Fresh Female Portraits and Nostalgic Travel Shots Feature in a Curated Selection of Contemporary Photography

Susan Sontag famously wrote: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” A fresh crop of photographers represented by the art platform and online gallery The Print Atelier are challenging this assertion. In a sale that is guest curated by Rachel Peart—director of photography for Heritage Auctions—several photographers capture the female form in ways that transcend easy classification as subject or object.

Peart, a collector of “vernacular photography, old press photos with stamps and markings,” and photo books (“recently, I purchased books of Vera Lutter and Erwin Olaf’s work,” she mentions) curated a selection of photographs for The Print Atelier that span nostalgic travel snapshots, inventive views of New York City, and several dynamic portrayals of female figures. Regarding the works she chose, she explains, “I find some works to remind me of home, Kansas and the Midwest, horizon lines and open roads are elements I gravitate towards. Other times it is the basics of the composition, color, narrative, or simplicity that I find engaging.”

 Two photographs by Maude ArsenaultClovely Park and Clovely Park Car 2, tell a compelling narrative: a zoomed-out look at a car and a close-up shot of a woman in a back seat. Though the works are separate, they could easily be paired to make a diptych. With Clovely Park, the photographer’s point of view (and so, by proxy, the viewer’s) is unclear—she seems to be both inside and outside the car. In contrast, Clovely Park Car 2 is eerily devoid of any people. The only hint of human presence is in a yellowish light that escapes from the rear of the car. Both photographs are successful in achieving a saturnine, if reflective, mood, and in compelling the viewer to contemplate the story behind the images.

A portrait series by Le Pigeon captures female subjects in a way quite akin to Arsenault. With Notre Epoque 2, a hazy glow illuminates the face of a young, defiant woman, and a smear of pinkish-red paint runs across her nose and forehead. Instead of revealing her full visage and thus her identity, Le Pigeon renders a more poetic, partial-image of her likeness. This shows an ambivalent attitude towards the role of voyeurism in photography. 

In a similar vein, Robin Cerutti’s Dream imagines its female subject without an exact identity, and instead a mysterious aura. It is, appropriately, dreamy—all out of focus, with deep black-and-white tonality and flickering sun spots playing off of the ocean. The figure’s head is cut out of the frame and her feet, similarly out of view, are submerged in water. She could be anyone, and yet, this very intimate, perspectival angle suggests that she is the subject and creator of her own, very enchanting, reality.

Other stand-out works in Peart’s selection include Lost Hills, CA and Wildwood, NJ 05, both taken by LM Chabot. The photographs capture the sort of barren, post-industrial landscapes that materialized in modern and contemporary photography in the wake of Robert Frank’s legendary series “The Americans.” Lost Hills documents a sun-bleached gas station and empty parking lot that appears as if it has been wiped clean of any people. A billboard in the foreground fails to advertise any brand names, but peaking out from the background are bubble letters spelling out “TEXACO.” With Wildwood Chabot takes a similar approach: featuring clean lines with a faded, evocative color palette, the composition seems strategic, like a film still sandwiched between two action scenes as a sort of visual palette cleanser. Both works show a pronounced interest in liminal spaces—a roadside lot and the edge of a pool—perhaps, as metaphors for shifting realities. And what could be a more contemporary theme than that?

In selecting photographs to purchase, seasoned collectors and casual online shoppers should heed Peart’s advice: “you must select what you love or what speaks to you.”


Anna Furman

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