What is a photograph?
This is a question we don’t often consider, but perhaps we should. After all, in an age where everyone carries a smartphone and every smartphone has a camera, couldn’t we say that basically everything’s been photographed? Do we really need more? These are the questions that Laura Letinsky, a photographer and academic, considers in both her work and her personal life. Do we need more? Do we need that next new thing on the market? Why?
Laura Letinsky was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Manitoba. She originally entered the program wanting to be a painter. “I always considered myself an artist, and I loved to paint. I really enjoyed the actual paint, the texture of it as material. You could say I was enamoured by it.”
Photography wasn’t on Letinsky’s radar until she was faced with the undergraduate condition that painting class required prerequisites but the photography course did not. “I took photography, but I was really bad at it,” Letinsky admitted, laughing. “I actually went to speak with the professor. She was the one who first challenged me to think about what a photograph really was: a means for investigating perception. From there I saw its ability to speak, to have eloquence.” After completing her undergraduate degree, Letinsky moved to the United States to pursue a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University. When she graduated two years later, she found more opportunities south of the border and decided to stay. Shortly thereafter she took a position as a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Visual Arts.
Letinsky started out photographing people. “I was intrigued by the way people appear, or how they make themselves appear.… However, at a certain point I realized that my photographs were
rote in that people presented themselves as they expected to appear, that particular art-photograph expressionless lost look. I moved to still life photography so as to shift away from what felt like such a limitation.”
Letinsky’s seductively coloured tabletop still life pieces depict a variety of objects. Printed on a one-to-one scale, they are meant to put the viewer slightly off balance, simultaneously providing both a sense of wonder and an evocative and convincing proposition. “It’s about engaging the viewer in the photograph not as image but as a material. To make people aware that the photograph is not natural, but rather a set of constructions and conventions.”
Her photographs speak to the culture of today in ways that are both very similar and very different from the still life paintings made in the 17th and 18th century. In the early age of mercantile globalism, still life paintings were used as a kind of advertisement to illustrate value. In many ways, Letinsky’s photography too is the realization of a set of ideas about seeing. Her use of photography seeks to engage the methodology of description as a form of valuation. “At first, I was obsessed with the idea of authenticity, so I photographed actual meals after they’d been consumed,” Letinsky recalls.
However, over time she realized that this moment was no more true than if she were to completely stage such a moment. “There are many decisions that go into setting a scene, such as the selection of specific food stuffs, lighting, etc. The idea of the natural or original is held as different from the contrived or set up, but really there is not a firm line of differentiation. For example, in the restoration of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, to when and what does one restore the building? When and what is the original? Is it in its Christian roots, the Greek or even pre-Greek ruins, or when Islam dominated this space? Ideas, like buildings, are complicated and overlapping structures.”
Letinsky’s method is a balance between deliberation and experimentation. She studies how objects look, that is, how they appear, and why the viewer may be drawn to them. In her additive and subtractive process, she evaluates how the objects appear not simply as objects but, rather, as they look when in photographs.
Questions of authenticity, labour, and ethics influence not just Letinsky’s photography but also how she lives her life. In an effort to slow down the impact capitalism has on the world, when possible she makes her own clothes. She made a set of dishes that, in partnership with the Guadalajaran porcelain producer Ceramica Suro, is now produced commercially as “Molosco,” a collection of white hand-painted porcelain tableware. “This process of making is an effort to make objects, a world really, that I care about, versus just wanting the next new, shiny thing. It’s a way by which I think about the world and my place in it.”
Regarding her question, “What is a photograph?” there is no single right answer. Like Letinsky says, “Perhaps for each of us it’s a process of deliberation inevitably mired in desire.”
Check out more work by Laura Letinsky at: lauraletinsky.com