When thinking about the pictures in Katrina Umber's SK OW HE GAN 2011, I find myself pulled by conflicting reads, suspended between the personal and the generic, the intimate and the categorical. Umber made the pictures while at the nine week residency program in the summer of 2011. The images were made quickly (with just a few frames taken of each sitter) over five days, approximately a month into the term. But the experience of Skowhegan is relentlessly intimate for the participants, and in other terms—or from a different starting point—the pictures were made out of relationships began thirty days earlier, upon arrival in Maine.
Umber's earlier projects investigate "photography’s connection to subjectivity and the materiality of time" and in SK OW HE GAN 2011 we are connected again through the dual action of photographer and sitter. In these portraits there is a presentation of performance that looks back to August Sander's German citizens where each performs his/her social station for Sander's camera. The difference here is that all 80 sitters are artists and the variety of "takes" on this identity open the project to a meditation on the representation of "artist" as well as on the individuals themselves. Sander's secure roles give way to a multiplicity. Each "individual artist could respond to and perform their internalization of the historical and cultural idea of ‘the portrait of the artist’, and the way they want to be seen as such" a reflexivity that continues into Umber's own process as she utilizes each artist's studio as her own workspace when making the picture.
We all know Sander's contribution as one of the great artistic taxonomies of the 20th century. In approaching Umber's book I suggest we sidestep the tendency to read these images this way. Photographs have long been seen primarily in terms of the index, but there seems a sea change on this point over the last few years and Umber's project registers this shift wholly, if also subtlety. Moving away from taxonomy, I would instead like to borrow a term from Kaja Silverman, and approach these pictures through analogy. In Silverman's concept the photograph acts relationally - not as a copy or index of its subject but instead as an articulation of our looking; a term through which we can relate to the world - a world which contains concurrently the subject, the photograph, the photographer, etc. Umber's portraits feel to me saturated by this kind of communication.
Katrina Umber's practice covers many photographic genres and manifests as books as well as prints and installations. She received her MFA from UCLA in 2010 and her self-published artist books have been selected for the ‘Self Publish, Be Happy’ showcase at the Photographers Gallery in London and Arts & Sciences Projects’ NEW STAND in New York. For more work visit www.katrinaumber.com and www.katrinaumber.blogspot.com
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