Unseemly, Disturbing, Ominous
If you think that every ethical boundary in photography has been breached by now, you haven’t seen the work of the American photographer Leigh Ledare yet. His work balances on the boundary of the permissible, and according to many, is just over the edge. This fall he is exhibiting at Wiels in Brussels.
Whereas your mother is obviously a looming presence in your work, your father hardly features in it at all. I was struck by one quote, actually a dedication from Something Might Have Been Better Than Nothing [an exhibition with Per Billgren in Berlin, 2011 – ed.]: ‘For our fathers, mild men.’ Could you comment on that?
‘There’s a lot in the work that’s activated through absence, so in a sense that was an allusion to that. There are maybe two mentions of him in Pretend You’re Actually Alive. That book is only ostensibly a portrait of my mother and then, beyond that, it’s really about social dynamics and all the interrelations between the different partners and the different triangles that happen within relationships.’
Could you say something about the genealogy of the book, how it came into being? What made you embark on this project?
‘There are many different stages to this work, which spans the course of eight years, and feelings that I’m responding to. At one point there’s a kind of anger that fuels the making of the images, or a sense of the absurdity of the situation that I found myself in, where my mother was imposing her sexuality on me.’
But you were complicit, weren’t you?
‘Well, the way I’ve told the story and the way it happened was that I came home one day, after not seeing her for a year, and she opened the door entirely naked, smiling smugly at me. She was with this younger guy who happened to be in bed with her and they were involved in something. I began photographing and I couldn’t quite believe it: it was inappropriate, troubling, alarming.’
And yet you played along with it?
‘I was responding to a situation I found myself in. Half of the images are, I feel, about her projecting outward a kind of confrontation and challenge to a viewer.’
To you personally as a viewer?
‘To me as the operator of an instrument that relays information outward. I have a camera; she’s standing in front of me; she’s understanding herself as an image projecting through me to a viewer.’
OK, but you could then be just any other photographer and you’re not: this is your mother we’re talking about and you’re taking photographs of her copulating with other men.
‘Of course. It’s also how these issues operate negatively: the cover of the book is a direct transcription based on her speaking to the relationship between me and her as photographer and muse. She never alludes to us as mother and son. The whole thing was a kind of gift where I was offering her a stage and she was offering me something in return. That’s why I think about the book as a kind of site where all these different competing impulses are negotiated and worked through. It became a place for experimentation, a hub of generosity, love, engagement and affirmation, and very ambivalent, complicated feelings as well.’
That’s something else I wanted to talk to you about: the ‘gift economy’ in your work. Could you discuss this in relation to your grandfather’s grave plot and your mother’s will? To what extent are these gifts a poisoned chalice?
‘The grave plot from my grandfather is a gift that is extremely putting upon, so to speak. It was a poetic expression of his concern about the way my mother and brother were living their lives at the time and about the nuclear family disbanding. Each member of the family got a plot as a Christmas present. What I tried to do by transferring the plot to MoMA was to create a monument out of the actual grave plot. The museum would own the piece of land, ensuring no one was buried there, so that in effect it would become a negative monument: the gap between the other plots that spoke to the element that precipitated the gift in the first place. And a way of denying my grandfather writing the end of my plot.’
Let’s turn to your mother’s gifts to you. Her will, for one, contains a list of very personal items, such as lingerie – ones which she felt you in particular would benefit from and appreciate.
‘But they would always be things she also wanted for herself. The quality of what the gift was always felt deranged in some way. It wasn’t a true gift.’
‘Maybe not deranged but there was a kind of self-interest in gifting certain things that were actually meant for her; they weren’t there to connect us. I saw these objects as effigies of her that spoke to her taste. It was about expressing difference and it’s through the object that she was able to express that.’
What kind of objects are we talking about? You see her wearing fur in your photographs.
‘Fur. Designer dresses. Jewellery.’
Is it about glamour?
‘Yes but there’s a very literary quality to it, too. It’s a little bit Emma Bovary-ish. Flaubert is also someone Per Billgren and I thought about when we were constructing the show at Reception in Berlin. Who’s dictating taste? Who’s providing taste?’
Do you think of your work as being always tasteful?
Is it deliberately not so?
‘In some ways. There’s a tension there between the presentation, the structural aspects that inform the work and what might be found there that’s difficult to handle and confront.’
I wanted to read you a quote by Nan Goldin: ‘When I started photographing my boyfriend of years ago, Brian, I realized I had no right to photograph other people having sex if I wasn’t prepared to take them of myself too.’ You talk about your mother’s highly sexualized persona but the same is true of you, in the series titled Personal Commissions, for example.
‘Sure. These images are a flipping of the mechanism of the camera. By giving these women I met through the advertisements the camera to photograph me, the object generated is a reversal or inverting of the male gaze. It’s similar in a way to having my mother photograph me. What is female desire and how does it look? It’s interesting to me as well because the male nude has so long been owned by homosexual desire. And so it’s something that’s not…’
…explored sufficiently perhaps. Did you feel vulnerable under their gaze?
‘Yes, and vulnerable in the situation because I had no idea whose places these were that I was walking into. So each time I would go, I would call somebody beforehand and say, ‘This is where I’ll be, if you don’t hear from me in an hour and a half or two hours, then take it from there.’’
And did you ever find yourself in a position where you genuinely felt uncomfortable or surprised by the requests?
‘Some of the women were aggressive. The main thing is that it was a conversation. It was an extremely open, vulnerable thing on both sides. But then there is also the image of me they’ve taken that shows the way they’ve directed it, what their desires might be, what they believe my expectations might be. What their apartments look like, their style choices, and then there is the original self-description in the form of the personal ad which provides a limiting framework.’
One question I wanted to ask as a way of wrapping things up is that of humour in your work. You describe Double Bind, in which you confront photographs you took of your ex-wife, Meghan Ledare-Fedderly, with those taken by her current husband, who also happens to be a photographer, as having a bitter humour or playfulness. What is the role of humour in your work more generally?
‘Humour allows one to speak about things that are otherwise very difficult to speak about or that it might seem didactic to speak about. It’s a kind of outlet, like a release valve. It’s also about a sense of absurdity in things. Double Bind is premised on a failure.’
There’s something quite humble about your willingness to put yourself in that position.
‘The whole structure of the piece has a sense of play to it as well: in a way I’m casting her current husband in a role that I occupied ten years previously and my role may be potentially a forecast of his. There are all of these temporal relationships that are happening too that have a mischievousness about them but that have it with the purpose of asking something that I think is really important.’
And which is?
‘The question of how we deal with loss.’
Agnieszka Gratza is a writer and critic based in New YorkAgnieszka Gratza is a writer and critic based in New York