We talk about the human body as a machine, an instrument, a vessel. We say that it has its own language and its own genre of horror. It can be a temple or a weapon, an agent of fear and shock or delight and beauty. Through 12 photography projects, this special issue touches all of these iterations of the human form. Basketball players readying themselves to leap for the ball appear like figures from a Renaissance painting. Bodies that find deep water terrifying tentatively learn to swim. Dancers contort themselves into strange shapes. Those denied access to healthcare endure terror.
The issue looks out onto a year in which the body will be a site of contest. Olympic records are broken at increasingly higher rates and, at this year’s Paris games, the body will likely be pushed further and faster than ever before. At the same time, bodily freedoms that were hard won come under threat yet again. The photography presented here attempts to think about the body amid all of this complexity.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Basketball in New York, on the summer streets, is like no other sport or spectacle. The games are tense and the emotions heightened. The proximity of the crowd to the action fuels the intensity. These images were made at the Cage at West 4th Street, where the viewers line up along the fence to watch. For the ballers, the court is akin to a church, a hallowed space not only for battle but also solace and meditation.
My main interests in this work are the bodies and how interlocked they are. The tensions on the faces of the participants and the gestural elements that always look up; seemingly to a higher power. The ballers are true renaissance figures, not only gladiators. The balletic positions of the body with the collisions is beauty rarely focused on. Their eyes look up, and for that reason these photographs are named after Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The court, the hoop, the sport is God.
Text by Jon Henry. With thanks to everyone at Kenny Graham’s West 4th Pro-Classic, and to longtime announcer Worthy, who passed away on December 10 2023
In the early 1970s, Larry Sultan came across a how-to manual on swimming and life-saving produced by the American Red Cross. Interested by the documentary-style images, he set out to photograph people as they learnt to swim in the waters of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, Richmond Plunge and the Recreation Center for the Disabled. He would go underwater in full snorkelling gear with a Nikonos III and a handheld flash, capturing moments of flailing, profound trust between learners and confident swimmers, and flashes of fishlike grace.
The project was personal for Sultan. When he was 12, he had almost drowned in the ocean and has held a fear of deep water ever since. But as Philip Gefter writes in the essay accompanying the images, as Sultan photographed the swimmers, “he moved from the shallow end of the pool to deeper waters, where he started swimming up to interesting scenes — in effect, swimming up to his own fear”.
“Swimmers” by Larry Sultan is published by Mack
My Father’s Legs
Sara Perovic’s study of her father’s legs is a strange kind of family portrait. The project started when the photographer and architect came across a manual her grandfather had written instructing the left-handed on how to play tennis, for which her father acted as the model. He was photographed in various stages of a swing, or demonstrating different ways to position the feet. But her eyes were drawn to his legs. Her mother had always told her that she fell in love with her father for “his beautiful, beautiful legs”. Looking at her then-partner, she realised that she had fallen for his legs too. “History was repeating itself,” she says. She began photographing his legs in the same poses as her father’s, and arranging the photographs against the found family images.
“I’m projecting it onto my own family, the one that I created. Now the father of my daughter has beautiful legs.”
“My Father’s Legs” is published by J&L Books
Years ago, British newspapers would run “spot the ball” competitions: photographs of matches where the football had been edited out. Readers had to judge the body language and eye line of the players and mark where they thought the ball was.
While researching 1950s football photographs, Dutch artist Erik Kessels became interested in how erasing the ball removed the focus of the image, drawing the eye instead to the player’s bodies. “Because it’s not there any more, suddenly the dance becomes much more prominent,” he says.
The elegant jumps are most striking in photographs of the goalkeepers, he found. “They try to reach out with their hands. They are very graciously hanging in the air. Like a ballet dancer, almost.”
“Muddy Dance” is published by RVB
The body as propaganda
Representations of the body have long been used as a tool to manipulate public opinion.
Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film of the Olympics that Hitler hosted in Nazi Germany two years earlier, remains one of the darkest instances.
Riefenstahl used the body to present a paean to Third Reich ideals. The film is split into two; beginning with a verbose introduction comparing modern Olympians to classical Greek heroes, before moving on to depict the athletes — in competition and in stylised reconstructions.
They’re presented as Aryan Übermensch, a twisted version of the term Nietzsche coined for the “superhuman”. Toned, limber, white athletes — with the notable exception of Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete who won the 100m and 200m races, the long jump and the 4x100m relay, and who Goebbels unsuccessfully tried to edit out of the film.
No matter how hard Riefenstahl tried to distance herself from the tenets of Nazism after the war, her fascism is plain in her work. She understood that presenting the human body pushing the limits of what was physically possible had the power to elicit extreme emotions in the viewer.
At the other end of the political horseshoe, the Soviet Constructivists’ use of the body in propaganda art for the USSR, such as these posters by Varvara Stepanova and Gustav Klutsis, present not the strength and beauty of the individual but rather that of the collective.
Text by Josh Lustig
It was when the rightwing government in Spain restricted access for minors back in 2013 that I realised the fragility of the right to a safe abortion. My research for this project started the following year. I wanted to document the consequences for people whose rights are restricted, from the psychological and physical repercussions, to forced motherhood and even ending up in jail. I began in Vienna, Austria, photographing the historical objects in the Museum of Contraception and Abortion.
Being able to show the work in Ireland during the referendum, in the US during Trump’s mandate, or in countries like Croatia where access remains difficult, has been as important as the work itself for me. When technology makes abortion the easiest it has ever been, I can’t believe that still more than 47,000 women die every year due to a lack of access to safe procedures. That’s what the project is about: realising that no matter what your situation is, it could change very fast, and we need to protect human rights at all costs.
Text by Laia Abril. “On Abortion” is on show at Foto Arsenal Wien in Vienna until March 10 2024
Woman Wearing Ring Shields Face from Flash
In 2019, Odette England began collecting vernacular photographs of men with guns, human hands, men taking photographs of women without their permission and women rejecting the camera by placing their hands across their faces. She arranged these alongside photographs she made of American women who owned guns or had recently learnt to use handguns with a female instructor. By sequencing these together, England focuses the eye on the similarities in body language surrounding guns and cameras. Writing about the project, she cites Susan Sontag’s observation: “Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines.”
“Woman Wearing Ring Shields Face from Flash” is published by Skinnerboox
Sam Contis’s photographs of a girls’ cross-country running team at a Pennsylvania high school are a homecoming of sorts. Contis joined the team herself at the age of 13, around the same time she took her first photography class. She began taking her camera to practice, photographing her teammates. She returned to that same club six years ago, once again with her camera, to photograph the team’s daily practice and race days. Over every season for four years she captured the runners as they grew up.
Like Degas’s studies of ballet dancers, which he worked on over several decades of observation, or the Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horses, Contis’s portraits, some colour and some black and white, are realist studies of the “motion of the body”: girls’ feet upturned so they can clean the mud from their trainers; arms wrapped languidly around one another as they sit and talk in their running kit; pensively staring across the field as they prepare to race.
They are social studies too: a rare picture of the tenderness of teenage friendships. “When they go out to race, they’re pushing through an incredible amount of pain. The body is in crisis,” Contis says. “But I think the other side of that is that they learn how to care not only for themselves, but they really are attentive to one another.”
Showing up each day, building up the girls’ trust over the months and years, Contis also captures the moments in which adolescent self-consciousness falls away. “When you are fully exerting yourself physically, there’s no energy left to be conscious of the world around you,” she says. “It puts you in this other place, which I think is very beautiful.”
What we see is the body as it moves, or prepares to move, across a landscape, but also as it transitions from childhood to young adulthood. “Maybe, subconsciously, I was interested that nothing is fixed at this age,” Contis concludes. “You’re really figuring out who you want to be and how you want to be seen.”
Text by Baya Simons
Linguistically the word “fall” takes us to all kinds of places — one can fall ill, in love, pregnant, from grace, behind, away, back or apart. All this falling suggests a lack of control or, more specially, some sort of failure or a letting go. Perhaps the most evocative fall I can think of is Alice as she falls down the rabbit hole, clutching at roots as she goes down, down, down into Wonderland. In the 1951 Disney version she floats with her blue dress acting as a parachute. It’s calm and enjoyable and totally sanitised. No cuts or scrapes for Alice.
With Gabby Laurent’s photography there is the element of performance to add into the act of falling — she is acting the moment of a fall, and here lies a contradiction. She is deliberately mimicking an action that is inherently unintentional. Through wilfully giving up control, she is imposing control. She is trying to be in charge of the chaos.
Text by Susan Bright, from “Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling”, published by Saint Lucy Books.
“Falling” by Gabby Laurent is published by Loose Joints
Carla Williams’s father would hide his copies of Playboy or Penthouse magazine in the family bathroom, concealed in a pile of soft, sweet-smelling towels. He purchased them for a dollar each from the second-hand store the month after publication and, for a teenaged Williams and her sisters, they were a secret source of deep fascination. “As an impressionable, bookish kid, I was in awe of all of these women,” she writes in her debut monograph.
“I thought they had to be the baddest women in the world to feel free enough to pose in this manner”. They would see African-American models in the pages, but very rarely, “maybe only a couple a year”. When she began studying photography at Princeton, she found herself drawn to self-portraits and to exploring various states of undress. “I was seeing exalted nudes every day in art history class,” she writes. “I figured I knew what to do, since I’d seen it played out for years.” Between 1984 and 1999, she would photograph herself in private, capturing her developing sense of self and sexuality. She didn’t show the pictures to anyone for almost four decades, but she always liked them. They were the photographs she had longed to see while growing up.
“Tender” by Carla Williams is published by TBW Books
His Body is a Language
What’s considered attractive in a man in cities 6,000km apart? Ankita Das’s “His Body is a Language” explores this question through a series of staged photographs replicating dating app profiles from two cities: New Delhi and Geneva.
Studying 126 profiles on Bumble, Das looked at how body language differed across the two cultures and recreated key poses on two models. Certain tropes appear in both places: a flexed arm, a man gently cradling a cat. But others show subtle differences. Her Swiss model gazes out past the camera, his hands placed so as to frame his face. In New Delhi, the subject sits facing out towards the viewer, smiling straight at the camera, his arms resting confidently on his legs.
Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno
One evening in May 1959, Eikoh Hosoe was riveted by a performance by avant-garde dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Yoshito Ohno (Kazuo Ohno’s son) with a live chicken. Titled Konjiki (Forbidden Colors), after the novel by Yukio Mishima, the performance was about a homosexual love affair. It was recognised as the beginning of Ankoku butoh (dance of utter darkness) or simply butoh.
This encounter fundamentally changed Hosoe’s relationship with photography, or rather the people he photographed. Instead of simply photographing a subject, he began to view himself as involved in the collaborative creation of a distinct space and time. Hosoe’s intensive work with his camera, which he said involved carrying “extreme tension in [his] body”, became an essential part of a collaborative project.
The resulting photograph, created with Hosoe’s eyes and body in synchrony with those of his subject, would transcend the subject’s presence and movement to become an artistic expression of the time and space shared by the two.
Text by Yasufumi Nakamori from “Eikoh Hosoe”, published by Mack
Follow @FTMag to find out about our latest stories first and subscribe to our podcast Life and Art wherever you listen
Read the full article here