“Photography and Self-Fashioning” workshop at the AGO
It has been a good year for seeing photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario: first, there was Associate Curator Sophie Hackett’s two-part meditation on the gallery’s permanent photo collection, “Light My Fire,” an elegant, thoughtful and often surprising overview of portraiture within the institution’s massive (and growing) collection of fine art and vernacular images. Now, in tandem with World Pride, Hackett has once again curated a pair of exhibitions that take as their focus photography and identity: “Fan the Flames: Queer Positions in Photography” at the AGO, and “What It Means to Be Seen: Photography and Queer Visibility” at the Ryerson Image Centre.
While the Ryerson exhibition focuses on documentary images of collective identity—often seen through forms of public demonstration, protest and print media—the AGO half of the exhibition foregrounds artists’ collections and creations of identities through photographs. Self-portraiture, or portraits commissioned by the sitter, are more common here, and use costuming, props, poses and performances for the camera to construct an identity for the lens. Photography has long been tied up in ideas (some of them inflated to the point that they are unsustainable myths) of instantaneity, objectivity, and universal legibility, and the two exhibitions demonstrate how these ideals have been both harnessed by subjects and troubled by artists, photographers, and photo editors.
Over the next three weeks, I’m hoping to think through some of these questions through a workshop at the AGO on “Photography and Self-Fashioning.” Is there something unique about photography as a medium—aside from its mechanical nature and its increased accessibility with the mass manufacture of cheap camera equipment—that allows subjects to control how they are publicly represented? How does photography’s ubiquity and circulation, its ability to be reproduced in places quite different from where it was produced, trouble the distinction between private and public space? What happens when performances of gender and desire that are “supposed to be” private enter the public sphere? And what does a “queer visibility” look like in an age where we are surrounded by a flood of self-made images?