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Book Review: Eleven Years


Book Review Eleven Years By Jen Davis Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Truth be told, when I fantasize about obtaining something seemingly out of reach, the role I play is always a perfected self, stacking the deck toward an achievable dream. When Jen Davis, overweight and out of touch with her looks, felt the sting of invisibility and absent love she took up the camera and for over a decade, looked at herself to get what she wanted. The photographs collected in Eleven Years examine both the real and the hypothetical; they are part self-portrait and part wishful thinking.

Eleven Years. By Jen Davis.
Kehrer Verlag, 2014.
 
Eleven Years
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins

Eleven Years
Photographs by Jen Davis
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, 2014. 120 pp., 60 color illustrations, 11¾x9½". 


Truth be told, when I fantasize about obtaining something seemingly out of reach, the role I play is always a perfected self, stacking the deck toward an achievable dream. When Jen Davis, overweight and out of touch with her looks, felt the sting of invisibility and absent love she took up the camera and for over a decade, looked at herself to get what she wanted. The photographs collected in Eleven Years examine both the real and the hypothetical; they are part self-portrait and part wishful thinking. If she couldn’t see herself as attractive, Davis could create beautiful scenes of which she is an intrinsic part, and if she wasn’t in love, she could orchestrate moments of intimacy and embrace. As Davis moved through her 20’s during these eleven years’ worth of photographs, she was both herself and her surrogate for desired experiences and states of being. During this time, Davis gets a Yale MFA, engages guest stars and color theory and makes light her powerful tool. At the end, she’s surely a different photographer, grappling with change and what remains the same.

Eleven Years. By Jen Davis. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.
Eleven Years. By Jen Davis. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

Page by page, Davis appears in quiet domestic spaces, engaged, interrupted, caught unaware and often posed just so. She’s not so much playing someone else, as she is casting herself in a different light. And what a mastery of light this collection reveals; it makes her monumental and insubstantial, luminous and harsh. Davis repeatedly photographs herself alone, often seated on beds; giving what could be a predictable symbol a fresh poignancy. While also sometimes a sensual place, when she’s shown on their edge, neither getting up nor lying down, beds are a locus of hope and resignation, promise and deflation. She also photographs herself in tender and stirring scenes with men she asks to play her stand-in loves, fabricating a sought after reality that asks for our suspension of disbelief; not for its intrinsic implausibility, but because she tells us of its fiction. What she hopes to recognize and reckon with seems to change from image to image, as certain conventional tropes of personal documentary do double duty in the service of reality and fantasy.

Eleven Years. By Jen Davis. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.
Eleven Years. By Jen Davis. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

In this I’m reminded of Richard Renaldi’s series Touching Strangers that also asks the viewer to think about the visual vocabulary of interpersonal familiarity and connection. Davis’s photographs reject the mutual exclusivity of fact and fiction and tether her lovely fantasies to the possible. That no one was watching was both the root of Davis’ pain and her license for reinvention. The result is a certain “fake it til you make it” conceptual approach that has surely garnered attention for her ever-evolving photographs and begs the question whether Davis believes that she too has been seen, and changed.—KAREN JENKINS

KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.

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