Jane Burton | In Other Bodies
02.04.14 to 03.05.14
“In Other Bodies” shows Jane Burton working ‘sightless.’ Using a pinhole camera, a device not much more complicated than a box with a hole, Burton shot the images here lens-free, without control over focus or framing, relying instead on a kind of second-sight to create multiple-exposure images in-camera. Trusting intuition in this way, she returned to her ongoing exploration of the naked female figure and the landscape in a process that she calls both thrilling and an ordeal.
Burton worked without a viewfinder, taking particular care with the positioning and poses of her model while visualizing the build-up of the image through successive exposures. Long exposure times, anywhere from a minute and a half for a single exposure and up to five for an image comprising several superimpositions, was demanding for both photographer and model but Burton was happy to work with these inconveniences because the pinhole camera gives a very wide depth of field with an accompanying distortion, making for the slightly hallucinatory, dream-like quality of the images here.
Burton’s figures appear multiplied, or as she puts it, “in mutation and metamorphosis… manifested in flesh – the liminal boundary between interior and exterior worlds.” (1) Their translucency shows a kind of inter-penetration of organic and inorganic, of figure and ground. She elaborates, hinting at the way this project alludes to one of the founding, if aberrant, moments of photographic history:
It is the experience of living in this world, in flesh and in spirit, which absorbs me, whether it is my own tangible experience of the present, or that of others or those before us. My photographs are an attempt to channel those sensations, perceptions and imaginings as a means to inhabit other histories, other landscapes, unfamiliar rooms, and other bodies.
Belief in photography’s capacity to access and manifest the unseen, specifically “those before us”, was a mainstay of late nineteenth century spirit photography whose practitioners became adept at creating composite images through multiple exposure. (2) Spirit photographs appeared to offer tangible—touchable—evidence of spectral activity. If few today would take this enterprise seriously, whether because of diminished belief on spirits or because of a greater understanding of photographic process, this doesn’t mean that we cannot ask of “In Other Bodies” what inhabits here, what is manifest? These are less questions of spiritualist belief than of a willingness to enter into the gambit of Burton’s photographic venture.
Burton’s palette cues us immediately to another departure of this body of work. With one or two exceptions the inky blackness of the “La Bête” and “In the Blood” series is missing, replaced by what she calls a ‘consistent sepia tone, infused with bruised candy colours.’ The blackness of these earlier series was metaphoric as well, at least to male critics. Edward Colless located a “morbid longing” operating in Burton’s work, and Adrian Martin detailed the “shadowy, imprisoned, sadistic-masochistic” aesthetic of Burton’s Gothic, haunted house-type images. By contrast, Helen McDonald identified the pleasure of erotic performance staged in Burton’s work as something clearly appealing to the photographer’s generation of women photographers and female viewers. (3)
Erotic performance here is more fugitive, often quite literally blurred; interior figures, with rare exceptions, appear too amorphous to be imprisoned. Instead of tableaux, we see a hint of flux and its shadow. It’s arguable that Burton’s mutating, metamorphosing figures of sprites, ghosts and fairy tale heroines are less the subjects of her work than analogues of transformation. Her superimpositions can suggest a fleshiness struggling to find form—look at the mutant buttocks in image #1 and the partial yet excessive body in #11—while at the same time appearing to dissolve its substance. In #2, two exposures of a blonde woman fuse along a knee, paradoxically undoing the corporeal sense of either figure so that they become spectral. Burton’s gesture toward what might be called the contemporary grotesque of the flesh de-realizes vision, asking what it is we see. (4) Similarly, the headless woman with multiple legs in #11 confuses the eye until we understand the play of reflections that produce her, no easy task in this little theatre of mirrors. In the past Burton’s work occasionally suggested a crime scene, a trope of eighties photography invested in the highly coded scenography of film noir, but what happened here is not criminal, just the putting-into-place—the mise en scene—of all the components of the photograph. #11 arrests not because of its codedness but its apparent errancy.
“In Other Bodies” displays and withholds simultaneously. The minimal sense of superimposition in #5 is enough to make viewers confuse its female subject’s veil for Rapunzel-like tresses. Her face is withheld but the veil concealing it drapes itself most artfully, with a triangular end in front of her, a tease and an arrow. The eye, denied, is drawn instead to the banal wallpaper pattern behind her. Again, in #12, another fairytale figure lies hidden and uncovered, a sheer cape framing her like butterfly wings within the hedged garden, this arrangement witnessed by a brooding brick house.
Helen McDonald, writing on the occasion of a twenty year survey of Burton’s work in 2009, noted how the photographer has used doorframes to help stage her female subjects within a scene. (5) The same doorways recur in #s 7 and 9, conjuring a cube of space around the figure and recalling Francis Bacon’s “boxed” figures. While the space around Burton’s figures in these two images is more charged than in the painterly antecedents, Bacon’s presence here is important because he too pictured grotesqueries of flesh, influenced in no small part by the photographic analyses of locomotion produced by Eadweard Muybridge. Burton has looked at Muybridge, and at Bacon, and while the twice shadowed headless woman of #7 echoes Bacon’s wrestlers, the impression is less grotesque than ghostly. Who, or what, inhabits this corpus?
The least ghostly figure here is the one most coded, the one we know from movies. #3 shows a woman, her face averted as if in terror, doubly framed and excised in a single exposure through a cobweb-laden window. With no hint of superimposition this woman appears more fully realized than any other in the series but at the same time, Burton’s allusion to the formulae of horror films—something she worked through in previous series—reinforces the sense that she is after all just image, stilled.
Not everything “In Other Bodies” is manifest in flesh. Landscape is a familiar genre for Burton but the ones here, washed in those bruised candy colors—fruits of Photoshop and not the pinhole—register very differently to the essentially monochromatic views of previous series. Less menacing perhaps, they nonetheless display a dis-ease, produced in part by the pinhole’s distortingly wide depth of field. In #8 a weatherboard house on a hill looms up behind a foreground on which most of the light falls, revealing only an ambiguously detailed waste ground, partially framed by the silhouetted leaves of overhanging trees. A similar framing occurs in #13, a Tasmanian landscape of mountains and lake with the cloudscape doubled by the water’s reflection where foreground branches mark the bottom of an ovoid shape. The subject of this framing, as with #8, is unclear. In some of the earlier “Limbo” series, Burton divided viewers’ visual loyalty between two equally compelling parts of the image; here, she goes further, “framing” what is essentially a mood or emotional register and leaving the question “what to look at?” open.
Perhaps the question is less “what to look at?” than “what is it I see?” and is it this that animates the figures and landscapes here? Spirit photographers believed they could show the existence of a force existing beyond bodily death; Muybridge analysed movement by segmenting it into a series of still images but he could not show movement as we see it. (Cinematic movement is an optical trick.) When Burton composed these images she could not see as the camera did; her task was to wait for the light to pass through the pinhole, “unfiltered, unmediated” as she puts it, and leave its impression on the film. The image that resulted was rarely something she had seen. Working sightless helped her return to “the magic of photography” at the same time that she returned to some longstanding questions of photographic looking and vision. These questions are put gently. Look at #10, a view through a window from inside a darkened room where a crystal ball, placed in front of the window, reproduces the view, upside down as in a camera obscura. The top portion of the ball is black, an eyelid if you will, about to blink.
- All quotes from Jane Burton are from email correspondence with the author, March 2104.
- Erin O’Toole attributes the first Spirit photograph to William H. Mumler who reused an improperly cleaned photographic plate to make a self-portrait in Boston in 1861. When developed, the plate showed a young girl “floating” at his side. See her “Spirit Photography” in Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840-1900 Corey Keller, ed (San Francisco Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2008) and in the same volume, Tom Gunning, “Invisible Worlds, Visible Media.”
- Colless and Martin cited by Helen McDonald, “Inhabiting illusions,” Eye of the Beholder: A Twenty Year Survey Exhibition (Glen Eira City Council gallery, 2009) 20. McDonald, ibid.
- Other examples of this grotesque can be found in the work of Patricia Piccinini, who achieves it through species hybridity; Ron Mueck, who employs scale; and Spencer Tunick, who uses massification and spectacle.
- Helen McDonald, “Inhabiting illusions,” p.21.