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Generative Negatives: Del LaGrace Volcano's Herm Body Photographs



The most recent exhibited work of photographer Del LaGrace Volcano is a triptych from the series Herm Body (2011–), which presents Volcano's front and back torso conspicuously pared down, headless, and nude. Whereas in conventional film photography, negatives are used in the darkroom to make positive images (photographic prints), in the outmoded medium Polaroid 665, which Volcano employs, the positive image is used to make a (unique) negative. The generativity of the Polaroid 665 negative in Volcano's hands is not purely photographic; it is also affective. My essay explores the questions, what are the stakes and what are the consequences in a (photographic) negative generating and reflecting the artist's self-image? I attend to the vulnerabilities of the technical process as well as the strong formal and conceptual references to intersex bodies in medical photography and to aging bodies in images from John Coplans. In short, I propose that the Herm Body series shows how negative affect is productive and political, even when it appears to suspend agency.
Marie Høeg, who lived from 1866–1949, was a Norwegian photographer and activist for women’s rights. In this photo essay, the authors feature six photographs depicting Marie Høeg in gender transgressive scenes. These photographs are a few of more than 30 that were recovered in the 1980s from a property where Høeg once lived with her female partner, Bolette Berg. Standing out from the traditional landscapes and portraits that were common for the professional studio of Berg & Høeg, these photographs provide a glimpse into Høeg’s playful self-expression at the onset of the 20th century. This photo essay explores not only the documentary value of these images, but also the important considerations of visibility, privacy, and the ethics of circulation that they elicit.
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Photographer, ‘part time gender terrorist’, and now, as twice-parent (‘Ma-Pa’), Del LaGrace Volcano engages in conversation with friends and fellow gender travelers on herm’s latest photographic series, titled INTER*me. Their ‘inter-locution’ interleaves herm’s most recent images with some of herm’s earlier iconic photographs, as the discussion reflects on various interstices: between the body, aging and cultural ideals of beauty; between self-imaging, community representation, and familial connections; and between the technologies of gender and those of photography. The conversation reveals how the patterns in the INTER*me series interlock with those in Volcano’s oeuvre and ultimately also with the interwoven patterns of birth, life and death.
This essay is part of a larger project on the cultural history of Polaroid photography and draws on research carried out at the Polaroid corporate archive at Harvard and at the Polaroid company itself in Waltham and Concord, Massachusetts. It sets out to make an addition to the understanding of the new social practices generated by digital photography, but does so by examining an old technology rendered obsolete by the new. It outlines the recent history and decline of Polaroid and identifies the specific properties of the Polaroid image: its speed of appearance, its elimination of the darkroom, and the singularity of the final print. It then addresses the significance of the affinities and differences between the old and new ‘instant’ photographies, particularly in terms of the snapshot practices that they encourage.
Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.2 (2000) 161-172 This past April I woke up suddenly from a frightening yet laughable little dream in which I couldn't breathe because Governor John Engler, dressed in a power suit, was sitting on my naked chest. My dreams have always been this transparent; they would bore a psychotherapist. I knew immediately when I awoke what this dream was about. The next day I had an appointment with a professional photographer who was going to take a picture of me, bare except for my wedding ring on my left ring finger and a hospital bracelet around my right wrist. After he developed the picture in black and white -- assuming I didn't chicken out -- he would use PhotoShop to make three changes: impose a stark measurement grid behind me, black out my eyes with a rectangular band, and blur what my mate, Aron, calls "the naughty bits." This picture would then be used for an anthology I was editing about the medical treatment of people born intersexed -- the kind of people who used to be called hermaphrodites. I wanted to use this picture to make a point about the difference it makes whether people (including doctors and medical students) see intersexed people primarily the way medical books show them, or the way intersexed people see themselves. The volume, Intersex in the Age of Ethics, includes autobiographies of living intersexed people, and accompanying many of the autobiographies are photos of the authors looking like "normal" people [1]. They are shown with their pets and their lovers, clothed and smiling, with clear, focused eyes -- very much not blacked out. The chief aim of the inclusion of a textbook-style picture was to contrast clearly these two kinds of images. The picture illuminated the paradox of the masking of patients: making patients anonymous by using pseudonyms (or no names) and by shielding their faces is great for protecting their privacy, but it is also terrible for the way in which it immediately dehumanizes them. Contributing a photo of myself in the medical textbook style also showed how anyone, even a non-intersexed person like me, could look rather pathological if photographed this way. I learned from contriving this "medical" photo of myself that the intersex activist Cheryl Chase was absolutely right when she told me the only thing the black band over the eyes accomplishes is saving the viewer from having the subject stare back. Even with my blackened eyes and blurred parts, those who know me can recognize me in that picture. This being the case, the decision to do this photo shoot was not an easy one, as indicated by the stressful dream in which Governor Engler embodied my university and by my choice to have the "naughty bits" blurred, something you would never see in medical texts about intersex, since the whole point of those photos is to show the sexual anatomy. Yet the decision to do the photo addressed the lament, chiming in my consciousness, that I had heard time and again from intersexed people about their medical "exhibitions." These people were talking about the general problem of medical textbooks showing intersexed people not just as different but as tragically deformed [2]. But they also spoke of specific personal experiences. They themselves, as children and adolescents, had been repeatedly subjected to physical and visual examinations by medical students, residents, and attending physicians [3]. Although it was certainly not the medical professionals' intentions, these "exhibitions" had left the subjects feeling freakish and violated--"like insects tacked to a board for study" [4]. This outcome is painfully ironic, since the central goal of the medical treatment of intersex is to help intersexed people feel normal and happy [5]. Protocols for treating intersex children are founded upon the belief that ambiguous sexual anatomy constitutes "a social emergency" [6]. Although ambiguous genitals may signal an underlying metabolic disorder, they themselves are not diseased; they just look different -- sometimes very different. Specialist clinicians often use "normalizing" surgical and hormonal treatments to try to make intersexed children's anatomy look non-ambiguous, because they understand that social responses to ambiguity can cause the intersexed person (and those...
Schultheiss D, Herrmann TRW, and Jonas U. Early photo‐illustration of a hermaphrodite by the French photographer and artist Nadar in 1860. J Sex Med 2006;3:355–360 As early as 1860 the French photographer Gaspard Félix Tournachon, called Nadar (1820–1910), took a series of nine photographs depicting a young intersex patient. These illustrations were not published at their time and little is known about the patient and the role of the physicians involved in this case. The article discusses the available information on these artworks that today belong to the photographic collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
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