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Young PhotographerReview - Young Photographer
by Amy Adler
Twin Palms, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Dec 22nd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 51)

Young Photographer contains 26 four-color plates by artist Amy Adler.  According to the UCLA Hammer Museum description of her series of pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio, she took photographs of him in her apartment, then made many pastel drawings of the photographs, and then photographed some of the drawings.  She destroyed the original negatives and drawings, which is especially odd when considering that they took months to do.  For other photographs in the book, she hired models or used photographs in magazines.  The picture titled "Fox," on the cover of her book, looks like an out-of-focus Jodie Foster.   The first series inside the book is "Young Photographer," which shows a boyish child holding pointing a camera in various poses.  The first image of the series is in color, then the following ones are in black and white, with a change in the last image in the series, which is in color, where the figure looks slightly older and more feminine, although sharing enough features to probably be the same person.  The DiCaprio series shows headshots of the actor looking vigorous and relaxed.  The next series, "Centerfold," shows a young woman lounging around wearing just a checkered shirt.  Then "Unknown" shows a woman striking various poses in what the accompanying essay explains is Adler's apartment.  Finally, at the very end of the book, the single piece "A Woman of No Importance" shows a woman holding her head on her chin, looking a little dejected or bored.  This is a perplexing collection of images.

The publisher's website says her "photographs examine notions of authorship by exploring the relationships between artist, subject, and viewer."  The short essay in the book by Cay Sophie Rabinowitz starts out with the portentous statement that

Amy Adler's enactment of identity and anonymity provides an active consideration of the conceptual matters that dominate her work.  Her capturing and relinquishing of control inspires a mirroring evaluation of her process.  Adler's uniquely constructed oeuvre perpetually discloses and disguises a dynamic that is bound by the alternative forces of control and vulnerability.

A short piece on the DiCaprio series on the UCLA Hammer Museum website says that Adler has long been interested "in the psychological and cultural mediation of identity through mass media images."  All of this sophisticated language stands in contrast to the rather pleasing simplicity of the images, many of which look like they could be used to illustrate a children's book.  The large size of the book, 14"x17" suggests that it is important to Adler that one be struck by the visual qualities in an almost visceral way; in a photograph of the DiCaprio exhibition, it looks like the hung photographs are considerably larger, being a few feet high.  This should lead us to question whether this work is really so conceptual as the above interpretations suggest.  Adler herself writes nothing in her book, although of course she is probably sympathetic with the ideas in the accompanying essay by Rabinowitz.  It is important to note that she has chosen not to include a statement her work in the book, and she has not become an academic social psychologist or philosopher.  To interpret her work as simply propounding a thesis about identity has to be largely to misunderstand it or to condemn it to obvious failure.  Judging from her working methods and her subjects, it is plausible that Adler is indeed exploring issues to do with the visual construction of identity, but she can't be doing it in an analytic way. 

Looking at Adler's pictures, their most striking feature is the excellent job she does of drawing human hair with pastels.  It feels like she has captured every strand on the young photographer's head, and it looks so thick and healthy, it needs to be tousled.  DiCaprio's hair is so luscious you want to rub your face in it.  She is also very good with clothes, capturing folds of cloth with photographic precision.  She is less successful with skin, having to resort to rather clumsy cross-hatching that takes away its sensuality and softness.  (Of course, this may all be part of the cunning artist's master plan.)  Also striking is that most of the images have solid color backgrounds.  The boy in young photographer stands out against black, while the woman in  "Centerfold" is against a hot red-orange, and the woman in "A Woman of No Importance" is all in a bluish purple.  The colors are major elements of the compositions, affecting mood and making them unusual.  The background has its own texture, and has clearly been done very carefully in pastels too.  This approach foregrounds the human subject and takes him or her out of context, in way that regular photography can almost never do. 

The commentators on Adler make a lot of her methods, yet this book says very little about them.  Many photography books say what camera the photographer used, what size the exhibited images were, what kind of photographic paper was used, what paper was used, and other details of construction.  Adler gives no such information.  Her images are in themselves rather bland and enigmatic -- very different from the works of Cindy Sherman and especially Barbara Kruger, for example, who leave the viewer in no doubt that their themes are gender and identity.  It seems plausible that Adler is also interested in gender and youth, but it is hard to say.  Ultimately, Adler's pictures resist any simple or obvious interpretation.  They are interesting and pleasing both conceptually and aesthetically, but they are not remarkable.  They don't grip the viewer and there's nothing particular radical about the ideas they raise.  Maybe Adler is being too subtle, or is not helping her audience enough in interpreting her goals.  She provokes curiosity and maybe there is enough here to make one want to see what she does next, but it is hard to be enthusiastic about these works. 



·        Twin Palm Publishers

·        UCLA Hammer Museum Amy Adler exhibit


© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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