For Showcaller, the 2018 exhibition at Kölnischer Kunstverein and this 2019 monograph from Mack, Talia Chetrit deftly wove together selfies and pictures of her friends and family from the early 1990s, with early art projects and much later series, to make something of a statement about gaze and agency and power and things. I’m pretty sure I came to it thanks to Jörg Colberg, who has been a major driver of my photobook habit. Colberg describes Chetrit’s book/project, in part, as “photographs that in possibly less photographically competent ways might exist in many people’s phones.”
If that sounds dismissive—and I’m not sure… I honed in on the “possibly less photographically competent” bit, which sounds sorta backhanded to me, but I don’t think Colberg was, not entirely anyway, and I’m not either—it really is part of what’s going on in Showcaller, and to keep in mind when thinking about it, anyway.
Whenever I read “Showcaller,” I hear the chorus of Lil’ Troy’s 1998 banger Wanna be a baller…* And I think it’s relevant, sorta, but I’ve deleted the whole bit about that, as, well, I’m a white, 42 year old, boring-ass researcher and part-time data jockey, and what the hell do I know about balling or shot calling? But, and still, maybe listen to the song and think about the boasting and posturing that’s going on in it, then read on…
According to Rowan Sinclair-Gregg, writing in Photo-Eye, “Chetrit explains the title, Showcaller, as a person ‘who calls out cues, someone in an authoritative position but who ultimately is not in control.'”** So, someone who wants to be in charge, pretends to have agency, but, really, only follows orders. A wanna-be baller, perhaps?
And so Lil’ Troy maybe gives us a key to the overall Showcaller project. Maybe.
Chetrit, working in an entirely visual medium, tells a story, paints her picture, with the sequence, the relationships and gaps between pictures, and comes to a more complex story, I think, than Lil’ Flip’s more pedestrian, trope-ridden, hooks. The pictures alternate, vacillate, between:
- the past: pictures of Chetrit and some friends as pre-teens and teenagers in the mid-1990s, and mid 2010s photographs of a teen girl that looks strikingly like Chetrit, more like adult Chetrit than young Chetrit does;
- the present: 2000s and 2010s self portraits, featuring loads of deadpan crotch shots, devoid or drained of prurient interest (to my eye, ymmv, and more on this below), and photographs of Chetrit and a partner, naked and (theoretically) copulating on a public beach, in a field, mostly out-in-the-world for all the world to see;
- and the future: mid 2000s pictures of her parents in the studio, a single picture of a mother (somewhat older than Chetrit is now) and daughter from the mid 1990s.
In some sense, it can be read as a similar sort of boasting, world-building, that goes on in Wanna be a baller. That’s not really what Chetrit is after, I think, but you could read it that way, even though she makes her project abundantly clear.
A sequence in the last third goes something like this: a young boy, gazing intently off to one side; the interior of a studio apartment, featuring a sofa, chair, radiator, tripod, and a mirror, in which there is a reflection of a naked couple doing what naked couples often do; a pair of legs, presumably Chetrit’s, tracing two legs of a tripod and sorta groping for the shutter on a Contax G2; a portrait of a young woman who looks remarkably like Chetrit (but isn’t) in a sort of fashion-type shot, too big for her knee high boots, white dress, blue handbag, dripping wet and lying on the floor of a large shower space; three boys looking in different directions (two down and out of frame; one sorta side-eye); Chetrit, in a sweater with her jeans and underwear around her ankles, taking a selfie as she straddles a radiator…
Even a dullard like me sees the story here: gaze, agency, power, etc., fairly standard early twenty-first century feminism and response/interrogation of social media and authorship of the self, yada yada yada.
Good stuff, if maybe a bit heavy-handed.
Any one of these series might work ok on its own: pictures of sex in public; deadpan crotch shots; the strangely off-kilter Lolita-esque, fashion-esque work. But together, they really sing.
The deployment (and I use that word specifically, with much thanks to my Art History training) of Chetrit’s juvenile photography gives both a background and a foil for the later work. On the one hand, there is the young woman with her camera, photographing her family one minute, then playing at being Cindy or Christy or Linda (or Gigi or Emily, for that matter) with friends later. She’s told at every turn—if not by parents, then certainly in church, and if not in church, then certainly in slasher movies, and if not in slasher movies…—that posing like that, looking that way, will lead to violence and, lo and behold, she’s murdered… several times, each time getting knocked clean out of her boots. Yet she grows up and it’s not that bad. (I’m going to be vulgar here for a moment, but the pictures themselves are vulgar, so…) Look: I can fuck my boyfriend in the park, on the beach, out in a field, and not just at home, and nobody cares, and what business is it of theirs anyway; I can spread my legs for the camera and nobody can tell me, and, anyway, this body is just another object to put in front of my camera. Later still, she looks back, shows her husband some of the pictures, they laugh, get pensive, maybe bicker a bit, but make up and have some fun with it.
This, of course, is a simple reading, by a man, and the feminist theory goes much further, as does this book, really. There’s the bit about gaze and authority in there too (and it’s in my simple reading above, if a bit obscured). As regards gaze, well, and authority, Chetrit has taken control of her image, of her body, in ways that sexting just doesn’t, that it can’t. First off, she’s not sending these pictures to a significant other, and second, even if she was, they’re really not particularly prurient. Much of it is mildly grotesque or surreal in a way that disrupts the prurient reading. She’s naked more than nude, and, really, it’s mostly just meat.
As I was writing this, Andrew Molitor tossed out one of his increasingly valuable provocations over on Twitter:
Not to name names, I keep running across this so there actually isn’t a single person I have in mind, but there’s a Thing in woke photography where men pretend to find photos of scantily clad women baffling.
“What’s up with all the boobs and nudity? I just don’t get it.”
While there are certainly a wide variety of sexual tastes and preferences out there, statistically speaking this is likely to be pure performance, because:
dudes like looking at naked, and nearly naked, women
This is actually a thing. That dudes like.
And, you might be astounded to know it, but there are women who like looking at naked or nearly naked people as well.
My sister worked front desk at a hotel during the era of Pay-per-view porn on hotel TVs. You know who watched the porn?
Everyone. Everyone watched the damn porn.
It’s a thing, people do it. Don’t fuckin’ pretend to be so woke you can’t understand it, you just look dumb.Suite of tweets by Four Seasons Total Photo Criticism (@amolitor99), 27 Jan 2021.
I’m not nearly that woke… or maybe I’m too woke to pretend that some viewers of Showcaller won’t look at it with prurient intent, and while I’m a Muslim and seek forgiveness from Allah, I too appreciate pictures of (and, for that matter, actual) naked, and nearly naked, women. I’m not ashamed of it, though I endeavor to avert my gaze as He told us to. I don’t view porn in hotels or anywhere else, but that’s beside the point: with Showcaller, I’m not sure there’s anything to seek forgiveness for.
The pictures are, on the whole, too clinical, too descriptive, to be anything but commentary, and, while your mileage may vary, if you’re finding Showcaller erotic, you really need to get out more.
Other reviewers complain a bit about Chetrit’s “Murder” series, created while in High School. Sure, they’re juvenile in both subject and execution, but there are earlier pictures that show her eye and easy comfort with fashion-type photography, mediated by her younger self’s lack of experience behind the lens. And while the mature work is more obviously concerned with the gaze/agency/ownership thing, there’s a practiced sloppiness to some of the framing and formal aspects that pushes and slips against the earlier work. Where the old stuff was self-conscious and sort of playing-at, the new work knows exactly what it’s doing, and the Chetrit that put the exhibition (and this monograph) together has a strong mastery of photography and craft that’s evident, if sometimes (purposefully) obscured. I don’t really know what I’m trying to say, here, not really, but Colberg is right that other people may have pretty much he same images on their phones, and these pictures may be more “photographically competent” than Chetrit’s work pretends to be. But where, say, a former coworker who, well, had some self esteem issues, probably has some fully explicit crotch shots on her phone, likely applied filters and used lighting and effects to more explicitly say “I’m hawt” to a potential
victim partner, and may also have some professional boudoir-type and straight portraits for less explicit exchanges, alongside photographs of nephews and nieces, friends, siblings, neighbors, and the like, Chetrit still shoots everything on film and her MUA took lessons from Warhol-era Corey Tippin…
I get this book. Really. I mean, it’s hard not to: the whole thing is right there, Chetrit practically wrote a summary of late 20th and early 21st century feminist theory in a series of photographs made over 25 years and put together exactly for that purpose. I mean, in the middle of the book there’s a section of photographs made on, or of, the street, largely from far away. What are these doing there? They break the whole flow! Well, no. This is the crowd, the audience, the viewers who really run the show, or the reason for the show, even more than the young boys that ogle Chetrit throughout the book. The audience in these street shots are distant, unconcerned, not really paying any attention, and Chetrit is sorta shouting to them on one hand and sorta happy to be ignored on the other. In one, her naked, splayed-legged reflection breaks up the scene. Later, she piles up some luggage to hide her and her lover as they make out on the beach, though they needn’t have bothered: a crowd has gathered in the background, but they’re all looking away, gathered around something else we can’t see. And in the other exterior shots, where Chetrit and her partner appear to be beginning or having sex in parks or open spaces, there’s nobody around to see them. Well, nobody but the viewers of the photographs.
Chetrit owns her image, calls the shots, literally, but once they’re made, once they’re shared, they’re out there for all to see, for all to do whatever with. Exhibitionism and Voyeurism are the twin poles of social media in the early 21st Century, and Chetrit beats us over the head with them.
Showcaller isn’t quite sold out, but it’s on the Rare list at Mack, and you can find used and (maybe) new copies for less. If you’re confused about issues of gaze, agency, power, and all that, you could do worse, though maybe just look back at the Guerrilla Girls, Barbara Kruger, even Cindy Sherman. The issues haven’t changed much; they’ve just become more explicit and have more publicity and urgency in the era of the Instagram Influencer. Chetrit, as a unique individual, has a unique voice and story, and Showcaller makes a valuable addition to most any library.
*Actually, the radio-edit version of DJ Screw’s chopped & screwed version, which led down a YouTube rabbit hole of histories of Houston Rap that I probably didn’t really want to know about or revisit, but, well, good times.
**The source of this quote is uncredited, and I couldn’t verify it. Seems right, though.