JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ART
zoe leonard


Laura Cottingham: The work that you first started to show, say five years ago, looked like low-tech American secessionist work, like Weston or Stieglitz or early naturalist photography.

Zoe Leonard: I couldn't be farther from a Weston aesthetic. The heir to Weston is, not in terms of content but formally, someone like Mapplethorpe.

Cottingham: I was thinking more of the types of objects and places you used to like to photograph — the ocean, the aerial nature shots . . .

Leonard: But Weston is about a kind of perfection. It's about the light falling perfectly on that pepper, about sensuous shape and form. What attracts me in photography is not so much a fine arts approach, but rather photographs as documents. Not only journalism but the other roles that photography has played outside of the art context: aerial reconnaissance photography, science and medical photography, family snapshots. All the ways in which human beings have documented the world in an attempt to order it, in an attempt to consume it or rule it or hang on to it in some sense.

Cottingham: But, you're obviously not interested in a formalist exploration of photography. Your photographs are so anti-formalist.

Leonard: I don't think of my work as anti-formalist. I'm not really that interested in positioning myself against other artists, other art forms, proving them wrong. I make the work that I make because it's how I think. These are things that move me. This is my kind of beauty. I like things to be startling in a quiet kind of way. I've evolved a technical language that works for me. I shoot black and white. I print full frame. I never retouch. I usually shoot many pictures of any given subject and then take months or years editing down, finding the picture that works. I usually work with images for a long time, printing them different sizes, trying different papers, chemicals, exposures until I figure out a final print. There are many formal decisions. The idea is to get the formal aspects to work with the subject matter.

Cottingham: By formalist aesthetic, I'm referring to an overdetermined formalism. I don't mean "no form." Coming from me, 'anti- formalist,' 'low tech' is no insult — but artists get so defensive when I say "low tech" because hyper-formalism is so entrenched as a priority in our aesthetic system.

Leonard: But, I don't think that form and content can be separated. Aesthetics don't happen in a vacuum. If you like a Chanel suit, there's a whole set of reasons why you like a Chanel suit.

Cottingham: Aesthetics aren't just fashion — or perhaps they are, but they aren't only that. Or perhaps, fashion isn't only fashion is more what I mean. But are you arguing against my comment that your photographs are low tech?

Leonard: No I wouldn't argue that. But my work is absolutely grounded in a certain formal approach. These aren't drawings. They're not paintings. These are photographs. I want the viewer to be aware of that. That's why I always print full frame. If there's a scratch on the negative, I leave it there. The roughness in my prints is my way of letting the viewer into my process, the process of photography. I think that photography has been considered a poor relation to fine arts for far too long. The highest compliment you could pay a photographer is to say, "Your work is so painterly". If I wanted to paint, I would paint. My work is about taking pictures, using a camera to observe what's out in the world. So I present them very much as they happen in the camera: they're not matted, they're not framed, they're not cropped.

Cottingham: But that's my question: is the rudimentary technique a cue? A cue to the viewer to look to the associations around the image, not the technical virtuosity that either is or isn't there in the art object as it has been produced?

Leonard: Yeah, it's about providing a cue. But if we're going to talk about this, we should start with the basic question: Why photography? Why this medium? Of course there are many uses of photography, artists like Cindy Sherman who essentially document a performance, or photojournalists like Susan Meiselas or Donald McCullum, or fine artists like Penn and Weston. For me photography is intrinsically about observation. It's about being present in and having a certain perspective on, the world around me. It's not so much about creating, or my imagination — as drawing, for instance, may be. It's more about responding. Choosing to look at certain objects or situations. It's not just what I'm looking at but how I look. Photographs play with the idea of absolute truth. When people look at a photograph, they believe it. We believe that it exposes reality. That a portrait can show someone's true character. If you see a picture of something, you believe it really happened that way. Pictures are proof. My photographs crawl along that edge. I document the world, but from my own biased point of view. I want to draw the viewer into the process of looking so we can look at these things together. I want to show you what I see. I take pictures of what moves me. Sometimes it's beauty — the waterfalls, the ocean. Things that fill me with awe. Sometimes it's gathering evidence, spying on our culture. Things that scare me or disgust me or make me angry. The one part that's frustrating is if I'm feeling a certain way or want to express certain thoughts, I have to actually find something out in the world that visually conveys that to me, something to take pictures of.

Cottingham: In the museum images the viewer relationship is already contextualized by the fact that you are photographing museum artifacts. So you have taken something that has already been framed . . .

Leonard: I'm reframing. Asking people to take a second look. Not just the objects themselves but how they are displayed. I took pictures in the natural history museum in Venice. There were rooms stacked with animal heads. There were no labels or information — just the walls covered, floor to ceiling, with trophies- mounted heads and animal pelts and stuffed animals on the floor. It was creepy and disgusting. It says so much about the people who assembled this collection. This is not a display about natural history. It's about hunters and collectors. About a need to own and control. And so, by implication, it is about us. Later, I started photographing in medical history museums. I first saw a picture of the anatomical wax model of a woman with pearls in a guidebook on Vienna. She struck a chord in me. I couldn't stop thinking about her. She seemed to contain all I wanted to say at that moment, about feeling gutted, displayed. Caught as an object of desire and horror at the same time. She also seemed relevant to me in terms of medical history, a gaping example of sexism in medicine. The perversity of those pearls, that long blond hair. I went on with this work even though it is gory and depressing because the images seem to reveal so much. I was shocked when I came across the bearded woman's head. I couldn't believe that here was this woman's head, stuffed and mounted, in a jar. The bell jar was just sitting on a file cabinet in a corner of the room, in an obscure museum in Paris, a place completely closed to the general public (it is part of the School of Medicine at the University of Paris). Her head was placed in the jar to be looked at. But it's not just her head that I see. I see the bell jar, the specimen identification card, the carved wooden pedestal. I see a set of implied circumstances. Who was in charge? Who put this woman's head in a jar and called it science? I am moved by her, anxious to know more about her life, the quality of her life. But, these pictures don't tell us all that much about her. You cannot see her or know her by seeing only her severed head. These pictures are about our culture, about an institutional obsession with difference. Those anatomical models were made in the seventeenth century, and that woman was put under the bell jar in the late nineteenth century, but I see these images as contemporary, because the system which put her head in a bell jar is still in place. The world just hasn't changed that much.

Cottingham: How did you ever get from taking pictures of clouds to taking pictures of museum artifacts, from taking pictures of "nature" to taking pictures of "culture"?

Leonard: I take pictures of whatever fascinates or compels me. I still photograph nature. But, you know, in a way I think the AIDS crisis and getting involved in activism pushed me in a different direction. Not in an obvious way- my work is not about AIDS and most of my work isn't even overtly political, but I just became filled with rage. I began to question things more, and to want to look at history, to examine the structures of our world, the systems and people that make it so unfair and so cruel. That's when I started the medical history stuff and began to feel connected to those images. I've also felt tremendously inspired by the work of a few people, David Wojnarowicz in particular, who began to be confrontational and demanding with their work without ever letting go of their own sense of beauty.

Cottingham: The first time I saw the bearded woman photograph, I thought it was a man wearing a lace collar. Well, of course, that's the point. Because we assume we know the gender caste system of the nineteenth century that includes clothing and personal accessories that are strictly gender-coded, either the beard or the lace are taken to be "out of sync." It's interesting that I decided it was culture (the lace collar), not nature (the beard) that was "wrong."

Leonard: What I think is interesting about that piece is that there is no proof of gender in the bell jar. That could be a man with earrings and a lace collar on. I was told that it is the head of a bearded woman, but there is no proof of gender in the head. So the real question about that piece is: what is this head doing here? If there's no proof of gender, there's nothing to study, no scientific purpose. Why is she in the bell jar? When I was at the museum, all that Professor Delmas would tell me was that she worked in a circus and she died at the turn of this century. I want to know what she's doing here! I want to know more about her life and her treatment after death. Did she donate her body before she died? Did she get any money? Did she sign some sort of agreement? Did her family? Where is the rest of her body? Was it buried? How did the museum acquire her and why? I'm still trying to get more information.

Cottingham: I see a connection between the "bearded woman" and the Documenta piece because, basically, you put her genitals in the museum. In a way, you put "her gender" in a different museum.

Leonard: I hadn't thought about it before in those terms, but there is a connection. In fact, at one time I had thought about installing the bearded woman pictures in the Neue Galerie. Both pieces evoke a woman's presence in a powerful Western institution. The Documenta piece is clearly more aggressive and irreverent. I had an opportunity to actually intervene in the museum. I had a lot of fun doing that. Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman is a more serious piece for me. It's a really sad piece and also makes me furious because I can show you what happened to her, but I can't intervene. Because she's dead. I feel a lot of responsibility for how I work with her, how I represent her. She has no say in it at this point.

Cottingham: What about your installation at Documenta? What responsibility do you take for representing the women you photographed?

Leonard: Oh, come on Laura, these women were alive and awake. They knew exactly what was going on and supported it. Mostly they wanted to see the photos and get copies.

Cottingham: The Documenta installation seems to be most coextensive with the fashion show images, such as the Geoffrey Beene image shot from underneath, where the female model's pantyhose crotch is visible. You seem to be adopting, or trying to adopt, a "male" eye — a gaze that subordinates women into objects. Is that to make the images more marketable? Is the fashion-show crotch shot related to your Documenta piece?

Leonard: Well, I guess so. For starters they're both crotch shots. Both pieces are bolder and more caustic than my previous work. I kind of let go a little, let myself be more humorous, aggressive. They both have a certain tension between what I'm supposed to be seeing and what I'm actually looking at. In both instances, I began with one idea and ended up with something else entirely. I wanted to photograph fashion shows, I had all these ideas about adornment and entrapment, theories about buttons and corsetting. So, I snuck into a bunch of the collections — the big fall fashion shows. I had absolutely no intention of looking up anyone's skirt. I shot tons of pictures — well over a hundred rolls of film. The most charged moments were completely unexpected. When a model's dress flew up and I could see her underwear. That was interesting. Those turned out to be the best pictures. I worked with those and dropped the rest. At Documenta, it was also largely instinctive. When I first went to Kassel, the Neue Galerie was not one of the sites offered to me. But something intrigued and bothered me about the paintings. The sober, airless rooms, the satiny wallpaper. I thought this could be interesting. I had feelings I wanted to get at, but I wasn't sure how. I wanted to bring myself into the gallery. And a strong female presence, address women as artists, as objects of art (models), as viewers of art. The paintings all seemed like a monologue, all going one way. I wanted to inject my point of view, make it a conversation. I wanted to make something positive and strong. The museum made me uncomfortable, and I wanted to get at that. See if there was a way I could change it. As a kid, I wanted to be Van Gogh. But sometimes at the Met, I would want to be one of the beautiful women in the paintings. I was torn. Do I want to be Picasso or do I want to be one of these beautiful women. Which is more satisfying? Do I even have that choice? I used to leaf through this one book of Man Ray photographs in a virtual stupor over Meret Oppenheim and Lee Miller. Of course, at the time I had no idea that both of these women were artists. Similarly, at the fashion shows, I watch the models. I desire them, I envy their beauty, I pity their objectification and I am disgusted by the whole ritual — simultaneously and in equal measure. I had a much more complicated set of images planned for Documenta, but about six days before I went to Germany to install, I realized that all these complex impulses were contained in one image: a woman's sex. That one image would be both passive and aggressive, that it would represent the invisible, but implied sex of the women in the paintings, the non-existent female artists, and the never-addressed sexuality of the women in the paintings. So, I called up every woman I knew well enough to ask if I could photograph her pussy. Six women agreed. We shot the pictures in the next three days, I printed them, and arrived in Kassel carrying about ninety prints in my bag. It wasn't really what they had expected. I decided to take down all the portraits of men, and the landscapes and replaced them with the photographs. There are some paintings with men, but they are either peripheral or engaged in very specific interaction with the women. One man sits next to his wife as she breastfeeds; another is painting a portrait of his wife (she appears on a canvas in the painting); another is visiting Cleopatra on her deathbed. Once the genitalia went up, the whole gallery seemed to shift. Relationships between the photos and the paintings were amazing to set up. The facial expressions on the people in the paintings all seemed to respond to the photographs. Some were humorous, some poignant, some sensuous. One older woman sits with her hands clasped in her lap, a befuddled look on her face. Next to that is a close up of a woman's hand on her clit, next to that is a still-life with a large fish. Some of the women are quite beautiful, seductive. Two young girls, princesses, sit close together with knowing looks on their faces. An older woman looks wistful. One looks stern. For me, the primary visual relationships are between the women. As they look across the rooms at each other and at the visitor in the presence of the photographs. The women and their sex. It's what was missing in the paintings.

Cottingham: Perhaps your photographs deliver the explicit pornography that the paintings only imply. In that sense they collaborate, rather than war, with the traditional objectification of women that takes place in the paintings.

Leonard: Those paintings were all painted by men, and largely for men. There's no getting around that. But I'm looking at them. I think the installation underlines what's there, in the paintings, and also what's not in the paintings — what's missing. I was aware of the omnipresent male gaze, and I do think that the piece addresses that, but what's far more interesting to me are the thoughts I had about these women. That two hundred years ago these women had sex, they had desire, they jerked off, some were lesbians. Some were probably miserable and repressed, but also some may have found great joy and power in their sexuality. Look, I `m not anti-porn. I think imaging sex is good. It's fun, it's sexy. And sex is for pleasure. The problems are with who makes porn, who profits from it. And who it's for. The problem is that women aren't treated as equals, and women are hated so much and abused so much. It's not a photograph of a pussy that's the problem here. I'm not interested in remaining trapped forever in a critique of the male gaze. I have my own gaze to think about.

Cottingham: One of the things that becomes complicated in the representation of female genitals is that a long history of representation within the "pornographic" arena precedes any contemporary attempt to re-situate the iconography: the production and distribution of pornography are what define it. It's not as if this image — of female genitals — has never been seen. It's been reproduced in painting, usually for private commissions — that's the history behind the famous Courbet painting. Representations of female genitals, in painting and then in photography too, were made explicitly to be sold to men so that men could do in private what they couldn't literally do in the museums: jerk off. I think it's also important to remember that sexuality is not now nor has it ever been a "free space": all sexual practices are circumscribed by other political and economic determinants. Representations of female genitals are not only for "sexual use" — i.e., as a catalyst to orgasm for the viewer. They also function on other non-orgasmic levels, such as designating (and "proving") female difference or as "evidence" of female "lack." So I don't know if the only way that your installation reads is in terms of the kind of intertextuality between the photos and the paintings that you're describing. You're also stuck with what can't be eliminated: the male voyeurism remains, both in relationship to your images and also to the eighteenth-century paintings of clothed but still female-coded images. Because the female has been constructed as the sign of sex, as the sign of sexual object, the image of the female still reads that way to us. Did that present a conflict for you; was it involved in your considerations?

Leonard: I can't control male voyeurism. All I can do is point it out. I had to just count on my own instincts. Sure, I was scared, and I felt a bit defensive, a little bit embarrassed at times during the installation. I thought it was a risk worth taking. Another thing I wanted to try was to take pictures of women's genitals in a different way than how I had seen them pictured. In most art, the women's genitals are invisible, a discreet curve or hairless mound. Or in most straight porn, shaven into a tiny triangle, pink, shiny and neat. I wanted to photograph pussy in a way that looked real to me way, each one different.


Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.