Tuesday September 14th, 2010

Equal Before the Lens

created-equal1This post was written by Jacob Silverman.

How do you like your irony? The answer may determine how you feel about Created Equal, Mark Laita’s book of 105 photographic diptychs. If you don’t mind irony that comes in the form of a wink, a knowing tilt of the head, a sly gesture tending toward the obvious, then you’ll probably appreciate the juxtapositions that Laita makes with these 210 portraits culled from a decade of photographing Americans throughout the lower 48 states.

Most of the photos are black-and-white, a dark muslin backdrop and diffuse lighting allowing for a full view of the subjects, most of whom face the camera directly, usually bearing an expression just this side of angry or bemused. Below each photograph are the subject’s name, a descriptive label (usually his or her profession), and a date and location. There are some recurring types: sex workers, pimps, cops, convicts, priests and nuns, gamblers, models and bodybuilders, the mentally disabled (including several identified as inbred). Taken on their own, the photos are aesthetically interesting and well composed, but Laita’s project is more provocative for how he labels and arranges his subjects.

The title of the book begs us to draw equivalences between those depicted. The captions help us along, recasting subjects as something entirely different from what they appear. The man in a space suit is obviously an astronaut (confirmed by the underlying descriptor), yet we have no idea who the casually dressed, middle-aged woman on the adjacent page is until we read that she’s an alien abductee (self-proclaimed, I assume). It’s a clever juxtaposition on Laita’s part, but it also points to a limitation of his scheme: appreciating these diptychs often hinges on the reductive labels applied to them.

polygamist2Laita’s approach is one of enforced harmony. The juggler and the air traffic controller, presumably paired because both keep track of complicated patterns in the air. A ballerina and a boxer, telling us something about physical grace. The stock traders and the demolition derby crew, varieties of destruction. In a few inspired cases, the labels are almost irrelevant. The stripper who occupies both sides of a diptych—naked in one, clothed and holding a grocery bag in the other—is striking because she’s almost unrecognizable from one photograph to the next but both images reflect fundamental aspects of her identity. In another set, a boy holding a jar of fireflies is paired with a moonshiner, each grasping a glass jar that holds something precious to its owner.

Many of these diptychs, though, are screamingly obvious—a real estate agent and a homeless woman, a bank robber and sheriff’s deputies, a black Baptist minister and Ku Klux Klan members—while others are too insistent on their connections, like the bug-eyed man with his mail-order wife set against a movie producer with his much younger wife. There’s a sense of abridgment here, of too much interpretation being done for us. The man wearing a “warden” badge is called an “executioner,” but he could, of course, be identified as a prison warden—a label that’s probably more accurate and certainly less political. (He, by the way, is paired with a fortuneteller.)

whitesupWhile Created Equal’s introduction, written by Ingrid Sischy, tells us that Laita spent less than 10 minutes with some of his subjects, the notes section at the end of the book provides some illuminating details. One of the pimps was shot and killed a week after his photograph was taken; one male cross-dresser was new to the lifestyle and felt “excited about interacting with someone as a woman;” the “only thing that bothers” the executioner “is that [his work] doesn’t bother” him; the Latino dishwasher, wearing a hairnet and appearing close to tears, works in a “small 24-hour deli in Manhattan, where none of the employees speak the same language and everyone seems to hate each other, including the customers.” There are such endnotes for perhaps a third of the photographs, and they’re fascinating. They indicate that Laita, when he takes the time to listen to his subjects, is able to craft deceptively emotive scenes that gesture at something larger than themselves–like an Amy Hempel story visualized. I appreciate the humanistic spirit of a book that attempts to call us all equal (especially when many of these people are culled from society’s margins), and that doesn’t glamorize its subjects, but it also seems restricted by the form Laita has chosen. I look forward to a future work that builds on his demonstrated ability to capture compelling subjects, while presenting them through a less constricted lens.

Jacob Silverman is a contributing online editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The National, The Daily Beast, and many other publications.