“The worst is over without a doubt.”
May 16, 2011 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Artist Debbie Grossman starts with Russell Lee's Depression-era photographs of Pie Town, New Mexico, and then Photoshops the men into women. (via)

Because the images of Lee's time in Pie Town are available in high resolution form from the Library of Congress, I was able to get close to Lee's images on a pixel level. For me, working with photographs and editing them so closely in Photoshop is a kind of an intimate act. Zooming in and carving a feminine jaw out of a masculine one, or manipulating the touch of one woman's hand on another's shoulder is a way for me to access and merge my desire with figures which would have otherwise remained frozen in time.
[...]
Particularly because my work takes as its starting point a body of images that is Americana, that was made to be a political tool to encourage pride in this country and its homesteading, agrarian roots, I enjoy imagining My Pie Town working as its own kind of (lighthearted) propaganda.



The photos are at the Julie Saul Gallery in NYC through May 21st.
posted by you're a kitty! (63 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's an interesting concept, and definitely lends a new connotation to the images. I was struck by this quote, though: Artist Debbie Grossman visualizes an alternate reality of dusty plains and simple family meals drawn from the Farm Security Administration’s archives, creating an endlessly interpretable world in which the contemporary idea of family is presented as historical.

Aren't there gay men in our contemporary idea of family? Why is there no room for them here?
posted by misha at 7:44 AM on May 16, 2011


Why is there no room for them here?

From the main link:
I thought it would be fun to remake the whole town in a way that reflected my own family, and I imagined a Pie Town filled with women.
I assume Grossman didn't write the first paragraph herself.
posted by muddgirl at 7:53 AM on May 16, 2011


This tin was a lot more awesome than I thought from reading the label.
posted by DU at 8:01 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Way to ruin some nice photos.. if "Photoshop Art" catches on I may need to throw up in my mouth a little.
posted by ReeMonster at 8:02 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Am instantly reminded of Y - The Last Man which had a lot of similar (but entirely fictional) situations, in particular a remote farming community.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:10 AM on May 16, 2011


ReeMonster, why are they "ruined"?

I mean, it's not like the originals were actually painted over, never to be seen again.
posted by Windigo at 8:11 AM on May 16, 2011


It's an interesting idea, and that's some nice Photoshop, but since I've never seen the originals before I have to say I'm more blown away by the photographs themselves.
posted by Bookhouse at 8:12 AM on May 16, 2011


Altering or re-contextualizing classic photos has been big for a while.
posted by ducky l'orange at 8:12 AM on May 16, 2011


Way to ruin some nice photos

It's true, after the artist committed her desired image to print, she tracked down all copies of the originals and completely annihilated them. Damn the photoshops for destroying history!
posted by FatherDagon at 8:13 AM on May 16, 2011


Way to ruin some nice photos.. if "Photoshop Art" catches on I may need to throw up in my mouth a little.

You understand the artist didn't modify the originals, and that those are still archived where historians can access them, right?
posted by aught at 8:13 AM on May 16, 2011


if "Photoshop Art" catches on

That "horse" has left the "barn" "ages" "ago."
posted by hydrophonic at 8:19 AM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've been to Pie Town. Although not during the depression.

If memory serves, someone actually had to open a pie shop there because for years there was no pie in Pie Town.

Located near Pie Town are both the Lightning Field and the Very Large Array telescope.

It's located in Catron County, which is larger than Connecticut and has fewer than 4000 people living in it.

It also has more cows and elk than people, and is mostly public land.

Gods, I love West-central New Mexico.

These photos are really interesting. Both the originals and the new versions. Intensely good photoshop work, too. Thanks for posting.
posted by hippybear at 8:20 AM on May 16, 2011


Grrr. I meant to link to the originals.

Also found this interesting article from Smithsonian Magazine which belongs in this thread.
posted by hippybear at 8:24 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Gorgeous, and both versions look so contemporary. I am in favor of government-sponsored photography projects.
posted by rtha at 8:47 AM on May 16, 2011


This was interesting and the work was very seamless. One thing which struck me about them was how non-strange, how unaltered, the images all looked. Even, for instance, this one of the squaredancing. I don't find it in the least jarring to see scenes emptied of men, even scenes which depict traditional heterosexual pairings, like dances or communal dinners. Nothing about her altered imaged telegraphed that there were not actual documentary images (which is a testament to the skill). I suppose it's because these are all largely "soft" activities--social activities which women are expected to enjoy and be part of, to create even in the absence of men, such as in wartime. Two adult women at a dinner table with children just says "absent father"--perhaps he abandoned them; perhaps he's gone to find work somewhere else; perhaps he has died; or is away at war or still at work--it reads as less than ideal, perhaps, but not odd. Not extraordinary.

Imagining the opposite, a family dinner table with two adult men and children, conjures more dissonance in my mind. Certainly in historic photos I'm familiar with, that would make no sense. This is odd, to me, because the older I get, the more I feel that the world is of and for men, although I am aware how much that has changed, even in my lifetime. Even given that context--a world of and for men--removing images of men from what are domestic scenes--even tending the calf in pasture--does not make a dramatic statement to me.

Certainly, I don't think her choice to recast the photos as all women was the wrong artistic choice. As it turns out, recasting those photos in this way led my thoughts along some interesting paths. If she was attempting, however, to telegraph what a non-male-directed world might feel like, she failed.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:49 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there some easy way to view the originals, other than sifting through the archives manually?
posted by odinsdream at 8:59 AM on May 16, 2011


Early life in Whileaway. Neat.
posted by sonascope at 9:04 AM on May 16, 2011


these are all largely "soft" activities--social activities which women are expected to enjoy and be part of

Yes, some of the images are "soft" activities such as square dancing and holding a child. However, there are three that I would argue are not "soft" (shooting hawks, securing a calf*, posing with mounted animals) and two that I would argue are gender-neutral (going to a community meeting, walking along Main Street).

*You called it "tending to a calf" but to me the image seems to imply much more of a wrestle or a struggle.
posted by cranberrymonger at 9:09 AM on May 16, 2011


Also, the photography that came out of the Civilian Conservation Corps evokes a similar feeling from the male direction. There's an amazing, joyous, unfiltered intimacy and ease among men that you get when people aren't working so hard to prove such things are impossible.
posted by sonascope at 9:13 AM on May 16, 2011


If memory serves, someone actually had to open a pie shop there because for years there was no pie in Pie Town. . . .
It also has more cows and elk than people, and is mostly public land.



Hippybear: Oh, there were plenty of pies in Pie Town. Just not the kind you are thinking of. Reread your comment (above) for a clue. :)
posted by spock at 9:15 AM on May 16, 2011


spock: that's very logical.
posted by hippybear at 9:17 AM on May 16, 2011


Live long and prosper, Hippybear.
posted by spock at 9:20 AM on May 16, 2011


It's interesting to see that fetish photo altering has become so acceptable as to actually be considered an art form now.
posted by crunchland at 9:51 AM on May 16, 2011


It was always "an art form."
posted by muddgirl at 9:55 AM on May 16, 2011


No, it wasn't. The guy putting headphones on the brassier models from Sears catalogs wasn't doing it for art's sake.
posted by crunchland at 9:57 AM on May 16, 2011


So if someone wanks off to it, then it's not art? Interesting definition.
posted by muddgirl at 10:02 AM on May 16, 2011


No, it wasn't. The guy putting headphones on the brassier models from Sears catalogs wasn't doing it for art's sake.

You seem to be operating under the incredibly erroneous assumption that "real" artists are celibate monks or that "real art" never has any sexual energy or tension in it.

This is far from the truth. A vast majority of art is driven by sexual energy whether it's overt and acknowledged or subconscious. This has been true throughout the history of art.

Look at all that "Classical" Greek sculpture that's wrongly revered as an innocent study of the human form. It's not innocent. It was erotic art. It was intentionally erotic art. These white marble statues were originally painted in bright, lurid colors including flesh tones. Many sculptures featured sexually explicit scenes or poses, and many of these were destroyed by stuffy European scholars and curators who couldn't deal with the fact that an entire civilization liked fucking so much that they built temples about it.

I would go so far as to say that if you want to pick out "bad" art, it would be art that doesn't have any sexual tension or energy. Thomas Kinkade, for example.

Last, I dare you to define the difference between art and pornography. I double-dog dare you, and you're not allowed to use the line "You'll know it when you see it."
posted by loquacious at 10:21 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's interesting to see that fetish photo altering has become so acceptable as to actually be considered an art form now.

Are you really of the opinion that babbling a random series of disconnected words is criticism?
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:28 AM on May 16, 2011


Way to ruin some nice photos.. if "Photoshop Art" catches on I may need to throw up in my mouth a little.

It's interesting to see that fetish photo altering has become so acceptable as to actually be considered an art form now.


Good job, guys! you're almost looking at art! OK you've had thoughts prompted by the work. That's the important part. Now, just think about what unexamined assumptions lead you to think that. You can do it!
posted by cmoj at 11:56 AM on May 16, 2011 [6 favorites]


This is the original for this one. The original doesn't contain men at all, and it doesn't look significantly different than the one in the artist's collection.

I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean. Clearly she's actually done the work on most/all of them. Why skip one?
posted by odinsdream at 1:02 PM on May 16, 2011


That's an interesting find, odinsdream. I mean, it fits in with the theme of what the artist is doing, but does she really have a right to post that as an original work when I can't find a single change on cursory comparison between the original and the one she's claiming is her photoshop job?
posted by hippybear at 1:09 PM on May 16, 2011


Another original without men and the artist's photo. No change as far as I can tell.
posted by odinsdream at 1:13 PM on May 16, 2011


A third original and unchanged artist's photo.

It's annoying that these cases are where you're apparently meant to think that a particular subject was male in the original, like in this case I'd assume you're meant to think it was either the one in the bandana or the one on the right.
posted by odinsdream at 1:16 PM on May 16, 2011


I'm not going to bother with the rest.
posted by odinsdream at 1:17 PM on May 16, 2011


does she really have a right to post that as an original work when I can't find a single change on cursory comparison between the original and the one she's claiming is her photoshop job?

There's an entire genre of contemporary art called appropriation, which is especially practiced by female artists like sherrie Levine, who I think this artists is very much in the school of (Levine once rephotographed Walker Evans work). If the artist here is taking photographs and swapping out genders, then, no, reusing unretouched photos makes no sense. But if she is recreated somebody's earlier work as a town of woman, then, yes, images that already were of just women, used as appropriations, would make sense.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:17 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh goodness. And that was one of the examples I held in my mind as "wow, that's a really fucking amazing photoshop job!".

Hrm. Have we found our debunking for the month? Maybe none of these are actually altered at all!
posted by hippybear at 1:19 PM on May 16, 2011


WAIT! ReeMonster was right! She invaded the LOC and replaced the originals!
posted by odinsdream at 1:19 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Astro Zombie: I have no problem with that whole appropriation idea... But she's not selling herself as imagining the town as having only women through existing photographs. She's claiming that she's doing really high-quality photoshop work on existing photographs to change the gender of the people so they are all women. But clearly, that's not what she's doing, at least not in the three examples which odinsdream has discovered before growing weary of the exercise.

I might have the ambition to dig through some of the remaining examples here in a while later today. But at this point, I'd be shocked to learn that ANY of them were actually photoshop jobs. It could just be that Grossman has just been very very selective with the images she chose and is rebranding as her own work.
posted by hippybear at 1:24 PM on May 16, 2011


She's claiming that she's doing really high-quality photoshop work on existing photographs to change the gender of the people so they are all women.

I don't see where she says that. Her statement says she photoshopped the documents, but some are subtle, whereas some are bigger photoshops, with the goal of re-imagining Pie Town as being populated entirely by women:

"Using Photoshop to modify Lee’s pictures, she created an imaginary, parallel world - a Pie Town populated exclusively by women. The images are revised in subtle ways, making the reading of them very complicated and compelling."

It's this post that claims the project is about turning men into women, not Grossman. Obviously this has been done in a few cases, but the artists never claims she's doing that with every picture.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:27 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


A third original and unchanged artist's photo.

In this one, the man to the far left has been turned into a woman.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:29 PM on May 16, 2011


Why would Jessie and Edith Evans-Whinery name their baby '10 1/2 x 14” inkjet prints'?


This makes no sense.
posted by Bushidoboy at 1:29 PM on May 16, 2011


I might have the ambition to dig through some of the remaining examples here in a while later today. But at this point, I'd be shocked to learn that ANY of them were actually photoshop jobs. It could just be that Grossman has just been very very selective with the images she chose and is rebranding as her own work.

Alright put the pitchforks down. I'd like to clarify, as I already stated earlier, that at least some or most of the photos have been photoshopped as described. The originals can be found at the LOC by searching for Pie Town and paging through.
posted by odinsdream at 1:34 PM on May 16, 2011


In this one, the man to the far left has been turned into a woman.

You're definitely right! That wasn't obvious.
posted by odinsdream at 1:35 PM on May 16, 2011


The person in the middle of the square dance photo has also been subtly altered.
posted by muddgirl at 1:40 PM on May 16, 2011


The seated women in the "meeting" photo have been moved slightly closer together.
posted by luftmensch at 2:16 PM on May 16, 2011


I don't see where she says that.

I guess you're correct, and she doesn't actually say that. Although that's what a cursory read of the text on her website and the content of this FPP would lead one to believe.''

And now I'm left wondering really where the line is between a new work derived from an old work and not-a-new work lies, but that's a discussion for another time.
posted by hippybear at 2:21 PM on May 16, 2011


Well, that many of these photos are largely unchanged renders moot my reaction that the absence of men in many of these images is unremarkable.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:24 PM on May 16, 2011


Well, that many of these photos are largely unchanged

What's the line for "many"? I can't go to the exhibit, but from the gallery link I see 10 with significant changes (altered secondary sex characteristics).
posted by muddgirl at 2:26 PM on May 16, 2011


Sorry, 9 out of 16. I'm just guessing based on composition.
posted by muddgirl at 2:27 PM on May 16, 2011


And I can't count the minor changes because, again, I'm not comparing. I don't think that's the "point" of the exhibit at all.
posted by muddgirl at 2:27 PM on May 16, 2011


I probably meant "many of the ones that most struck me"--at any rate, learning that some were chosen to be altered to remove the men and that some were chosen for their original absence of men changes the meaning of the series for me because it negates my reaction to them.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:34 PM on May 16, 2011


I don't think that's the "point" of the exhibit at all.

I get the "point" of the exhibit. I'm just not sure that it's really being sold quite as what it is. If that square dance picture had involved a man/woman couple and she'd managed to insert a female into the picture as seamlessly as I had originally thought, I'd be impressed with the skill of the artist. That the main couple was same-sex all along and she made subtle changes to the background people... While that's interesting, it isn't nearly as impressive.

Also with the two women at the seminar about home canning... That they've been moved slightly closer together isn't nearly what I thought was going on when I first read about this project.

I won't deny her skill or devalue the concept behind what she's trying to do with this collection of photographs. But I doubt I'm the only one who will be misled about exactly what is going on with the modifications of these photos in her exhibit. And its that little line she's walking between full disclosure and deceptive marketing which leaves me feeling like the entire project is tainted.
posted by hippybear at 2:38 PM on May 16, 2011


I'm just not sure that it's really being sold quite as what it is.

From the gallery statement:
My Pie Town is a project by Debbie Grossman in which she reworks and re-imagines a body of images originally photographed by Russell Lee for the United States Farm Security Administration in 1940.
I doubt Grossman has full editorial approval over every item published about her show. It seems like everything she says, and everything published by the gallery, is consistent with what she has produced.
posted by muddgirl at 2:52 PM on May 16, 2011


muddgirl: the quote from the FPP is from a personal statement written in the first person on her own website. If she doesn't have control over that, then who does?

Again, I'm not putting down the artist. But the product isn't actually what I thought I was viewing based on this FPP and the artist blurbs I read. Is it wrong to feel like I was mis-sold something? I don't think it is. I'm not attacking the artist at this point. I'm attacking the spin which was placed on her work, which is something else entirely. Whether she or someone else is accountable for my feeling misled, I have no idea.
posted by hippybear at 2:58 PM on May 16, 2011


the quote from the FPP is from a personal statement written in the first person on her own website

What about that statement is non-factual, or even a spin of her show? Again, 9 out of 16 photographs show significant editorializing of the type she describes, and I don't know how many of the rest show what she might call intimate changes.
posted by muddgirl at 3:00 PM on May 16, 2011


To be clear, I don't think anyone has to admire Grossman's work uncritically. I just don't think it's valid to criticise the work based on the presentation of the post.
posted by muddgirl at 3:04 PM on May 16, 2011


That's fine. I feel like I was sold something that didn't turn out to be true. You don't feel that way. I lose at the "close reading of what an artist says they are doing" contest. I'm okay with that.
posted by hippybear at 3:07 PM on May 16, 2011


No one is selling you anything, unless you bought tickets to the showing or something. Maybe you can scalp them on Craigslist.
posted by muddgirl at 3:13 PM on May 16, 2011


I managed to make a tidy profit on some Grossman tickets I scanned and then photocopied slightly and put on eBay.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:16 PM on May 16, 2011


No one is selling you anything

Nice way to use a close reading of the word "sold" in order to try to belittle my point. I think you know what I mean when I used the word in the way I did. At this point you're being obtuse. Have a good day.
posted by hippybear at 3:19 PM on May 16, 2011


I didn't read her as being obtuse, but pointing out that it's not like there was much real investment in this beyond looking at a few pictures, and so this might not be the sort of thing that one should feel that there is too much of a con job going on, because, even if she hadn't altered any of the photos, so what. Art benefits from pranks every now and then.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:26 PM on May 16, 2011


Hey all, sorry for any confusion - I hadn't looked at the source images before posting, and if I had I might have phrased the title a bit differently.
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:47 PM on May 16, 2011


The whole paragraph from the Full Statement:
In some of my revisions, I have taken male bodies and rendered them to look like masculine women; in others, I have taken pairs of women, shifted their distance and body language, and brought them closer to create a sense of intimacy. In some of the pictures I have created women so masculine, or so ambiguously gendered, that they may not, for some viewers, clearly read as one gender or the other. I’ve also left a few images untouched, allowing for another dimension of re-reading Lee's work.
She does say she left some untouched, although I tend to agree with the folks who think it's weird/slightly disingenuous she included them in "her" collection.
posted by Glinn at 5:11 PM on May 16, 2011


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