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Elegant Violence

Photographs by Amy Elkins, Essay by Shane Lavalette

Flak Photo is proud to feature this gallery in support of Light Work's Looking and Looking, a two-person exhibition featuring photographs from Amy Elkins and Jen Davis. That project explored the dialogue between these artists regarding identity, body image, and the male and female gaze. The following essay accompanies Elkins' photos in Contact Sheet 165, a catalog produced for the exhibition. For more information and to order a copy for your personal collection, visit LightWork.org.

 

Steeped in a tradition that dates back to the 1800s in England, the sport of rugby has long been described as both elegant and violent — a portrayal from which photographer Amy Elkins’ series Elegant Violence gains its name. As an extension of her ongoing exploration of masculine identity, Elkins’ latest works focus on the young men who take part in this brutal contact sport, revealing the delicate balance between male aggression and vulnerability.

Elkins’ curiosity about masculinity stems from her personal history. When she first moved to New York in 2004, her father was going through a difficult period in his life, which in turn affected her deeply. It was around this time, perhaps triggered by it, that she directed her camera at her male peers to begin her earlier project Wallflower, a series of portraits of disrobed men set against floral backdrops. In this series, Elkins begins to explore the themes of male identity by confronting some of the cultural grounds underlying gender stereotypes, showing her subjects stripped of context, and often even feminized. While her earlier images very directly investigate beauty and sensitivity, her latest works shift their focus to the complexity of the more aggressive and inherently violent faces of man.

Violence has long played a role in the history of photography and, in fact, as Susan Sontag has written “There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.”¹ To ‘take’ a photograph implies the photographer robs the world of something. To photograph a person immediately places them in a vulnerable state, and to truly capture that subject requires a level of openness — they must give up a part of themselves in the process. In a sense, photography itself is Elegant Violence. Though Elkins confronts her subjects by placing them in front of the camera, her own gaze is both kind and compassionate.

As with artist Rineke Dijkstra’s busts of blood-spattered Portuguese matadors after bullfights, Elkins’ photographs show these young rugby players at a heightened moment, following extreme physical exertion on the field. Inspired by found vintage studio portraits of athletes from the late nineteenth century, Elkins sets up daylight studios with simple paper backdrops in order to make portraits of men on the sidelines. Unlike American football, rugby players wear no helmets or pads and are likely to leave a game with stark gashes, bruises, and broken bones. Elkins’ make shift studio eliminates background distractions such as bleachers and draws our attention to their gaze, pose, and of course the ruthless evidence of the game.

The stillness and natural light that Elkins embraces immediately ties her work to classical paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, depictions of proud wealthy men set against dark velvet drapes. The poses of the players in Elkins photographs are often reminiscent of the sculptural works of the ancient Greeks, who adored athletic youth and admired their strength and beauty through sculpture. These historical works come to mind in parallel with Elkins’ subjects, which are not just rugby players of any sort but of a particular breed: the Ivy League. Princeton, Columbia, and Yale crests adorn the jerseys of these men; raised chins and protruding chests may already have suggested their pedigree. This added layer of prestige plays an important role in the vulnerability that Elkins ultimately brings to the surface in her photographs. These men are highly aware of their self-image and in careful looking we can see them striving to maintain it.

In her photographs Elkins does not offer a blanket view of what defines masculinity, but rather shows us that there are many facets to male identity. As with German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies of architectural structures, the sequential studies of these men highlight their strength and unity as a team, yet through the sustained states of inward contemplation that Elkins captures in each portrait, the complex individual is unveiled. Elkins pays homage to the power and vigor of these athletes as well as their grace and spirit as men, an intricate portrayal that keeps us looking.

1. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977).

Amy Elkins (b.1979) was born and raised in Southern California. She received her BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Her photographs explore notions of vulnerability, identity and transitory states. Elkins’ Wallflower series presents the nuances of gender identity and the male psyche. Her current work turns to the more aggressive aspects of male identity: Elegant Violence looks at Ivy League rugby athletes moments after their game and Black is the Day, Black is the Night, observes masculinity, vulnerabilty and identity through correspondence with men serving life and death row sentences in American maximum security prisons. In 2008 Elkins and Cara Phillips co-founded Women in Photography, a platform for showcasing established and emerging female photographers. She is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York.

Shane Lavalette is a photographer, the founding Publisher and Editor of Lay Flat as well as the Associate Director of Light Work. Lavalette grew up in Vermont and is currently based in Upstate New York. He holds a BFA from Tufts University in partnership with The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Lavalette’s photographs have been shown widely, including national and international exhibitions. A new body of work by Lavalette will be on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA from June 9 – September 2, 2012. Lavalette has launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the funding of a photobook of this new work.

Posted on Saturday, March 24, 2012.

 

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