Copyright Mona Kuhn 2007 courtesy Steidl
In Mona Kuhn’s her first book, Photographs, there is an interesting mix of singular images with those that hint at a more complex narrative. Kuhn’s later photographs in her first book, with the shift to a color palette and groups of individuals, provides evidence that her style was evolving, cumulating in her next book, fittingly titled Evidence.
Providing an external context to her book title’s is the introductory statement; “The most immediate form of evidence available to an individual is the observation of that person’s own senses. An observer wishing for evidence that the sky is blue need only look at the sky.” Thus, we are invited to look and observe so that we find our own personal evidence.
As in her first book, the vast majority of her subjects are young men and women, athletic, tan and nude. Her subjects assume stances and positions per her direction, who seem to be vaguely interacting amongst themselves. Kuhn has continued to utilize a shallow depth of field to create an illusion of three dimensional space. The soft focus of Kuhn’s photographs still remind me of a color version of Keith Carter’s work and very close in feeling to that of Susan Burnstine’s surreal photographs. For her daytime photographs, as befitting the photographing of naturalist, there is a flood of nature light illuminating her subjects.
Kuhn does introduce a new spacial quality into this book, incorporating the simultaneous reflective and transparent features of window glass. These qualities of the glass further enhances her illusion of three-dimensional space. By careful framing, without using polarizer to eliminate the mirror like reflections, she skillful utilizes the windows to create a larger volume of space. The sky and adjacent tree limbs are combined with the view inside the room, as on the cover of the book and the example at the bottom of this review. From experience, we can decifer these abstract photographs, but do so is to miss the abstract and surreal qualities that hints at a mystery and the unknown.
The reflective/transparency of glass speak to the traits of time and memory. To observe an object while catching a reflection of objects behind you is suggestive of being grounded in the current moment while having a glimpse into the past. Kuhn’s reflections on the glass windows are also similar in nature to memories; which become indistinct, hazy and not entirely focused.
I would also assert that Kuhn’s use of glass is very suggestive of the abstract traits of individuals regarding the duality of informing and concealing, perhaps similar to the state of nudity of her subjects. Like a glass window, we can permit others to see what is inside, simultaneously it is evident as to what resides on the surface, while yet concealing information. Glass is also a solid barrier, although translucent, it separates the inside from the outside.When an individual is nude and revealing their surface features, we know little, if most probably nothing, of what resides and is concealed in their hearts and minds. We may seek evidence of who these individuals are, but in the case of Kuhn’s subjects, other than the two-dimensional form on the page and their implied and frozen gestures, they are a complete and unknown mystery.
The photographs sequence concurrently with the passing of time, morning into night, and a shifting viewpoint, from an outside observer to an intimate insider.The passing of time in the sequencing is probably the easier of these two elements to discern. The initial photographs are full of morning light that moves quickly to mid-day and ends with an evening glow and the dark shadows of night. Although each photograph contains very static subjects, this sequencing provides a feeling of passing time.
In Kuhn’s initial photographs, she is positioned as an outsider, a voyeur who, like us the viewer, is looking in through the translucent glass windows. She is observing, while being observed. The returned steady gaze of her subjects inside the dwelling do not reveal any alarm, implying their passive acceptance. Kahn is perhaps an implied participant, as in one photograph on the bottom edge, we catch a small reflected glimpse of the photographer, whose own bare shoulders hints of her participation as a fellow naturalist, not an outsider attempting to create a documentary investigation.
Kuhn’s photographic point of reference then shifts, the implied barrier of the glass window is removed and the viewpoint becomes more direct and personable. There is more of sense of closeness conveyed by the proximity of the subjects to her lens, and the positions of the subjects amongst themselves. It does not appear to be always an easy or comfortable relationship, with the viewpoint moving forward, then backing off, the focus shifting to other object emerging between us, the viewer, and her subjects. Likewise, her subjects are not always in the focus, sometimes sharply delineated, other times shifting to the background, becoming hazy, indistinct and less personable.
The static posing of Kuhn’s subjects, although initially intriguing, does not always seem to provide me with the desired narratives I had come to earlier expect. There are singular photographs within this book that I find exemplary, but the body of work as a whole appears too static and forced. Her subjects exhibit a consistent nonchalance, without much indication of any inner emotion. There is a strong sense of contemplation by the way the individuals look, carry themselves and are posed. They have longing looks, indirect gazes, staring off the edges of the page and for the most part, not interacting amongst themselves. The early warmth within the photographs begins to cool with the arrested motion, repose and extensive objectivity. This is not unlike viewing an arrangement of ancient Greek statuary. As a result, I sense a slight uneasiness and awkwardness that creates an undercurrent of tension that becomes palpable, almost in direct contradiction to the more apparent easy lifestyle of the naturalist
I found one photograph, top image below, which has a beautiful elegance. In this case the graceful pose of her subject, although not appearing natural in the manner of her twisting on the chair with the shoulders pulling back, does create delightful flowing lines, tracing from the side of the head down to her chin and down the line of her neck, then connecting to her shoulder and down her arm to her hand draped on the cloth. Wonderful. In this case, the quite expression, slightly closed eyes, does appear contemplative, looking off the page, as though lost in thought, creating an interesting narrative. In this case, Kuhn has reverted to her early tight framing found in her first book, and using the shallow depth of field to throw both her subjects back shoulder out of focus, as well as the background interior space.
In another photograph, second below, I read an Adam and Eve narrative. The softly focused nude male and female are in the mid-area, the tree of life in the foreground and complete with a dark and menacing presence lurking in the background edges of the shadows.
Initially I found the photographs to be perhaps a little too structured, her subjects appearing to be lacking sufficient cohesiveness and the book having a feeling of being too stilted and static. The wonderful essence that Kuhn instilled into the color photographs of her first book, with a few beautiful exceptions, has seemed to elude her in this second book.
This book is very nicely printed and bound as are all of the Steidl photobooks
by Douglas Stockdale