Breaking apart all my pictures of you

March 11, 2009

There’s a new exhibition, “Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from L.A.” currently open at the Hammer Museum, which features, according to the L.A. Times:

[…] nine local artists known for their idiosyncratic, often incredibly detailed work, “Nine Lives” celebrates the fanciful extremes of individual creativity […]

The report containes a couple of paragraphs about the work of photographer Charlie White which brought me up with a bit of a jolt:

Charlie White’s photographic series Teen and Transgender Comparative Study uses the stark format of a scientific study to raise pointed questions about femininity and self-image. Each photo depicts a teenage girl and a pre-op transgender woman side by side, from the shoulders up, against a light blue grid. “The subjects are both going through a form of puberty,” writes White in an e-mail. “Both are following a trajectory towards femininity, towards woman. One is doing this chemically, and the other is doing it biologically.”

First of all, the name of the series, Teen and Transgender Comparative Study, is a bit of a teeth-grinder. It’s fairly common to draw the parallel with a sort of second puberty when one’s hormone regime starts to take effect. In this context, it seems to me to be referencing the recurrent and, in my view, incorrect idea that trans women are created by Medicine in a similar manner to Frankenstein’s monster being created by Science. There’s a vague whiff of tabloid sensationalism in the juxtaposition of the words of the title, to say the least.

The word femininity as I understand it (behaving in ways considered typical for women) is potentially problematic – too often it’s used as a way of leveraging trans-misogyny. Also, the objectification implied by using a setting which mimics “the stark format of a scientific study” makes me more than a little uncomfortable.

The last two sentences are so contentious I scarcely know where to start. The equating of femininity and woman is a sweeping generalisaton of epic proportions; while the cissexist essentialism of the last sentence displays a breathtaking lack of understanding of the lived experiences of Mr White’s subjects.

And the second paragraph in the review is equally full’o’fail™ – although one can’t help but admire the awfulness of the seamless segue from misogyny into sexism:

He hopes viewers will see the overlap. “When they are placed side by side, they help to illustrate femininity in contemporary society,” he writes, adding that his focus on femininity is simply a way of getting at bigger, underlying issues: “I don’t know if I’m as critical of the idea of ‘girl’ in culture as I am critical of culture, capitalism and sense of self.”

After all that, it’s fair to say that, by the time I tracked down Mr White’s work online, I was expecting yet another round of objectification and fetishisation of trans women, in addition to the usual cis person’s erasure of the context of trans women’s lives. And in that sense I wasn’t disappointed; I still had the misgivings I’ve described above, but I was unprepared for the depth of my emotional reaction on seeing the images. They’ve given me considerable pause for thought and I’ve been back to the website a few times today.

I’ve heard it said that art is a tool to shape the world – it’s a noble aim – but for the time being I’m going with the counterpoint: art is a mirror to reflect the world. And like it or not, I can almost see myself reflected in these images.

Image 4 from Teen and Transgender Comparative Study by Charlie White

Click here to visit the Teen and Transgender Comparative Study page at Charlie White’s website.


(Curtsey to Nexy for the link)


2 Responses to “Breaking apart all my pictures of you”

  1. Lori Says:

    It’s amazing how images on their own can say so much. Trying to justify/describe art with words often takes away from the true power that is there. A description to clarify what we are seeing is one thing, but reasons why is another. We take what we want from art, not what the artist wants us to.

    Thanks for the link. I much prefer the images themselves to their description.

  2. Sophia K Says:



    lots of these distinctions are full of fail.

    and it would have spoiled the whole thing to, you know, include a cis female teenager with a large frame. ick.

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