Cut it out and start again: the woman who is reworking the canon of photography | Photography

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Valerie Solanas is famous for two things: shooting Andy Warhol and writing the SCUM Manifesto (Society to Butcher Men), perhaps the most deliberately scandalous radical feminist polemic. Initially self-published and sold by herself on the streets of New York in 1967, it called for “responsible, thrill-seeking women to overthrow the government…institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.”

The book gained its initial notoriety after Solanas’ attempted murder of Warhol in his studio, The Factory, on June 3, 1968. Having turned herself in to police hours after the shooting, she was charged with attempted murder and later sentenced. to three years for “reckless assault with intent to harm” after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After her arrest, she allegedly told a reporter: “Read my manifesto and it will tell you what I am.”

Justine Kurland, 'Exhibit A, 2020'
Annex A, 2020.

Since then, Solanas, who died in 1988she has occupied a unique and complex place in the cultural landscape, her manifesto has been hailed by some feminist scholars as a visionary text, and her story has inspired several plays and an acclaimed art film. I shot Andy Warhol. Now comes a new book from American photographer Justine Kurland, 52, best known for her 2020 series, girls photos, which portrays young women in the American jungle. Its intriguing title SCUMB Manifesto pays homage to the wildly transgressive spirit of Solanas, whom he describes in the book as “a revolutionary, beggar, prostitute and vagabond, crazy, brilliant and very funny”.

New York in Color, 2021 by Justine Kurland.
New York in color, 2021.

SCUMB stands for Society for Cutting Up Men’s Books, which is exactly what Kurland has done, dismembering and reconfiguring images from around 150 photobooks by white male photographers. All the books were from Kurland’s own shelves. include Stephen Shore‘s american surfaces, William Eggleston‘s Poplarsby Larry Clark tulsaMartin Parr think of englandby Alec Soth Sleeping by the Mississippi, brassai‘s Paris at night and, most famous of all, robert frank‘s The Americans.

Each collage bears the name of the book that provided the raw material, but makes no reference to the photographer in question. Before exhibiting 65 of the SCUMB collages in a Brooklyn gallery last year, Kurland offered each of them to individual photographers whose work he had cut up and reassembled. “I sent emails saying, ‘I’ve been making photo album collages and here’s yours,’” he says with a laugh over the phone from his studio in New York. Most of them did not respond. Of those who did, he tells me, papagiorge death said he was flattered, Stephen Shore offered to trade for a print, and Jim Goldberg sent him a copy of his book raised by wolvesto use as raw material, but, he says, “some others had less sense of humor and were offended by the work.”

This is not surprising given that his collages not only challenge patriarchy but also raise questions of authorship and respect. “I’m not targeting anyone,” she says. “This is about a system and power structures, not about individuals, although I have to say some of these guys have been taking up too much space for too long.”

He ended up selling the first collages for $900 (£690) each, mainly to his students, although the Museum of Modern Art in New York also bought several. A selection, created from the series by Lee Friedlander nudes are currently on display at the Herald Gallery in London as part of a group show, say less.

Justine Kurland, 'Think England, 2021', from the SCUMB Manifesto (MACK, 2022).  Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
Think England, 2021.

Yes SCUMB Manifesto It’s a gleefully provocative assault on photography’s patriarchal history, it’s also a wonderfully intricate act of creativity: collages have a vivid, often viscerally powerful life of their own. Kurland’s style ranges from the playfully surreal—Parr’s trademark English character studies reconfigured as a mix of cleverly arranged limbs, vegetables, flowers, and faces—to the coldly minimalist—Friedlander’s america by car depicted as a Ballardian swirl of ruffles.

Often the original photographs have been so transformed that you may find it difficult, as I did, to identify the photographer whose images have been reworked. He turns Robert Adams’s rigorously formal detachment on its head and renders Brassaï’s nocturnal Paris unrecognizable by cutting and rearranging details from his photographs—a cobbled street, a cafe table, fabrics—as sinister monochrome geometric shapes.

Elsewhere, his subversion is more deliberately political. The female body, fetishized by photographers such as helmut newton and Guy Bourdin, becomes sculptural, dreamlike and haunting in works that float free of the voyeuristic male gaze while drawing attention to its voracity. The inclusion of big-name photographers like Brassaï and Frank will no doubt be seen by some as an act of cultural hooliganism, but that too is part of Kurland’s provocation.

Portrait of photographer Justine Kurland in 2018
Justine Kurland, photographed in 2018. Photography: Naima Green

The angriest element of the book is the cover, in which Kurland relies on Solanas’s fiercely combative and accusatory prose style to espouse the patriarchy. Over a blood-red collage of writhing female nudes, she says: “I, Justine Kurland, am SCUMB. I thrive on the stagnant waste of your boring photography. Bubbling, a raw life force, multiplying from the useless excrement of his misogynistic books. Her spiel ends with the mock threat line: “I’m coming at you with my sword.” In her confrontational tone, she promises more than she delivers since, at all times, her scalpel is more a tool of intricate reconfiguration than violent dismemberment.

Los Alamos Revisited (Vol. 3), 2021.
Los Alamos Revisited (Vol. 3), 2021.

“I started out thinking it would be a pure punk act of destruction, but it’s actually the most delicate and finicky medium,” says Kurland. “I spent hours and hours making these meticulous and delicate cuts and then carefully putting them together. It’s as much about the glue as it is about the scissors. For me, it is a restorative act rather than a destructive one”.

Kurland has been taking photographs since he was 15 years old. She studied at Yale in the late 1990s with Gregory Crewdson, a photographer known for his elaborate cinematic shots, one of which she reworks in his book. The collages are a dramatic shift in tone and focus from her previous work, which explored and subverted a certain brand of American frontier romanticism. Your book type of road (2016) took place on a series of epic road trips that he took across the country in a beat-up motorhome, often with his young children in tow. GRAMirl pictures (2020) composed of images he made between 1997 and 2002, in which his rebellious young female subjects seem to inhabit an almost utopian world of freedom in nature.

Kurland’s shift from photography to collage was precipitated by a conjunction of events, personal and cultural: the death of his father, the seismic political and social changes of recent years, and a kind of moral reckoning with his own way of life. to work. “In a way, my road trips became an enduring idea in American photography, which is to go out into the world and bring the news home,” she says. “It felt like a remnant of the colonial drive and I started to feel a little uncomfortable with it. I think that’s when I started to feel really ambivalent about the way I worked.”

While not as transgressive as other acts of creative disfigurement, the The Chapman brothers draw clown heads in a rare edition of Goya etchings comes immediately to mind – SCUMB Manifesto it is certainly a well-targeted missive to what Kurland calls “the canon of male photography and its monopoly on meaning and value.”

Photography remains, to some extent, a male-dominated medium, particularly in regards to the often obsessive world of photobook collecting nerds, but, creatively, that monopoly is being challenged on many fronts, most notably by a large number of contemporary photographers, curators and curators. artist-activists. However, there is no doubt that it has held sway for far too long, with innovative photographers like Berenice Abad, gerda taro Y Germaine Krüllto name just three female innovators, who are not yet as celebrated as their male counterparts.

Earthly Bodies, 2021.
Earthly Bodies, 2021.

“The history of photography is full of women,” as Kurland says, “so there is no excuse or justification for their exclusion.”

For now, he tells me, the collage is a way to “explore the ambivalence” he feels about the medium in which he established his reputation. Will he return to photography? “You never know,” she says. “It’s a big mess in my head and I haven’t really formulated it yet. I love photography, and photobooks have been a pathway to what I do in my work, but when I realized that 99% of the ones in my collection were of white straight men, she made me uneasy. SCUMB Manifesto It’s not me saying, ‘Fuck all those photographers, they suck and shouldn’t exist.’ It’s more ambivalent than that. He’s angry and serious, but he’s also funny.” Not everyone, I suspect, is laughing.

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