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In Ulrike Ottinger’s transgressive photographs, on view at Bridget Donahue Gallery, gender bends freely: Glinda the Good Witch becomes a bearded queen in a shopping mall; Dorian Grey becomes a sleek, feminine power broker; and a pearl-clad pirate wears cut-and-pasted body hair on her bare chest.
Taking in these clusters of photographs is like barreling down an escape hatch into a realm where traditional power structures are flipped on their head. Born in Germany in 1942, Ottinger has made narrative and documentary films since the 1970s; her still images range from travel snapshots to mashups from her highly stylized cinematic worlds. Included in this exhibition — Ottinger’s first in New York in nearly 20 years — are shots from her experimental femme-fatale allegory The Enchantment of the Blue Sailors (1975), stills from her lesbian-pirate film Madame X (1978), and real-life images documenting a snowy market in Odessa. They’re featured alongside more recent works, including four big map collages made in 2011. As a whole, Ottinger’s works propose campy re-imaginings of history, fantasy, and legend. They cycle between documentary and the surreal, resulting in the best kind of escapism — where reality and fiction are so intertwined, you can’t imagine them without one another.
These glorious, queer fantasies aren’t without darkness. Among them are images of dagger-wielding, leather-clad heroines and a cult-like nude dinner party laced in barbed wire. We’re reminded that gender is as amorphous and changeable as violence and danger are imminent.
Ottinger’s images harken back to an era when gender-bending was a clandestine activity and queerness was almost universally considered freaky. Images from her aptly titled 1981 film, Freak Orlando, embody this best: a set of monks triumphantly hold chickens wearing babydoll heads as masks, and a circle of nymph-like characters in billowing gowns gaze at their genitals in a pool of water. Ottinger’s images are carefully crafted to queer as a verb; they’re imbued with the angst of being oneself in a world intent on oppressing your personhood.
It is this crossroads of acceptance and misunderstanding that connects contemporary queer photography to Ottinger’s imagery. LGBTQ+-focused photographers working today — like Angal Field, Matthew Leifheit, and Elliot Jerome Brown, Jr. — often make tender images, crafted to do justice to their subjects’ identities and bodies, to represent them in all their complexity and humanity. They do this by using the image as a container for the complications of being a person in this world and allowing the limits of the frame to give each participant rights to refuse the viewer’s gaze. Although these contemporary photographers trade in Ottinger’s brash alternate world-making for softness, their work is still steeped in the disorienting light-headedness of feeling like an outsider, fighting to live your own truth.
Ottinger’s images present a queerness that isn’t interested in individualism but rather in creating a universal force, like gravity or hate, bound by neither the body nor society. By rewriting legend and myth, she invents an enchanting world where gender’s basic function is cast as a tall tale.
Ulrike Ottinger is on view at Bridget Donahue Gallery (99 Bowery, 2nd Floor, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 3.
“Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants—11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were…
he ownership of images has a long and nuanced legal history, which has evolved dramatically in recent years as cultural standards and photographic technologies have rapidly advanced
The show, which honors the 50th anniversary of an exhibition history once ignored, continues a series of projects documenting Wilmington’s contemporary art scene.
Renty and his daughter Delia. Renty was an enslaved African, kidnapped from the Congo, sold and forced into slave labor on the South Carolina plantation of B.F. Taylor
What is the relation between possessing a person, possessing their image, and dispossessing their progeny
As a scholar of African American history and photography whose work has focused on the status of violent images in museums and archives, I fully support the validity of Ms. Tamara Lanier’s claim and the amicus brief.
Two K-12 art teachers will each receive a $1,000 cash gift and an additional $500 to put toward classroom art supplies. Nominations are due October 31.
The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem remained in an unused storage cabinet until 1975, when it was discovered by an employee of the Peabody Museum.
I am writing in support of the amicus curiae brief submitted by Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay of Brown University for the full restitution of the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, currently held by Harvard University, to their familial descendant, Tamara Lanier.
We cannot be indifferent to the long-lasting effects of photography. The photographs at the center of Lanier v. Harvard are relentless in making Renty and Delia Taylor work and perform as slaves. The pain inflicted on them has not ceased. Photography has the capacity to propagate harm, and we have the moral obligation to interrupt…