Article by Ernela Vukaj // Oct. 10, 2019
‘She’s Reading 1’ is photographer Jenna Westra’s first solo exhibition at Schwarz Contemporary in Berlin. Exploring the relationship between the camera and the model, the Brooklyn-based artist captures the tension in moments that would otherwise go unnoticed and transforms them into ever-lasting photographs. The title of the exhibition stems from the idea that the artist is analysing (or reading) the scenes they photograph, and the viewer then reads the resulting images. Westra’s intent is to explore the purpose and limits of photography itself, as well as to transform the way we would normally look at these kinds of images.
Westra’s work has a melancholy quality to it that often comes with the use of analog photography. Muted pinks and greys dominate most of her images, as well as grainy textures that are reminiscent of 90s fashion photography. The artist chooses to focus on skin, body and fabric as protagonists in her work, capturing her models at intimate and awkward angles. The exhibition highlights the tension carried in Westra’s photography. In one image, a hand pulls at a very fine stocking the moment before it rips, while, in another, lemon juice is squeezed into someone’s mouth, and a knee is dug into someone’s hip. The almost jarring sensations that come from these uncomfortable moments are held on to in photographs that oscillate between careful construction and happenstance. This underlying tone of anxiety is further emphasised through Westra’s use of composition, as she favours closely cropping her photos to transform bodies into composites of angles, curves and lines.
Westra’s work examines the position of the viewer and their understanding of the photograph before them. It makes you question whether you are a voyeur peeking into the private space of the studio, catching a glimpse of models behind the scenes, or whether these pictures have all been staged. This idea means that her photos are negotiable: not quite candid but not unnatural either. She aims to re-imagine the set as a framework that ultimately activates the “performers” within it, transforming accidental or chance movements into intentional, choreographed actions for the camera. By converting her models into collaborators, Westra presents them as conscientious, liberated performers who are in control of their bodies. This aspect of her photography is influenced by performance documentation and modern choreography, evident in a number of works exhibited in ‘She’s Reading 1.’ In ‘Armrest’ (2019) Westra demonstrates the full extent to which bodies can be used as props in photography and once again explores tension through body language and obscure camera angles.
The artist is also interested in the transformation of the medium as well as the subject. The typical power dynamic between the photographer and the female model is undermined in her work, as Westra presents a female gaze on female actions and even incorporates the model’s own clothing choice into the photograph. In a way, this denies the audience’s habitual viewing of the photograph as a “straight” representational mode. For instance, in ‘Women with Sheet’ (2019), three female models have their faces covered by a billowing white sheet. While this would usually draw more attention to their bodies, the middle model has her arm lifted, distracting from her physical appearance. The subjects are faceless, but not undermined. Westra interprets the camera’s use beyond a straight documentary device into one that reflects the female psyche within our current political climate.