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Notes on Fundamental Joy: Reviewed by Bretta C. Walker


Book Review Notes on Fundamental Joy Photographs by Carmen Winant. Reviewed by Bretta C. Walker "Historically the act of photographing, much as the act of inhabiting a female body, has violent implications — but what emerges when softness is a pursuit of ferocious abandon? What emerges when there is a fundamental shift in gaze, power, and in the destruction of hierarchy? Is it possible to leave everything behind?"
Notes on Fundamental Joy. By Carmen Winant.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=PM020
Notes on Fundamental Joy
Photographs by Carmen Winant

Printed Matter, New York, USA, 2019. 
In English. 94 pp., color & black-and-white illustrations.

Women. Or rather, womyn — a circle of womyn. In various states of dress, they join hands, embrace, caress, holding one another — holding one another up — and all-the-while documenting the proof of this possibility-turned-reality. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, thousands of American womyn left their homes and lives behind to build a new world for themselves, a world apart — a radical abandon of patriarchal construct and constraint, the greatest of all being capitalism, with a pointed, keen focus on community and survival. This movement is referred to as the Lesbian or Feminist Separatist Movement, a subversive and devoted reclamation of femininity and sisterhood, of language and image, of body and nature, of history — herstory.

In Carmen Winant’s profound offering, Notes on Fundamental Joy, we encounter a collection of photographs made across various separatist communes between the years 1979 and 1981 during annual summer happenings known as “Ovulars.” The Ovulars (a reclamation and evolution of the term “seminar,” meaning to spread seed or semen) were womyn-led photographic workshops in which commune residents would spend weeks dedicated to learning how to take, process, and print photographs of themselves, their environment, and each other. What resulted is an expansive, seductive archive which realizes a utopian-like sense of freedom and security that most might find themselves too cynical to understand or even hope for in this world. While the images of these nameless womyn carry a striking and powerful weight on their own, it is the material aspects of this piece and the running commentary from Winant herself which transforms this otherwise base, historical document into a tender, observational, and open questioning of ownership, authorship, and the inherent violence of photography and gaze, and, further, the ingrained violence of the patriarchal society in which we all inhabit, consensually or not.

Notes on Fundamental Joy. By Carmen Winant.

Historically the act of photographing, much as the act of inhabiting a female body, has violent implications — but what emerges when softness is a pursuit of ferocious abandon? What emerges when there is a fundamental shift in gaze, power, and in the destruction of hierarchy? Is it possible to leave everything behind?

Notes on Fundamental Joy. By Carmen Winant.
Turning the nearly transparent pages of this book, we find imposed upon us a sort-of performative act — an element of this work which manages to achieve Relational status while simultaneously remaining intimate and specific to Winant’s process and perspective. She writes, “To what extent is art-making an investigation of that which we do recognize already as our own, an attempt, a cast line? In what ways might this claim be harmful to others, to those who participated, to those who inherited from this carving out of Lesbian self? I am a traveler here. Am I a traveler here?” This caution in her authorship, this conflict in her connection to these images that she is so far removed from in her own identity along with her wavering authority in the role of curator, is echoed in the transparency and delicacy of the paper on which her words seem to whisper and these images lay.

The book is bifurcated by a short essay written by artist and veteran separatist Ariel Goldberg, an aside which only amplifies and expands upon questions posed by Winant and the resounding images that comprise the work. Goldberg asks “Where are the people in these pictures now? How do they feel about these images being circulated in an artists’ book or exhibit or Instagram post? Who will gain notoriety and benefit from these images re-entering the world in a new context, outside of the subcultures that created them?...”

Notes on Fundamental Joy. By Carmen Winant.
The essay is an abrupt intermission and perspective shift that at first might seem untimely. Upon digestion, however, they can be noted as a gesture of the very camaraderie which was exalted in these communes and documented during the Ovular’s while also functioning as an extension of Winant’s hyper-self- awareness. Goldberg’s writing also begs to challenge the intersectionality (or lack-there-of) within these lesbian / womyn-only havens and their hetero and trans-exclusivity, offering an added layer of complexity to the intake of the moony, sentimental images.

Goldberg goes on to ask “What emerges from the speculative gesture of refining one’s ability to use a camera?” And, while the contents and concepts of this book combined are greater than the sum of their parts, it is this very question and the repeated imagery of WOMYN + CAMERA which resonates.

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Notes on Fundamental Joy. By Carmen Winant.
Notes on Fundamental Joy. By Carmen Winant.

Bretta C. Walker is a creative practitioner utilizing still & motion photography as a means of documenting her performance in the role of Female Human in an intuition-driven & ritual-fueled practice. By harnessing the necromantic qualities of the photographic process to hold communion with self & surrounding – in concept & in form, her work addresses issues of liminality, femininity, & trauma.

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