The Nudes of Dr. Moreau

An Internet Bricoleur Questions Photographic Ontology

The Photograph Is Its Own Object, Objection: Gordon combines fragments of unrelated photos to create strange and often disturbing new images.
The Photograph Is Its Own Object, Objection: Gordon combines fragments of unrelated photos to create strange and often disturbing new images.

By Michal Lando

Published November 11, 2009, issue of November 20, 2009.
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The floor of photographer Daniel Gordon’s studio is covered in colored shreds of paper. Here and there, an arm and leg made from those very scraps protrude from the rubble. One leg is covered in a sheath of thick gray hair that also turns out to be made of paper.

There is something grotesque about the way these constructed limbs are strewn around the room, bodiless. But then there is something grotesque about how Gordon’s photographs home in on the human body, often in graphic detail. Gordon creates temporary sculptures and still lifes, often human figures made from cut paper and photographs culled from the Internet. He creates collagelike figures, lights them in his studio and then photographs them with a large-format, 8-by-10 camera. He combines fragments of unrelated photographs to create strange, emotive and often disturbing new images: women giving birth, humans with missing limbs, surgery scenes, gym scenes and deceptively serene still lifes. “What ended up happening is that I turned into Dr. Frankenstein,” Gordon said, referring to the character in Mary Shelley’s novel, who creates life from nonliving material only to abandon his own creation in terror. “My images are not the easiest to live with… it’s not always comfortable for me, and that’s kind of where I want to be, ” Gordon said.

Gordon recently reread Shelley’s novel while working on his latest project, Portrait Studio, a series of photographs that play on traditional portrait art. Some of the photographs from this series are currently on view in New York at the Museum of Modern Art as part of its exhibit New Photography 2009, which showcases six photographers whose work begins in the studio or darkroom.

Gordon is 29 years old, and the MoMA exhibit is the latest sign of his rising star. He has had several solo and group exhibitions nationally and internationally, and his collection “Portrait Studio” was recently turned into a book.

His previous book, “Flying Pictures,” was an earlier attempt by Gordon to explore what he calls the “visual fictions” of the medium. Between 2001 and 2004, Gordon photographed himself “learning to fly” in New York’s Hudson Valley and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Using a camera mounted on a tripod, Gordon framed the picture and then ran out into the landscape and launched himself into the air, while an assistant snapped the shutter. In the photographs, Gordon is seen in midair and appears to be flying. There are no postproduction tricks, but likewise no indication that after a split second of “fleeting bliss,” Gordon was met with a crash back to earth. “The fiction is that I can fly, and the truth is that I can fly,” Gordon said.

The project began at a time when Jeff Wall, Andreas Gursky and others began manipulating their photographs with Photoshop, and digital technology was changing the role of “truth” in photography, Gordon explained: “‘Flying Pictures’ was my way of creating a visual fiction that photographers have been doing with photography all along.”

The magic of “visual fiction” got Gordon interested in photography to begin with. As a sophomore in high school in San Francisco, Gordon experienced what he calls a “very, very early midlife crises.” He refused to go to school. And after an attempt at home schooling, Gordon eventually wound up at a Southern California boarding school. The school used a mixture of Gestalt and other therapies to foster emotional growth, and Gordon was heavily influenced by Khalil Gibran’s book, “The Prophet.” He described his year at the school as a “bizarre but life-changing experience.” “The things I knew about these people were so unexpectedly deep,” he said about his fellow classmates. Until then, Gordon remembers not being particularly interested in anything. But when he returned home, he discovered photography as a way to explore some of the emotions he had been thinking about during that year. “From the second I started making pictures, it was a truly magical experience,” he said.

After high school, Gordon studied photography at Bard College, and then earned a Master of Fine Arts at Yale. As an undergrad, Gordon says, he began to think about using photographs to serve as their subjects. He began constructing envelopes that were themselves photographs — even the stamps were photographs of stamps — and successfully sending them to himself through the mail.

His more recent projects can be seen as an extension of his early work, even if they are visually quite different, a continued exploration of photography as a kind of magic. According to Gordon, this isn’t anything new. Even “old-school street photographers” like Friedlander, Arbus and Papageorge, were transforming space, light and time to create something new, he explained. But Gordon’s photographs call attention to this process in ways that ask us to rethink the nature of photography. His own process — printing images from the Internet, cutting them up and creating three-dimensional tableaus, lighting them and then photographing them — is one whereby he literally transforms other photographic images. Fragments and dead matter are transformed into something whole. “If you look on the Internet, there is all kinds of stuff — medical, personal, pornographic images — all jumbled up,” Gordon added. “I’m trying to put them together to create a person someone can relate to.”

“Portrait Studio” features only women and is an exploration of the artist-muse relationship. Gordon mentions the relationship between Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe as an example. Originally, the series included photos of men, but Gordon edited those out, an act that he said was complicated and uncomfortable, but interesting. Some photos are close-ups of female faces, often distorted by their constitutive fragments. Others show women giving birth, or spreading their legs, or simply reclining. What all these women share is an uneasiness. Like his older work, these photographs focus intensely on the body and on the discomforts of having one. In one, “Blonde Wig,” which is a close-up of a woman’s face, the eyes, nose and mouth have all been turned upside down. In another portrait, “Red Face,” the woman’s face is a pockmarked red piece of paper, where the scratches represent the eyes and nose. The photographs provoke an emotional response and often convey a sense of unease, as though the figures are uncomfortable in their own skin.

Gordon’s parents are both doctors; his father is a hand surgeon, and his mother is a pediatrician. He was born when his mother was a year into medical school and his father was doing research on monkeys to figure out how to enable a lost thumb to be replaced with an amputated toe. Eventually, his father helped pioneer a toe transplant. “The first images I connected to were pictures of my dad’s operations,” Gordon said. The first picture Gordon made in the style for which he has become known (cutting images and constructing paper collages) was of a toe transplant operation. The operation is a good metaphor for Gordon’s own process: He transplants images, removes them from their original context and reinvents them, giving them new life.

“I know some of the pictures are not easy to like. There is an attraction-repulsion response… a grotesque element to them,” he said.

Gordon is often surprised, even horrified, by his own images, which emerge through a serendipitous process. “I have never said, ‘This is what I’m going to make’; I just start making stuff,” he said. “It’s a real process to figure out what the work is about in the beginning of a project, but once I’ve found my subject, things move quickly and become very exciting.”

Michal Lando is a freelance writer in New York.

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