeling so small, in the wake of what is both undeserved and unforeseeable.
I think it’s important to recognize the bounty in the photograph shown here as well: the rich patterns of the interior, the great volume of textural comfort––in this very pretty home where Chaus wears her grandmother’s very pretty lace collar… and temporarily loses herself. I think it is part of why the piece is so moving. Somewhere between the curated perfection of Chaus’ room and the unraveled look on her face, we might acknowledge that true liberation from trauma––imposed or inherited––is a most raw and immaterial odyssey.
In the greater context of things, Chaus’ Shutters is but one record of minutes in the photographer’s life that she, vulnerably and deliberately, dedicates to those narratives which last too long, and those things which break too soon.
Jo Ann Chaus (b. 1954) is an American photographer from and based in the New York metro area. She is a color photographer and printer, influenced by the early color giants William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Saul Leiter, and by Elinor Carucci and Jen Davis’ intimate family and self portraiture. She holds two certificates from the International Center of Photography in New York City. View more of Chaus’ work here. Join Chaus’ mailing list here.
We’ll Ride Them Someday from The Laundry Series, by Gail Rousseau –– A serendipitous gift brought about from seeing, and believing in, the extraordinary moments tucked into ordinary life.
“Minor White writes, ‘Often he passes a corner saying to himself, ‘There is a picture here’ and if he cannot find it he considers himself the insensitive one. He can look day after day and one day the picture is visible! Nothing has changed except himself although to be fair, sometimes he had to wait ‘til the light performed the magic.’
I use this quote from Minor because it sums up my approach to photography. There are no hidden meanings––lots of stories, but as Minor says, ‘the light performed the magic.’
The Laundry Series (Clean Sheets, We’ll Ride Them Someday and The Night Gown): my neighbor’s clothesline over a three-day period.”
–– Gail Rousseau
Gail Rousseau listens to the call of things––leaves, light, shoes on pavement, fabric in the wind. In letting these things pull her, she evidences, or even manifests, their gravity.
In an increasingly competitive world, it is easy to lend a practice like this to mystique, God-given talent, or other miracles of art-making… but Rousseau, nearly the opposite of a creative prophet, insists that the art is always present; the “miracle” of excellent work is ubiquitous. She relates to photographer Minor White’s musing that the circumstance of photography often creates itself. The gift that the artist has to give is something simple, but something that is harder to teach than most trades: a sensibility to what already exists. And maybe, also, a faith in the connective role that such things have in this life. The rules of Rousseau’s practice are rooted in receptivity: almost meditatively. She looks and stops, and repeats. In this way, every hour of her life she is in the studio. The camera allows her to slow down with the idiosyncrasies, the twinkling threads, the ruffles of daily life.
It may seem simplistic, but the commitment to this kind of practice is like the constant battle in poetry, or philosophy: it’s clarity over obscurity.
For The Laundry Series, Rousseau looked and stopped at the clothes line on her neighbor’s lawn. She disregarded the curatorial potential for a still life and the predictability of a bucolic landscape, in favor of honest looking and uninsured result. In an extremely mindful way of seeing, Rousseau does not concern herself with what might be beautiful on the third day, or remorse what was banal on the first. On one of these days, what came to the clothes line was a polyester blanket––the omnipresent kind that comes for free in the mail, from the Humane Society (along with an appeal for a donation at or above its price).
This is part of the sweet humor tied up in We’ll Ride Them Someday. This almost painfully domestic blanket, this background kitsch, is slowly billowing outside as an unprecedented centerpiece of the night. But the grass in the image on the blanket almost lines up with the grass of the lawn, as if the blanket is just a cotton frame around a herd of horses in mid-gallop. For a moment, I remember that there is a place where that scene is real. I am pulled outside of my self, meshing together what is fabricated and what is extremely alive. In some nonsensical mirage, I think of those sun-soaked horses running endlessly, cantering futilely, in this too dark and too residential yard.
The mirage, or astral journey, is disrupted by the blindingly blue sky in that blanket, against the blackest black of the real sky. The daydream, ever brief, is over. The blanket is spun from plastic fibers, and any horses that touched this patch of New England earth have been gone for many years.
Gail Rousseau has held a camera in her hands for over 50 years. Rousseau attended New England School of Photography, Boston MA. She considers herself an all around classic photographer, shooting weddings, corporate events, and fine art images. View more of Rousseau’s work here. Bio courtesy of Lens Culture.
This post was last edited in May of 2021.
Opening March 25, 2021, Behind The Lens Plus will be entering the physical gallery at the RICPA. All those who submitted to the call for this project were invited to participate in this on-line-turned-in-person exhibition.
To each of our participants –– thank you for sharing a piece of your world with us.
About the juror:
Grace Marie DeWitt (she/her/hers) exhibited in Behind The Lens 2020: Women in Photography, RICPA’s in-gallery companion exhibition that led to this project. DeWitt is a Maryland-based interdisciplinary artist, and works in national and international programs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.