Writing on photography

Eva Stenram: Discomforting Domesticity

Once populated by hoaxers, practical jokers and a few Dadaists, the borderlands between photography and collage are becoming ever more densely populated. One artist who resides here is Eva Stenram, who works with photographs that are appropriated and digitally reworked to resemble neutral, even domestic spaces, but which on closer inspection reveal sinister undertones incompatible with these original assumptions.

For example an early series, Landscape with Cameras, consists of forested scenes into which security cameras have been digitally added. Aside from their unlikely location, these cameras are often positioned at improbable angles, facing into hedges, or so close to the ground as to be entirely useless for their intended surveillance purpose.  Another body of work pornography/forest_pic, sees Stenram trawling the internet for pornographic images, set again in forests, before digitally manipulating the adult actors out of them. The result is a series of odd unpeopled scenes, loaded with with the sense that something has just happened, or is just about to. Stenram herself likens these images to forensic photography, and there is something of a crime scene about many of them, littered with discarded clothing, blankets (even a gun) and in many cases with the exact spot where the ‘crime’ took place marked by squashed down foliage.

A third piece that extends Stenram’s fascination with domestic spaces into new territory is her on-going video piece Break-In, which mixes video from two classics of sixties American cinema, Hitchcock’s The Birds and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Stenram’s description of the work identifies the shared setting of a fortified domestic space as a point of interest, but both films can also be read in a multitude of other ways that have relevance to her practice. For example the themes of loneliness and conflicting female roles in The Birds, and the subtext of domestic discord and the threat of incomprehensible external forces in Night of the Living Dead.

However Stenram’s best known body of work is arguably Drape, currently on show at Open Eye gallery in Liverpool and for which she has just been awarded the inaugural Cord Prize. For Drape Stenram takes as her starting point a series of vintage pinup photographs from the 1960’s, photographs showing women literally draped in various poses across furniture in the mundane domestic spaces of sixties suburbia. She then digitally reworks these analogue images, bringing drapes and curtains out of the background and into the foreground, in the process obscuring the models that originally formed the centre of attention, and leaving little of them on view but dispossessed limbs.

As a viewer these images pull you in a multitude of directions simultaneously. The curtains emphasise the performance and titillation of the photographed scene, that these objectified women are here performing for the camera and their distant viewer. However at the same time they deny the viewer the opportunity to actually see the model and the performance. This sense of denial both makes one acutely aware of the awkward voyeuristic nature of these pinup photographs, and ironically heightens it, the absence of seeing only increasing the desire to see, the few traces of these women that are visible amplifying the need for more.

Equally perplexing is the realisation that because of the positioning of many of these women in front of curtained windows, Stenram’s extension of these drapes might mask her subjects from our view, but also presumably exposes them to view from some imaginary outside. What had been a private erotic event becomes a public one by the simple repositioning of the curtain. And still the relationship between viewer and viewed is unclear, whether they are hiding from us, teasing us (as some like Drape IV suggest) or are even altogether unaware of our presence.

Several critics including Marco Bohr have made connections between Stenram’s work and cultural and psychoanalytical theories of fetishism. In his essay Photography and Fetish, the film theorist Christian Metz notes the fetishistic quality of photographs, objects which are largely formed and consumed in private, as keepsakes, mementos, trophies. According to Freudian theories this private, domestic world is, as Metz notes, the birthplace of the fetish, the almost inexplicable sexual attachments to objects and situations that have no obvious erotic value. With their domestic settings and sets of disconnected arms and legs, fetishism is an inescapable theme in Drape. Stenram’s manipulations remove anything that might distinguish these women as different from one another, Indeed even the question of the subject’s gender is at times in uncertain. Features which might identify them as individuals in even in a very superficial sense are covered and erased, the remaining limbs heightening the depersonalising quality of pornography.

Photographically Stenram’s collages are also strange, contradictory images because the transplantation of the background into the foreground confuses the eye. What was distant is now close, what was close is now rendered invisible, the normal rules of depth of field and perspective are suspended. Stenram works roughly, making no great effort to create seamless manipulations. In Drape IX for example the size of the curtain bears no relation to the apparently much taller women obscured by it, in Drape VII the bottom of the curtain is noticeably crudely cut. These obvious imperfections in the images pose questions about the constructed nature of erotic photography (indeed all photography) and the unrealistic and distortive sexual expectations that such images are able to transmit.

In some respects, not least in terms of source material, Drape tempts comparisons to the work of John Stezaker, the English collagist who has worked extensively with reclaimed and appropriated photographs, predominantly of movie stars, a profession not entirely unrelated to that of the pornographic actor. Like Stenram, Stezaker dismembers and reassembles these photographs to create new images which at first glance often appear untroubling, but become more disturbing the longer one looks. Similarly Stezaker plays with our sense of photographic perspective, telescoping near and far, as a close up portrait gives way to a distant landscape and vice versa.

However unlike Stezaker, who seemingly lifts a veil on the subjects of his source material, tempting strange comparisons and creating visual metaphors that seem to delve below the airbrushed surfaces of his otherwise inscrutable subjects, Stenram does the reverse, very literally lowering a veil over her appropriated subjects. It is tempting to suggest this masking gives Stenram’s work a subtly feminist quality, as if she is acting to protect these objectified women from our leering gaze. Perhaps these images are a form of retrospective photographic intervention, righting an old wrong. Indeed one can almost imagine Stenram ritualistically burning the originals after creating her manipulations.

This convolution of the erotic and domestic, the exploitative and the protective, also brings to mind the work of Linder Sterling, who’s photo collages often combine material from women’s fashion magazines with pornographic photographs, again highlighting the competing and contradictory expectations placed on women by contemporary culture. And yet compelling as Drape is as a comment on these themes of domesticity and gender, I keep finding myself returning to the issues that it raises of the distinction between public and private. The thought that remains most compelling to me is that as these women are hidden from us by these drapes they must be revealed to someone else, on the other side, the idea that perhaps in certain forms of concealing there is also a revealing that takes place.

We have never been less certain of the boundaries between the private and the public than we are right now. A.C. Grayling has written that in our rush to embrace technology we have forgone our privacy, that ‘we have stripped ourselves naked to any eyes that wish to see’. Almost everyone unthinkingly advertises themselves online, sharing vast amounts of personal information, which is readily scooped up by companies and governments to profile and assess us, as potential customers or possible threats. We are reduced in the process to two dimensional abstractions of ourselves, purposed to satisfy the fetishes of commercial marketing or governmental paranoia. Intentionally or not, Stenram has tapped into something of the nature of our age with her collages, an age where privacy is uncertain, territories are porous, and we are all to some extent on display.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography