A beautiful woman is rolling around on a bed, sheets and pillows pushed aside, her black curls wild around her head. Who is this woman? A tumblr tag names her Wren Blanco. Naked underneath an untied peignoir she is pulling off, her eyes are closed, her knees up, her thighs opening.... Suddenly Wren smiles with voluptuous abandon, her forgotten robe revealing her torso and the triangle of her joyful sexuality.
This diptych exemplifies many of the fine photographs in Justin Lane’s nude and portrait portfolio on his well-known tumblr, A Subtle Likeness. Shot a few inches above the action, the tight framing accentuates both actual and allegorical movement: the photograph on the left captures Wren in motion as she welcomes her erotic encounter; the photograph on the right shows us Wren in the stillness of her sweet repose. As we view these pictures from left to right, their graphic force hastens us in the opposite direction. From right to left the upward thrust of Wren’s body returns us to the unseen space between her legs. Is the composition an allegory for intercourse occurring between the two images?
As we linger over these photographs, we may be tempted to believe that the untitled diptych depicts a raw sexual performance that we are invited to experience vicariously, like voyeurs peeking with impunity through an anonymous window. Be that as it may, to see only eroticism at play is to strip these pictures of their suggestive significance. Whatever the pleasure Wren is feeling and however strongly we may feel a seductive pulse, the warm, almost sepia tone of the monochrome, like the gentle contrast of her smooth skin against her wrinkled bedclothes, transforms an erotic tale into an intimate narrative. Wren’s desire may be aroused in one image and consummated in the other, but together these photographs integrate cinematic motion and ardent emotion to portray eroticism as a catalyst. Rather than imply an imaginary seduction, Justin’s diptych transcends representation and conjures the veritable subject of these photographs: sensual euphoria.
“Most of my personal work,” Justin writes on his tumblr, “is done an a collaborative trade basis … You should be comfortable with nudity, it’s a primary element of my photography. It’s not always polite, pretty, or demure.” As we have seen, Wren does not appear meek, unassuming, or shy; her ecstatic sensuality inflames her passion as she performs for the camera. Although this performance is key to Justin’s aesthetic, his photographs do not appear to be staged. Seeking spontaneity, the photographer provides little or no direction other than to encourage rapid, even chaotic motion. I asked him about the apparent lack of staging in many of his photographs. “I have taken some aspects of performance art, such as exaggerated gestures and movement, and started using them as a device to break away from the standard poses that happen with figure photography,” Justin replied. “It’s a way to depict people in ways that feel more natural, dynamic, and spontaneous because they are, in a sense.” His portrait of Meg illustrates beautifully this theatrical approach, contrasting the shades of her electric blue dress with the light oranges of her skin against a deep black background while Meg, a free spirit in impetuous motion, playfully lifts her skirt to offer a glimpse of her naked body.
As he composes his photographs, Justin’s integration of mercurial movement into the composition frees both the photographer and his model from limitations they may impose upon themselves. What are these constraints? Many models wish to control how they appear in photographs in order to establish their brand with a limited number of expressions that they show to the consumers of their image. Justin acknowledges this commercial reality (and his competitive nature) in one of his posts about Erica Jay, with whom he has created a body of work spanning several years and who is now “one of the more prolific art models out there, which has pushed the drive to depict her in ways that diverge not only from what’s behind us, but also from all the other artists she collaborates with.” Bodies in motion do not have time to gaze at their likeness in the mirror of their imagination, thus they cannot project their default look into the photograph. Justin’s accelerated exposure sequences capture a much greater range of emotions than his models reveal in static portraits. This approach has its drawbacks, Justin explained, “hundreds of unusable, potentially embarrassing images, and for every handful of successes more rigorous editing is necessary.” Perhaps, but unpredictability inspires improvisation leading to unique and powerful photographs. In the diptych below, entitled “erica, precipice 052913,” Justin employs selective focus and blur, as well as the tonal transition from lighter greyscale to darker selenium, in order to narrate Erica’s metaphorical dive off the edge into the void.
A model’s desired brand and a photographer’s need to compete in the marketplace are not the only impediments that may prevent artists from achieving their unadulterated vision when photographing the nude. Art history also plays a significant, perhaps unconscious role. “For the most part,” writes Max Kozloff, “nudes in photography are depicted as a kind of living sculpture, solid in its graceful gestures, and molded to show the topography of physique. The statuesque is a metaphor, useful as an allusion to the purported artistic intent of the image, which was associated with the idealized statues of antiquity.” (i) Given his formal studio arts education, there is no doubt that Justin has absorbed these lessons. Several sculptural nudes will be found in his nude and portrait portfolio. For example, “Castaway,” the black and white photograph below, presents two nudes, a man and a woman, stylistically posed in a T formation on jagged rocks above the sand. The man is lying on his stomach, his arms outstretched, with one hand touching the woman, as if to make an emotional connection. The woman rejects this show of affection, sitting with her back to him, leaning forward away from him. Although the play of light and shadow defines his muscular body as much it softens her skin, this tonal representation of gender roles is muted by the contrast of both bodies against the deep blacks and grays of the rocks. The tenderness displayed by his futile gesture is forgotten as we admire the expressive elegance of these figures. Underscoring the inability of this traditional composition to reveal more than what can be seen on the surface, a note underneath the image tells us, “it’s about form, and there isn’t much more to it….”
Immediately following his treatment of conventional beauty, Justin posts a black and white diptych of remarkably unconventional beauty entitled only by a date and a name, “081814 yucca.” Above a mons Venus we see dark shadows cast by the pointed leaves of a yucca tree over her torso. Exploding from a deep black spot between the woman’s body and the frame, this leafy ejaculation is defined symbolically by the swirling cloudscape in the adjacent photograph. Although each of these pictures exposes tremendous graphical strength as shades of gray interplay between extremes of fathomless black and blinding white, the diptych is greater than the sum of its two images. If the woman’s genitalia symbolize the site of sexual pleasure, if the surging clouds epitomize eternity, the juxtaposition of these two photographs provokes a quiet climax, between the images a symbolic orgasm.
Although erotic symbolism seems apparent as we study these images, it is unlikely that the photographer was thinking of this narrative when he made the photographs. As Justin explained, “The initial draw in ‘Yucca’ had to do with the way the patterns fell across her torso, the wrapping contours and sharp edges. The opposing sunlit cloud is my way of referencing the act of photographing, a very literal cause and effect of the harsh light source casting the shadows while giving it a sense of place and building a curious tension, moving beyond what otherwise felt (at the time) as an indulgent exercise in graphic design.” What Justin is describing, perhaps fortuitously, is a judicious deconstruction of art school dogma. To reference the photographic act in a photograph – to make photography self-referential – is to synthesize the production of art with the exigencies of academic critique. This concept has become the lingua franca of contemporary fine art photography and criticism. Like Narcissus and his reflection, both are drowning in each other’s pulchritude. As A.D. Coleman explains, “Conceptually … the vast majority of photography projects … seem to represent some welling-up of archetypes from the collective unconscious of the academically indoctrinated.” (ii) Rather than suffocate in this aesthetic quicksand, however, Justin uses the conceptualist self-referential photograph, first to highlight qualities specific to both images, then to surpass the conventional requirements for successful composition in favor of something hidden, unknown. “Allegorically,” he admitted, “I don’t know what I’d attach to this diptych, and in that regard, it’s open to interpretation.”
In another compelling diptych entitled “elena, luminous 070213,” Justin acknowledges the self-referentiality of his artistic endeavor. Elena’s face almost fills the left frame as a shaft of light shines across her right arm and spotlights her right eye, leaving her left eye in shadow. The triangular shape of the shining light is repeated in the right frame, gently losing its luminance as it shimmers across the wood floor, over Elena’s nude body, and up onto the wall behind her. No doubt Justin designed this astute arrangement of compositional elements in order to emphasize the essential role of vision in these portraits. And yet… do we perceive what Justin may be challenging us to see? We first behold Elena staring at us blankly, if not coldly, in a dynamic close-up; then the camera moves back and she looks away, aloof, as if to dramatize her emotional distance. Are these photographs about perception? Or is blindness their ultimate significance? Are photographic portraits merely a reflection of the photographer, revealing nothing about the subject and unable to give an accurate impression of the subject’s character? Or does Justin’s portrait discern an individual personality, demonstrating intuitively what Susan Kismaric calls “the uneasy relationship between artificial surface appearance and inner psychology in many portrait photographs and self-portraits”? (iii)
Most photographers present nudes and portraits in separate portfolios; while nudes are often portraits, portraits are seldom nude. Although the integration of portraiture with figure studies may be seen as an attempt to refine the definition of the traditional portrait, this refinement is a merely a felicitous consequence of Justin’s photography. Indeed, his nude and portrait portfolio is both experiment and exploration. As Justin experiments with compositional structure using movement, spontaneity, tone, focus, and color in single and multi-image formats, he is exploring photography’s potential as a medium for the discovery of intimate human relationships.
Nowhere is this emotional expedition more evident than in his portraits of Meg, who appears frequently in A Subtle Likeness, dressed and undressed, serious and playful, in a photo studio, in her apartment, and at various locations around New York. In the diptych above, Meg stands in her underwear, first at the entrance to her scantily furnished living room, then in the hallway across from her kitchen. Her gentle curves and soft colors of white, gray, and gold resonate with her sensitive presence as she looks at the camera. Although Justin’s design directs us from Meg down the hall and through an open door to her bedroom, the scenario is not one of erotic fervor. As Meg gazes at us with quiet intensity, is she revealing her vulnerability, or her empathy? Lest we lose ourselves in what we imagine to be a shared emotional space created by these images, a collection of instant photographs tacked to the door frame on the far left returns us to the bittersweet reality of the photographic act, a “vulnerable openness conjoined with aesthetic distance.” (iv)
Photography is a high-risk art form, triumph or tragedy in a split second. Whether using motion to trace a precarious trajectory from eroticism to intimacy, or synthesizing structural elements with an intuitive sense of their graphic power, Justin creates photographs that are elegant and ambiguous. The elegance of his compositions draws us in while their ambiguity encourages us to share in his creative act, to write the narratives he outlines in his cinematic scenarios.
“It’s always difficult for me to see through the actual circumstances of the shoot,” Justin mused as he questioned my interpretation of one of his works. His muses acknowledge no such difficulty, confirming the positive results of his photographic theory and practice. “I had a fantastic shoot with Justin,” Wren told me after her first experience posing for the photographer. “His method of photography I haven’t encountered with other photographers. It was very fast-paced and I think he got some gestures and expressions I’ve never done before on camera.” After more than 50 photo shoots with Justin, Erica described the psychological impact of performing for his camera. “His photographs made me see the human form in a different way. Being naked isn’t vulnerable; the women in his photographs are empowered and look strong, and that's how I came to view myself after he took my photograph.”
As Justin’s most consistent collaborator and muse for the past several years, Meg understands the raison d’être of his aesthetic search to portray friendship, one that is both genuine and uniquely fragile. “Posing with Justin is always more of an organic experience than just posing for a camera,” Meg said. “I never feel like I have to pose formally when we're making pictures. Being friends for so many years, our photos have evolved with our friendship. I feel pretty lucky to have that body of work to look back on and to continue making.”
Justin Lane was born in 1975 and raised in upstate New York. He began making photographs in his early teens. He was educated at the Alfred University School of Art and Design, graduating in 1997 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography with significant work in video and electronic arts. A master of digital imaging processes, Justin has worked for the past fifteen years at Chelsea Photographic Services, one of the finest custom photography laboratories in the country. As Chelsea Photo’s senior retouching artist, Justin has been instrumental in adding a wide range of state-of-the-art scanning and printing services to the lab’s superb chemical darkroom production.
Justin is also a member of Barbara Livingston’s elite team of horse racing photographers who create many of the beautiful images of the Triple Crown, Breeder’s Cup, and other important national races for the Daily Racing Form and other publications. In addition to his fine-art work, Justin works freelance, assisting actors and models with their portfolio development, as well as accepting commissions for portraiture and editorial photography.
Justin’s tumblr can be accessed at http://subtlelikeness.com/.
* I would like to thank Justin Lane for articulating his thoughts about his work as I wrote this essay. In response to my many questions, Justin’s commentary was always perceptive and timely.
i. Max Kozloff, Saul Leiter Early Black and White I. Interior, Steidl / Howard Greenberg Library, 2014.
ii. A. D. Coleman, Photocritic International, July 5, 2012, found online at http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/photocritic/2012/07/05/trope-the-well-made-photograph-1/.
iii. Susan Kismaric, Florence Henri, Jeu de Paume/Aperture, 2015, p. 184.
iv. Klaus Kertess, Peter Hujar animals and nudes, Twin Palms Publishers, 2002.
George McClintock is a photographer, musician, and writer based in Greenwich, CT. Formerly a literary correspondent for the Franco-German journal Lendemains, McClintock maintains two obscure tumblrs, Dordo Speaks! and Submerging Photographers, as well his website www.GeorgeMcClintockPhotography.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text © copyright 2015 by George McClintock. All rights reserved. Photographs © copyright 2010-2015 by Justin N. Lane and reproduced by permission. All rights reserved.