Clea Christakos-Gee: Alessandra, your project She is All But Absent From History is process-based, a reclamation of agency and representation by annotating and citing adventure narratives depicting women. You share your explorations through underlining, bookmarking, and re-photographing your source material. The output is a film that shares this process by layering text and image excerpts into a visual map for viewers to navigate.
Sara, your project Lady Readers, a widely-sourced collection of vernacular images of women reading, also considers a specific history of female subjectivity and representation. The original prints carry a romantic mystery as the conditions of their production are left to the imagination. In their anonymity, the female subjects hold a collective power, plucked from their privacy and perhaps joining a contemporary dialogue. Especially as they are situated in the exhibition across from Abballe’s images of seminal feminist figures.
I am interested in each of your processes when using photographs taken or touched by others in these bodies of work: She is All But Absent From History and Lady Readers. How do you consider yourselves in relation to these gathered pictures – photographer, visual artist, researcher, collector?
Alessandra Abballe: In relation to my practice and image making, I lean more toward researcher rather than photographer. That certainly isn’t something that’s been easy for me to realize, but it happened really organically and through observing different photo-based practices and understanding that image making can take so many different forms. My first inclination is always to photograph and only when I start to do that do I realize that photography is often not the right output for my work. This project is a great example of that; it started with me trying to take photographs of gathered research and found imagery (how it exists now in the context of our Artspace exhibition) but I’ve come to realize that it’s final form will exist as a video.
CCG: Do you recall your initial impulse to work with found imagery? How does this mode of image-making fit into your own history and broader trajectory as an artist and thinker?
AA: I’m very conscious of the fact that my practice is in the early stages of its life, so to speak, and I don’t want to force it to be something that it’s not. The work I find myself doing has become more and more rooted in process and I find myself fascinated with and preoccupied by working through something rather than the final result or destination of that thing, so I try to lead with that.
CCG: It is wonderful that this project allowed you to find a new perspective on your interests as an image maker. I think I can relate to that feeling – there is so much to be gleaned from actively engaging with one’s creative process rather than just thinking about research or experimentation as a means to an end. Resolution isn’t necessarily useful or possible. It seems like the video format really lends itself to your ongoing process as a researcher.
SK: I’m kind of the mirror image of that transition – coming into a creative practice from my position as an academic and as a writer and curator – though it should be said that I consider these creative activities too. I have so much respect and admiration for artists, for the commitment and vision of making art, but it’s not often been my way of being with photography, so at times it feels like trespassing.
The first image of a woman reading that came into my possession — the image that started the collection — was a gift from a friend, bought at a flea market and sent to me by mail while I was trying to finish writing up my PhD dissertation. I think it was meant as a reference to my state as a “lady reader” at the time. It spurred in me an interest in images of reading, and particularly images of women reading, in the history of photography (there are many, from Eadweard Muybridge to Carrie Mae Weems), and I began thinking intermittently about the power of these images, about why I felt drawn to them.
Over time, I started collecting pictures casually at flea markets, and then obsessively on eBay and Etsy. I’m also fascinated by the way that the digital world has allowed for a second life for all of these images, a way of collecting and redistributing the now-finite (or nearly!) mass of vernacular photographs — all those snapshots kept in book pages and shoe boxes somehow unleashed on the internet.
The title of the collection is in reference to Susan Sontag, who’s been an immense influence on me, not only in relation to her writings and ideas, but as a model for processes of thinking through writing, reading and being that she seemed able to express in her texts. She asks a question in Town Bloody Hall, a recording of a debate in 1971 between Norman Mailer and some of the leading feminists of the time, that takes offence at his use of the term “lady writer” as patronizing. It’s a moment I have rewatched many times, and so it’s an homage to it, as well as a way of maybe reclaiming “lady reader” as empowering.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I came to understand what I had been amassing as a collection of sorts. I think of it more as a regathering, a way of bringing lost images into a space that can help us think about this narrow slice of photographic activity, on one hand, and on the other, of the symbolic power of the imagery; what they, collectively, might convey about the space of women as readers and writers — as imaginers of the world.
CCG: Across Carrie Mae Weems’ The Kitchen Table Series there is such a powerful representation of her intimate relationships. This image in particular – as her daughter watches her read – stands out as a distilled moment of intergenerational exchange. I am thinking about growing up and witnessing other women reading to us or around us, the books and stories inherited that end up shaping our relationship to ourselves and to the world.
SK: Yes, this is so true. My mother’s relationship to books, to literature, has been hugely important for me. First as a habit — in a way witnessing the act of her reading, and the visual memory of that act — and later, as an understanding of the way that books were transformative for her, and then eventually being able to reflect on the significance of all of this.
AA: I have such visceral and nostalgic memories of my mother reading too and I constantly think about the ways her reading habits have shaped my own — how she would dog-ear pages, circle passages, and bend the spines to fit comfortably in her hands. It’s also such a privilege to be able to read things together and share books with her now. One of my favorite moments from our exhibition’s brief run was when my mom came up to me asking to borrow my copy of Virgina Woolf’s To The Lighthouse that was included on our book table. The thought of sharing my copy with her, of her reading and adding to my comments and underlined quotes is a very special thing in and of itself.
SK: I love this. My copy of TTL is from my mother, and still has her penciled underlines and notes in the margins…
CCG: Speaking of the book table displayed in the centre of the gallery, why was this an important addition to the show and how did the book selection come to be? Alessandra, I noticed that some of the titles are also present in your photographs.
SK: I think Alessandra agreed from the start that our own reading, and the texts both past and present that have come to shape, and that continue to inform our relationships to photography and to feminism are at the centre of our projects, and so are really what connects them. There are also a lot of crossovers here in terms of some texts that have been significant for us (VW being an obvious here). Though I think there are also things that each of us brought that are new to the other, and so it’s also a way of expanding our referents. Alessandra, would you agree with this?
AA: Absolutely! Including the books that have informed this project and having them in dialogue with your books was very important to me. I love that there’s such a variety of texts, how our selections speak to one another, and the dialogue that occurs when people start to question or make connections between the exhibition and the books. Something that I really love about this project is how I find myself making connections to it in different kinds of things I’m reading. Back in February, I had read Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, a book about four girls coming-of-age in Brooklyn in the 1970’s, and I found myself thinking about it in conjunction with heroism — how things like femininity and the perils of growing up are, in and of themselves, a heroic journey.
way that the hero’s journey has been written about, taught, and utilized to tell stories (hello Star Wars) is, I think, super exclusive and prioritizes solitary quest and egocentric ideals. What I’m interested in is how the narratives of women, that have often existed on the margins, reject that notion and embody another understanding of heroism. A lot of the books I included on the table function in this way for me — they’ve helped me rebuild my understanding of heroism and quest.
CCG: It is great to imagine the book table as a venn diagram of sorts between your projects and as an ongoing library. I am curious about the dialogue across your projects as you have both approached photography and academia in different eras of feminist and photographic histories.Both projects look to the past, do you consider this exhibition to be an intergenerational exchange?
SK: The images I collect don’t speak directly to the significance of intergenerational relationships, but maybe suggest the way that histories can resonate and animate new understandings, new revelations in the present. I was lucky enough to have a long conversation with Jo Ann Walters about her project, Wood River Blue Pool, for The Heavy Collective last summer, and we spoke quite a bit about intergenerational exchanges. Her project involves going back to the place of her childhood in her 30s as a way of rediscovery, and the work centres, without being strict about its subjects, around mothers and daughters. It’s a profound project, as are the texts in the book, by Emma Kemp and Laura Wexler, each a generation removed from Walters in either direction. This is a long aside, but the conversation made me think about the way that certain texts and images have served to extend and help me understand the emotional and intellectual depth of these relationships.
I also think that feminism as an ideology has changed drastically over a generation. The era of Sontag and Gloria Steinem, mentioned earlier, has been reframed in relation to its whiteness, and to its complicity in the oppression of women of colour and of trans women, and these gaps and silences are also present in this collection, which dates mainly from the mid-20th century. The vast majority of the images I’ve collected are of white women in what appear to be heteronormative postures. Though I’m always looking for images that challenge these conditions, I come across few, and this serves as a reminder of the exclusionary and racist culture surrounding the rise of amateur film and photography in the 20th century, and of the limitations of the subset of archives I am accessing in my searches.
My hopefulness comes through your generation, so many of whom are fiercely committed not only to intersectionality and feminism for the 99%, but to the movement’s radical roots, and the possibilities for building a different reality that attend to this radicality.
AA: Something I’ve taken great pleasure in during the process of this exhibition is observing how our work intersects and functions together and the dialogue it lends itself to. I wasn’t specifically thinking about the intergenerational exchange our images have, but in retrospect, it is definitely an interesting and significant part of the exhibition. To see the juxtaposition of Sara’s collection (spanning different time periods) and my images (depicting various literary and historical figures) hanging across from each other in the gallery is, I think, really exciting and fascinating.
CCG: Sara as you mention, it feels important to consider the platform of the internet, of instant-sharing and endless streams of image consumption. Can you each speak to your contemporary relationship with the analogue experiences of reading printed photographs and paper-back books? Is anything lost in translating these experiences online?
SK: I think there are both gains and losses in the shift between analogue and digital, but they are much more interrelated and fluid then our oppositional frameworks for them often allow. The internet has completely changed our access to photographic images — as an educator this has been invaluable. Resources like the library of congress and museum collections, not to mention artist websites, newspaper archives and even family archives have helped to make it easy to share and discuss a huge range of photographs in an unprecedented way. At the same time certain things are lost — scale, texture, the patina of history that might connect to the physical object. While I’m not overly concerned about the print itself — I don’t care about tears or fading, or how many may exist — I suppose I am a little romantic about the connection to a material thing, a thing that was made by a person, that touched other hands. That in itself may speak to my age: I grew up with analogue cameras and spent much of high school in the dark room.
I still read anything longform in hardcopy. This has to do, I think, with the connections I make between screen and attention. I have found though, that I can listen to books; in some ways the audiobook is a throwback to a time when we depended on others to read for us, an activity I am now on the other side of, as a parent who reads every day to a toddler.
CCG: Sara, I love how you mention scale and texture – there seems to be an intentional use of scale across the various mediums in the show. There is a range among the Lady Readers from wallet-sized originals to darkroom prints, but also a stark difference between Alessandra’s life-sized photocopies/photographs of books against the large-scale textile that becomes a centre-piece hanging above these various opportunities for an intimate reading and viewing experience.
SK: Yes! That’s so true. Most were made as small personal keepsakes, and the larger darkroom prints were circulated as press images. These are a kind of sub-set of the collection. They come mainly from the mass of newspaper archives that no longer relied of their stores of physical press prints and so have been dumping them by the truckload. While I know very little about most of the images in the collection, the press prints were often made as illustrations, and there are often many markings and notes on the backs of the prints that tell us about the narrative they attached to, however surprising or absurd they may seem now.
Even in the cases where we know how an image may have been used, one of the aspects of the collection that I come back to often is that we can’t actually know what the readers are absorbing — whether their attention is really on the book or letter in hand, what effect the words and ideas are having, or whether their minds are wandering to other thoughts… the loneliness and the freedom of imagination in this is something that I connect with deeply.
CCG: It is so interesting to see the markings on the back of this print. The image itself is also so evocative, something about the unfolded letter feels increasingly charged with mystery. It brings to mind Sophie Calle’s series Take Care of Yourself where she asked 107 women to read (and later, to edit and interpret) a breakup letter she received.
AA: This is such a great question and one that I go back and forth with a lot. The relationship that I have with books and reading is so important to me on a number of different levels, I would even venture to say that it’s a sort of religious experience for me. I attribute this to a combination of so many different things — the relationship between place and reading, being read to as a child, the sharing of books — but I very much agree with the idea that it has something to do with the connection between screen and attention. Reading something online is a completely different experience for me than having the physical book in hand. Reading a hardcopy allows me to fully immerse myself in the text and be present in the act of reading itself without having to fight the urge to open another browser or check Instagram.
Sara, you mentioned that you’re interested in the connection to a material object that has been passed from hand to hand and I identify with that a lot in relation to my feelings about books and libraries. There is truly nothing like going to the library and rifling through books that have been passed along and shared so widely. A project that articulates this sentiment so beautifully is Grayson James’ exhibition After Alexandria that was shown at the Ryerson Image Centre in late 2019. James expresses the unique experience of reading books from the library as part of a broader conversation and community, one that allows for engagement and collaboration.
On the other hand, the way I interact with printed images is much different than with books. To Sara’s point, I am fascinated by the amount of digital collections we have access to at this point in time. In terms of the research that I do, I find myself most frequently interacting with images through a screen, whether that be through artist websites, digital collections, social media, or any number of platforms. Having said that, the importance of physical archives and photographs as objects is definitely not lost on me. With images, I think it’s much more about context and function.
CCG: I think this connection between screens and attention is one of the fundamental questions of this unprecedented moment. Amidst a global pandemic we all have to reconsider and in some cases completely reimagine how our work (and our social interactions!) can exist on digital platforms. How can we share and possibly extend the conversation of an art exhibit when its physical manifestation has been closed to the public and its associated programming cut short.
SK: It’s been interesting to watch and occasionally participate in the surge of online programming that this moment has wrought. I’ve been impressed (and sometimes surprised!) by the range of programming that all kinds of organizations in my life developed to keep a sense of community alive. With my toddler I tuned in regularly not only to daycare zoom sessions, but to Oliver Jeffers’s live readings and Yo-Yo Ma’s Songs of Comfort.