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An Artist Goes Undercover at a JC Penney Portrait Studio
April 25, 2012 12:34 PM   Subscribe

An Artist Goes Undercover at a JC Penney Portrait Studio.
posted by chunking express (39 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
This sounded interesting, but the language is so florid and pretentious that I can't read it. Too bad.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:38 PM on April 25, 2012 [37 favorites]


I thought it might be entertainingly pretentious in a pretentiously self-aware way but then I read this:

The studio-portrait experience has a structured set of parameters that form a stylistic equation.

and promptly lost all hope.
posted by elizardbits at 12:43 PM on April 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


Although if someone would redo it in a Herzog voice it would be golden.
posted by elizardbits at 12:43 PM on April 25, 2012 [10 favorites]


I really dislike that person. This was a lot like that "people of walmart" thing, but without so many photos, which is a bit ironic.
posted by HuronBob at 12:44 PM on April 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


Photography major graduates, justifies shitty job artistically.

Been there, done that.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:45 PM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Something about the mixture of the terribly pretentious writing, the astonishing level of overthinking, and big errors like how the artist is "bringinging movement to the game" make me think this article is itself some kind of art project. Like, a statement about how bad writing on the web has become?
posted by jbickers at 12:47 PM on April 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


The act of calling oneself an artist in today’s socio-economic environment is to make a decision to live in risk, to adopt risk as your home, to balance on constant movement and change. To labor as an artist in the traditional studio model of art production wagers the risk of economic poverty, but to take on employment outside the studio wagers the risk of creative poverty and, if starved too long, loss of gift. Either scenario concerns poverty. This question of where the poverty lies is inherent in Herting’s series.

I really really want this to be snarkily self-aware pretension SO BADLY. It would be so delightful if it was.
posted by elizardbits at 12:49 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


We have all violated rule #1 of enjoying photography: Never read the artist's statement.

I really did try to get through it, but here's what I just couldn't decipher from that text: What exactly did the artist do? Was the art in the photographs, or the exercise? What exactly is being exhibited here? Who owns the results?

It's kind of a tragedy, since there's the nub of a really interesting idea in here. But artists - like every other profession out there (I'm looking at you, scientists and scholars) - do themselves a disservice when they make incomprehensibility a badge of honour.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:53 PM on April 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


I can't really tell if this is interesting or not. The write-up is pretty bad so I poked around Google for a minute looking for alternatives, but no luck. It's unclear to me exactly what this art piece is.

She apparently wore a hidden camera and microphone, but I'm not sure whether that material was used directly or whether Herting just mined it for those weird narratives ("I am 5 years old..."). She fancies herself quite the renegade for breaching her contract with Lifetouch and inviting lawsuit, and I suppose that's fine and well, but she also doesn't appear to care much about the rights or wishes of the people whose portraits she has co-opted.
posted by cribcage at 12:54 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Read the article. She hired models to post as customers.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:00 PM on April 25, 2012


She says the portraits she used were of willing models, using studio time she paid for. Still, yeah, I'd like to see a few more of the pieces, it looks like all she did was do a bunch of repetitively tiled flips and flops of the shots from the few on display.
posted by egypturnash at 1:01 PM on April 25, 2012


One of my friend's artists statements in toto is: "When I try to read art books, I usually just end up looking at the pictures."

When his work gets printed, he requires the above statement be printed along with the photos.

I was thinking of him while attempting to read that article.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 1:07 PM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Read the article. She hired models to post as customers.

I tried... I really did. The words together she put them as sense make none.
posted by Debaser626 at 1:07 PM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Was I really an artist, working in social intervention while critiquing the aesthetics and economic models of portraiture?

No.

It sounds like the writer and artist really want to be characters in a Chuck Palahniuk novel.

There could have been something interesting in the concept but much of the resulting "art" in the article doesn't look much different than standard posed shots other than demonstrating that she's learned how to make mirror images in Photoshop or is willing to publish posed photos of people looking awkward.

If the point of her project was to learn, the only thing I took away is that she learned to be annoyingly smug.
posted by Candleman at 1:10 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm glad I'm not the only one who couldn't make it through that writing.

First couple paragraphs: Reading thoroughly. What's this all about, again?
Next few paragraphs: Skimming at this point. Seriously, what's the thesis of this so-called art? I still am not sure...
Anything after that: Well, the pictures are sort of interesting, I suppose...

She says the portraits she used were of willing models, using studio time she paid for. Still, yeah, I'd like to see a few more of the pieces, it looks like all she did was do a bunch of repetitively tiled flips and flops of the shots from the few on display.

I saw that, too. Given that everything appears to be orchestrated for "art", why did she need to do everything undercover at JC Penny, again? I mean, what did she do that couldn't have been done in her own studio on her own time using the "Pose Recommendations" sheet as a guide? Everyone involved was an actor in her play. It seems that the reason is so she could say she went through all that trouble for "art". And the result didn't even seem all that interesting. Pretentious, indeed.
posted by mysterpigg at 1:11 PM on April 25, 2012



Sometimes heavy language is needed to navigate complex topics. I can respect that and put on my deciphering glasses and will fully anticipate my head to hurt just a little, but also expect novel ideas or thought provoking concepts to be covered.

This? This is the epitome of "eschew obfuscation" put into practice. There may have been some good points buried in there, but I am not starting up deep mining operations for a piece on JC Penny Portrait photography.
posted by edgeways at 1:15 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Where are the laser backgrounds? You can't have portraits without the laser backgrounds.
posted by ckape at 1:38 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


To earn a wage is to balance the self with the actor we cast in the performance of work. By punching into Lifetouch each day, Herting was bringinging movement to the game, tipping the scales and exposing her own self and practice to risk.

Holy sweet jesus, 8-4 is NOT that hard.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 1:50 PM on April 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's definitely not writing that's not terrible.
posted by proneSMK at 1:51 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


I went undercover at the JC Penny shoe department once.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:56 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read it, sortof, and I don't get what that was supposed to be. Making "art" out of the JCP pics by mirroring them is - worthless. I'll continue to recommend the JCP studio as a place to get a simple $4.00 portrait (as I have on the green side).
posted by caclwmr4 at 2:25 PM on April 25, 2012


The studio is a reflexively internal space. But Herting always pointed the lens of her camera away from herself, which not only interested her more but was a fitting methodology for working as a kind of anthropologist.

It would be more interesting if she did point the camera at herself, and let the random JC Penney portrait studio customers chose the pose, background, and shoot the shot.

And I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, but she just comes across as silly and pretentious. Of course there are a structured set of parameters, that's why people go to the studio. Sometimes folks just want a clear, well lit, 8x10 of the family with no surprises.
posted by Mr Mister at 2:28 PM on April 25, 2012


I feel a deep welling of sympathy for the people who had to work with her. And the pruny babies. Especially the pruny babies. That's far too young to have to endure being in the same room as her massive pretension.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:30 PM on April 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


I have seldom seen such unanimity on the blue. I find both the pictures and text disturbing--an excess of pretension, a shortage of humility and I have a serious lack of trust in the photographer and, less so, the writer. I believe models willing sat for the photos but I do wonder about the full context and explanation. This is the artists statement on another work. I am reasonably well educated,enjoy art and have lived 70 years. I have no idea what she is saying--well i know what she is saying but I stopped caring during the first sentence.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:03 PM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Where are the laser backgrounds? You can't have portraits without the laser backgrounds.

HERE ARE YOUR LAZERS!!!
posted by vespabelle at 3:09 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


When artists and art theorists talk about art, their language definitely sounds pretentious, but that doesn't mean their writing is devoid of content. Faulting art writing for effusive language is like faulting science writing for being overly technical or using too much technical language. It's how we talk about science, or in this case, art, in a high-level way.

That said, I think the writing here is quite unfocused. There is a thesis here, but it's rather basic. I think the writer ended up talking about a lot of things that are tangentially related to the concept in an attempt to obscure the fact that there just isn't much to this concept.

If I had to summarize the point of this concept, I'd say it's this: what exists in the space between photo-as-document, and photo-as-art? How does the art photographer fit into the economy, and perhaps even, how does the artist balance the demands of economics and artistic expression?

What I think is a more interesting idea, though definitely not an original one, is this: we get these type of non-art portraits taken as a way of documenting ourselves the way we want to see ourselves. So what does the stylistic content of these portraits say about how we want to see ourselves? That's what the sentence "The studio-portrait experience has a structured set of parameters that form a stylistic equation" is alluding to. That sentence isnt just meaningless babble. These portraits exist in a societal context, so this question has socio-political and even anthropological implications.

It is kind of interesting to present these functional, documentary photographs as art, and ask what artistic qualities they might have, but that's not exactly what she's examining. I think she's trying to subvert the department store portrait by staging her subjects in slightly awkward poses that diminish the idea of a nice-looking picture of someone, as well as playing up the kitsch of the studio and posing.

Unfortunately, looking at the few photos presented here, I just think she fails at this goal. These portraits are unremarkable as either well-made portraits or objects of humor and awkwardness.

I actually agree with Sys Rq that it sounds like the artist basically just tried to do something artsy with her job at Lifetouch. The thing is, even though it's a pretty flimsy concept, it's the kind of hook that can get galleries and art writers to take notice, even if the art itself is mostly unsuccessful. And the whole lawsuit thing? Completely overblown. It's just a way of trying to generate some sense of risk or controversy, a way of making her idea a little more sexy and attention-grabbing. And the bit about die wage or whatever was the flimsiest, most tangentially related part of this writeup.

I'm a school photographer, and I understand that what I do, shooting school portraits, is not creative at all. It's a product, a document. All the parents and students care about is getting a picture where the student's face is recognizable. They don't care if it's overexposed a little, or if there's glare from the sun, or (to an extent) if the background doesn't look that pretty. And that's totally fine; it's a product, it's not art. I think one of the ways the artist failed here is by presenting commercial portrait photography as possibly impoverishing to the artist behind the camera. When you're behind the camera at JC Penney's, you're not acting as an artist. It's like the difference between a fine artist an a medical illustrator, or a novelist and a technical writer. This is an established divide between the practical and the artistic that I feel poses no dilemmas.

In the end, I have to admit that this photographer has a handle on how to be a conceptual artist. It's just that her photos don't service her concept well, and her concept is rather unfocused and not very interesting. She is still making a foray into the world of legitimate art, it's just that the art she presents here isn't that good.
posted by malapropist at 3:40 PM on April 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


I managed to make my way through the piece and am walking away not only with these sense that the language is heavy handed and the artist is pretentious but that the whole bit achieves a level of snobbery that makes me a bit ill.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 3:50 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Faulting art writing for effusive language is like faulting science writing for being overly technical or using too much technical language. It's how we talk about science, or in this case, art, in a high-level way.

Yes, but... to quote my favorite philosopher: "Maybe we can make language a complete impediment to understanding."

If you've studied your art history, you will remember the Mannerist movement, the entire point of which was to do crazy, strange things just because given the tools of the Renaissance, they suddenly could.

The writing that comes out of recently graduated MFA students* is similar in many ways, in that they suddenly have all these new tools** for talking about their work, and they talk like this, because they can. This writing bears little to no relation (other than than the cellular similarity of the words themselves) to what writing done by historians and critics is, and how it actually informs others about art.

* 2005 - Masters in Fine Arts The Ohio State University, Columbus OH, according to her bio here.

** I could go on a tangent about how the new purpose of the MFA in fine art is more about teaching candidates to talk about art rather than to create it and how it's failing massively at even that, but that's another conversation for another time.

posted by 1f2frfbf at 3:57 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, I agree, art writing can be articulate while still being clear and easy to understand. I tend to think that the clearer the artist's statement, the more likely it is that their concept is actually interesting and appealing to non-art people. Like I said, this article isn't completely meaningless, but the author is forced to make her writing more pretentious to justify the flimsy concept and execution.
posted by malapropist at 4:41 PM on April 25, 2012


The part that really got to me was this, just before the "calling oneself an artist" bit elizardbits quoted:
When the audio recorder jammed, or the video signal encountered interference and recorded only snow, I would feel my identy[sic] pivot on these failed results. In those moments I felt a crisis of identity. Was I really an artist, working in social intervention while critiquing the aesthetics and economic models of portraiture, or was I a minimum wage worker at an ailing suburban mall?
Hey, if you like art that explores whether its creator is an artist or just a wage worker doing stuff, I have good news about the supply of art you will like.
posted by intendedeffect at 5:03 PM on April 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


The bad news: it's usually pretty clear that the creator is just a wage worker doing stuff.

("For my next trick, I'm going to explore the duality of Fine Artist and Sandwich Artist")
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:10 PM on April 25, 2012


It's just not that interesting. I remember viewing my time working at a bookstore, for instance, as sort of an anthropological experience...but at the same time, it was just work, and it would take work to make it interesting to anyone not involved in the day-to-day there. Similarly, at my current job at a magazine, we talk fairly often about how our office would make a great reality show, and people have saved up quotes from around the office with the idea of one day creating comics or writing books about the personalities involved. But until such time as one of us actually follows through on that, pretty much no one is interested in hearing about where we work unless something notable happened that day. That's one of my husband's first rules of conversation with company, actually: Don't talk about work unless someone asks you about it. 'Cause everyone works, and no one cares.
posted by limeonaire at 5:44 PM on April 25, 2012


Granted, as a writer, one of my favorite things is to see and try to understand people's workspaces. It's always fun to mentally deconstruct the whole thing, and note the ways that people's work lives are both different and the same. That's part of why those sites where people post pics of their desk are popular. People are interested in other people, and many of us spend our days and nights at desks of varying sorts. And yet...this still falls short for me. There's too much about her own performativity, and not enough "workplaces are weird, amirite?"
posted by limeonaire at 5:51 PM on April 25, 2012


This whole project feels a bit mean spirited to me. Maybe I'm wrong, but all the "art" in this art project appears to be taking a snarky jab at people who have their photos taken at JC Penny. The older I've gotten, the more I've come to intensely dislike art/artists who just take pot shots at people, things and culture less "educated", "hip" and "in the know" than they are. This project seems to epitomize that view of the world. It would be more at home on Gawker.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 6:27 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


oh whatever.
posted by photoslob at 6:46 PM on April 25, 2012


I read it, sortof, and I don't get what that was supposed to be. Making "art" out of the JCP pics by mirroring them is - worthless.

Wait. Is THAT what the gimmick is? The flipped over photos are the results of this grand experiment? Wow. That is worse than nothing.

If you've studied your art history, you will remember the Mannerist movement, the entire point of which was to do crazy, strange things just because given the tools of the Renaissance, they suddenly could.

They would have LOVED Instagram.
posted by gjc at 7:02 PM on April 25, 2012


Given she hired models to pose as customers, and paid for the studio time and printing, I'm not seeing th mean spirit toward her subjects...

I liked the one with the parents looking out of the picture, away from each other, and the kid grinning in the middle.
posted by Deoridhe at 7:23 PM on April 25, 2012


My first job in high school was working over the holiday season at Sears Portrait Studio. I'm feeling oddly defensive of the lame poses and "prune-y" babies right now.
posted by book 'em dano at 10:02 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was not just the mean spiritedness towards her subjects (although there was a touch of that towards the non-subject customers). It was the mean spiritedness and snobbery towards the other employees that I found incredibly repellent.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 3:42 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


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