Subversive Text

Titles and Signage in the Work of Stewart Harvey and Tamar Haytayan

The two Drawers photographers whose work is on display this week are Stewart Harvey and Tamar Haytayan. Keeping with the precedent set by last week’s blog post, I am looking at the ways their images, although different, complement and parallel one another. On first look, their photography blatantly contrasts with one another. Harvey pictures American scenes, especially interactions between strangers, often in an urban environment, while Haytayan focuses on the domestic space that her son and daughter inhabit and the ways they interact with each other. Both photographers, however, use text in ways that subvert or complicate their visual narratives, such as with Harvey’s incorporation of signage and Haytayan’s use of the series title Innocence.

 

The photographs of Stewart Harvey, from his project Ephemeral Views, show instances of modern American life: in the tradition of Robert Frank, they show people interacting, in environments both iconic and quotidian, such as hippies dancing at Burning Man, crowds of tourists and locals walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and Portlanders waving the Timbers Army banner. In the first photograph, “Bourbon Street Encounter,” from 2013, a woman in a satin outfit with a wide-brimmed, translucent hat turns away from the viewer, disproportionately large because of her proximity to the camera. Instead of her face, we see that of a man walking towards her, the sunlight over the tops of buildings illuminating him. The title leads to the question: what encounter are we witnessing? We are, of course, witnessing more than one: that between the photographer and the scene, between the two figures, between the buildings, the light, and the burgeoning crowd behind them that will dissipate in an instant. In several of Harvey’s images, text adds to this layered narrative: a sign beside the woman’s head advertises “HUGE ASS BEERS,” and restaurants list their menu offerings. Flags line the block, both American and those of many other nationalities, showing the modern urban environment as one where cultures collide and intermingle endlessly. The next image, “Photochapel Couple” from 2013, employs text to gesture at underlying meaning. It shows two figures approaching a structure that displays photographs, presumably for sale. Beside the structure, a sign reads: “PHOTOCHAPEL IS FRAGILE.” The image again manipulates perspective: the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the strange images stored in the object itself, disoriented to realize that they are, in fact, photographic prints on display. Though the warning of fragility relays the literal instability of the shrine-like structure, it also suggests other meanings: “chapel” points to the reliquary-like presentation of the prints themselves, but the word “fragile” complicates, and perhaps undermines, this elevated nature. This aligns with the questioning of the truth claim in Harvey’s images, through manipulations of space and proportion that subvert the supposed verisimilitude of the photographic image.

 

Though Tamar Haytayan’s images focus on the private sphere and the relationship between her daughter and son, the work also expands in meaning through text: each image is titled “Innocence,” while often picturing the darker, grittier sides of childhood. For instance, the first photograph, “Innocence 5,” from 2012, shows her daughter with a towel on her head in the kitchen, her face curled up in an indignant snarl. The foreground and background are shrouded in heavy black and the camera is slightly tilted, giving the image a disorienting, almost nightmarish quality. The literal darkness of the image, combined with the discomfort of the subject and the strange camera angle, undermines the ideal of purity, creating instead a more complex, often fearful and angry, depiction of childhood. The second image, “Innocence 1,” shows one of the artist’s  children’s hands draped over the lip of the bathtub. Grit lines the fingernails, and the monochromatic nature of the print masks the color of the hand: it could be muddied with dirt, but its dismembered quality suggests something more violent. Not all of Haytayan’s photographs fixate on such darkness: one image, “Innocence 7,” pictures a hug between the two siblings, with soft, sleepy light; “Innocence 2” shows her son with sun through the window illuminating his bright eyes, giving his face a painterly, classical quality. However, the two on display this week do highlight a trend in her work to subvert traditional ideas of childhood innocence, alluding to contemporaries like Sally Mann and harkening back to pictorialists such as Julia Margaret Cameron.

Both Drawers photographers on display this week incorporate text in ways that challenge the traditional duality of text and image, integrating them through literal photographs or through titles, and thus allowing the work to expand in meaning.

- Molly Walls

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