Spotlight Commissioned Series by Ying Ang
I built my visual vocabulary on fashion photography. In fact, it was the first job I ever had as a photographer. My influences were various, although mostly male, trademarked by the ever-unflinching male gaze, often in turns worshipful and domineering. Helmut Newton’s, “A Gun For Hire”, was one of the first photography books I ever bought. It wasn’t until I was several years into my career that I discovered and loved the work of photographers like Cass Bird, Viviane Sassen and Collier Schorr, where I also learned that there was something innately subversive in the gaze and visual language of women that came from living in a culture of female objectification, leading to a subsumed complicated relationship with power. As a result, women have become acutely aware of power and the strange feeling that comes when it is wielded… and when done with skill, the results are often uncanny.
I, myself, had an uncomfortable and unresolved relationship with the power that came with being a fashion photographer. The high level of fantasising that it involved and the trifecta of sex, power and money, that in some ways were always a part of a successful commercial campaign, left me floundering for meaning. I felt that my images were too transparent and that my audience could see that I didn’t really believe in the tale that I was telling. At the cusp of my shift into documentary photography, the pertinent question that was left ringing in my head was as cliched and relentless as advertising itself, “what does it all mean?”
Ultimately, I never came to a clear answer, and it was in that void that I left fashion for good and turned to telling stories rooted in social and political reality. Looking back and confronting the same questions that rose to the surface when walking through Helmut Newton’s show, I came to a couple of conclusions. Firstly, “it” all means not much beyond the fact that we are human; flawed, inadequate and thirsty for something greater than how we perceive ourselves. Secondly, this aspect of being human isn’t the failure of fashion photography. In fact, the most powerful images in fashion photography (and general portraiture for that matter) flirt with the liminal ground between our flaws and our fantasies. Where fashion photography fails, is when it only lives in the pursuit of perfection, when it takes apart piecemeal our humanness and replaces it, limb by limb, pore by pore, with something that resembles our simplest ambitions, with no acknowledgement of the mud and clay from which we were wrought. This is where the uncanny becomes the absurd. Instead of igniting our passions, we feel emptier for it. Instead of reaching to the sublime, we are stranded at the mall.
I realised as I walked through Newton’s exhibit that it was the pictures that felt most human and psychologically enigmatic that I lingered on the longest, and the ones that were most impenetrable in their portrayal of the Riefenstahl-esque Amazons that my eyes slid off the quickest, beautiful and treacherous as an oil slick. I have strived to work with some of these ideas in my spotlight for the Helmut Newton exhibition and distilled it down to a collection of collages that are a little absurd, a little piecemeal and hopefully, a little human, in their pursuit for perfection. The process that I used was a method of deconstructing contemporary ideas of fashion and desire, utilising editorial and advertising imagery, and putting them back together again in a way that questions notions of lens-based power and the binary and racial fault lines in the commercial imperative to selling fantasy unmoored to anything that we know to be true.
Ying Ang, Artist Statement.
Ying Ang is a photographer and author currently based in Melbourne, Australia. She has an extensive exhibition history and client base, having lived and worked in Singapore, Sydney and New York City. She is on the teaching faculty at the ICP in New York City and is the Director of Reflexions 2.0, a photographic masterclass based in Europe, and Director/Curator at Le Space Gallery in Melbourne, Australia.
This series was originally published in Issue #2 of ILLUMINATE.