In Chaotic, Feminine Portraits, Photographer Renée Munn Deconstructs Identity
Munn’s photocollages mix multiple techniques to create complicated portraits, exploring the ways in which these young women present themselves and the ways in which they are seen. She divides the image plane and her sitters, using repetition and fragmentation to explore the complexity of the human psyche.
“In my work I use analogue techniques such as double and triple exposures as well as photograms to create fragmented images that are both real and fantastical,” says Munn. Using several shots of her sitters from different angles, Munn makes gelatin silver prints, producing the lush black-and-white of her pictures. Formally, this is one of the artist’s abiding interests, as she utilizes a wide gamut of inky blacks, silvery grays, and bright whites. In Diaphanous, Munn’s sitter is brightly lit with a strong, dark shadow behind her, achieving rich tonal depth with multiple exposures. Here, the body of her subject is tiled, with segments repeated or recreated with slight variation, expanding her and giving multiple angles of the same portion of her body or dress.
“I use double exposures to show the multiple dimensions of experience and appearance,” Munn explains. “This act of doubling, which is both esthetic and conceptual, refers to the conflicted ways that our identities make themselves visible.” The works explore the contemporary dilemma of self-presentation and the need to curate oneself to suit different situations: the online self, the professional self, the intimate self. Her use of duplication, as in Vanity, captures the self-interest and anxiety that accompanies this aim. Munn’s subject sits pensively, as if examining herself in a mirror. The artwork refers implicitly to moral paintings of the Renaissance era, depicting young women vainly examining themselves in the mirror. But rather than condemnation, Munn’s work is presented critically and with curiosity.
Her work alludes to painting in other ways as well: she finishes her images with a layer of beeswax, a traditional oil painting medium used to make matte surfaces. In Three Graces, she simultaneously makes the image deeper with her use of repetition and curvature, and makes it softer, flatter, silkier, with her application of wax. The sitter appears almost airbrushed onto the surface. This attention to surface is reminiscent of early 20th-century portrait photographers such as Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham.
In her work, Munn develops the interrelation of painting and photography. Her thoughtful process ties photography back to an earlier era and traditions of painting, while simultaneously carrying it into the present, to the Internet era, leading us to examine the way that the medium’s ubiquity has disrupted our notions of ourselves.