Purdy Hicks Gallery,
“The soft lighting and clouded focus of Celine’s images preserve the privacy of her subjects and enable viewers to project their own ideas of femininity, entirely liberated from western beauty standards.“
Published as part of the featured project
A mixture of pixelated pubic hair, folded flesh and hazy portraiture, Hannah Williams explores the paradoxical effect of the intimate photograph.
It's difficult to know how to define intimacy. With our ability to maintain technical omnipresence, the sanctity of the real, the tangible, has been lost. In a time where we can so easily speak to strangers from across the world, look at the soft porn of an Instagram model, fall in love over Skype with somebody we've never met, all in the jellyfish-phosphorescence of our screens, it feels easy to declare that intimacy has no place in our lives anymore. That we're too distant, too jaded; that we've seen it all in 1080p. But by exploring this distance and closeness – by alternately driving us away and inviting us back in – photography can somehow encourage us to reflect on how we construct intimacy as audience members, subjects and artists.
In Bill Brown’s ‘Thing Theory’, he categorises ‘things’ as ‘what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization as objects or their mere utilization as objects’ – objects become things when they are somehow imbued with meaning, changed in some strange way from their stated function into something with an indefinable intimacy. The relationship between the object and the thing hangs in a fragile balance, a state of liminality. It’s why Randa Mirza and Lara Tabet’s End to End Encrypted is so effective: by plucking an image from the couple’s Whatsapp conversations the photographs are no longer merely images, but become a tableau of a long-distance relationship, informed with all that involves – late night discussions, loneliness, the little bubble of text as somebody types. Their pixelation serves only to further enhance it. By refusing to let us see the images in their entirety, our notion of what is an ‘object’ – whether a tuft of pubic hair, a leg, or buttocks – is destabilised further. This transformation of the everyday into something unknown forces us to look closer, to concentrate harder on the real story. This interplay between intimacy and distance is further enhanced by the fact that the images are so obviously taken from Whatsapp, with their grainy low-res texture. Whilst this may make the photographs seem less intimate – the subjects are not even in the same room – it also lends them a contradictory sense of closeness, as they are taken from a private, one-on-one exchange. By teasing their audience with fragments of their relationship, rather than fully formed narratives, Mirza and Tabet make the viewer both a confidante in their intimacy and an eager voyeur, always held at arm’s length.
In Form and Function, Rosser also upends intimacy as it is traditionally conceived. Nude bodies, complete with the ephemera of living – pock marks, scars, moles – are folded into chewing-gum shapes, stretched and moulded into human sculptures. But where we’d expect the body to evoke only a sense of familiarity or universal recognition, Rosser instead conceals her subject’s head, arms and hands, removing all humanity. The change is instant. The strange origami lines of a shoulder blade are suddenly shocking, the knuckles of vertebrae that poke through the skin become alien. We see an intimate reflection of our transformed selves; an awareness of our own bodies, coupled with the jarring disconnect of their positions. Nudity, as seen here, provides a further opportunity to examine the concept of intimacy. Bare flesh, we are told, signals vulnerability; a literal and spiritual “undressing” that reveals our true natures. But by denying us a contextualised body, Rosser undermines that concept completely. Instead the flesh takes on the characteristics of a material; the removal of the eyes, mouth and hands – and by extension any sensory perception – negates any empathy or intimacy we may experience for another person. And yet any easy conclusions are avoided; the way in which the subjects’ flesh twists and melds around each other signals the two coming together into one synthesised being. The physical closeness of the series’ subjects alludes to a different mode of intimacy, one that is defined by manifested space – a sharp contrast to Mirza and Tabet’s digital confidences.
The desire to destabilise our notions of intimacy, to deny our established means of emotional connection, is seen in the photography of Celine Bodin. By utilising the traditional frame of the portrait – an up-close glimpse at an unguarded subject – but blurring the images beyond recognition, Bodin is refusing the audience the catharsis and emotional insight they demand. The demand for intimacy through portraiture is withheld, with the subjects instead becoming the soft-focus objects of dreams, unknowable yet strangely connected to the viewer. Similarly to both Mirza and Tabet, and Rosser, Bodin uses the nude to deliberately toy with our perceptions of intimacy. Bathed in light, a strange halo ringed around their head, her subject eases us into their confidence, their back turned to the audience as we’re interrupting a private scene. The image appears smeared with Vaseline, its very obliqueness transforming it from something known and therefore mundane – a nude portrait – to a thing we desire to understand. Its refusal to open up to us becomes a connection, a thread that binds us to the work. We again become the thwarted voyeur, always trapped at the border of intimacy and distance.
The details that are revealed to us are, in turn, extensive and slight. The voyeuristic pleasure in seeing the scars and freckles, the crotch seam of lacy tights, the close-up faces and bare bodies, evokes a feeling of intimacy, but we can only ever look on the scene, never fully be part of it. By interrogating the way in which we perceive intimacy, Mirza and Tabet, Rosser and Bodin enable us to question our relationship with others. Ordinary photographs and traditional media are transformed. Instead of closeness existing as a straight forward transaction, it is instead something we gain only to instantly lose, evading us, mutating and flattening, the more we try to define it.