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Book of the Week: Selected by Kim Beil

Book Review The Pencil of Nature Photographs by Yvonne Venegas Reviewed by Kim Beil "The story starts with a snake. Yes, that story. The one about the woman and man and the garden and the apple; the one about desire and knowledge and shame and punishment..."

The Pencil of NatureBy Yvonne Venegas
The Pencil of Nature
Photographs by Yvonne Venegas

Rm, 2023. 116 pp., 80 illustrations, 6¼x9½".

The story starts with a snake. Yes, that story. The one about the woman and man and the garden and the apple; the one about desire and knowledge and shame and punishment. But there’s another story too. This one starts in the photo studio owned by Yvonne Venegas’s parents in provincial Mexico. Here, the snake is wrapped around the leg of a model, Nastassja Kinski. The snake flicks its tongue, touching the model’s ear. The photographer finally gets the picture. The picture becomes a poster. That poster hung over the table where Venegas sat to do her homework as a young girl.

The story, as Venegas tells it in her brilliant new photobook, is also a story about power and control. Venegas saw both in the woman posing for the photograph; these attributes offered a counterweight to what Venegas saw in other pictures of women, particularly the bridal pictures she saw as a girl. As Venegas recalls, the wedding day was framed as the most important day of a young woman’s life. One of the most vocal directors of that scene was the photographer, who instructed the bride in everything from how to gaze at her parents to how to apply perfume behind her ears. Although these gestures may not seem important, the bride’s submission to them was symbolic. As Venegas writes, “In that city, in those years, women did not own their bodies. In the same way that the photographer directed the bride on her wedding day, they blindly entered into a contract that, seen from my child’s eyes, was not fair.”

In an illuminating essay at the heart of the book, Venegas focuses on Kinski, the model, when retelling the story of the snake. At the periphery of the story and outside the shot, are Richard Avedon and Vogue’s creative director, Polly Allen. This subtle reframing towards shared authorship is central to Venegas’ project.

After Venegas took up the camera herself, she wondered: was she perpetuating that imbalance of power established by photography’s association with male domination? What about when she directed the poses of women who appear in her photographs? What had Venegas herself learned about photography and femininity at the direction of men?

The book begins with a series of self-portraits, in which Venegas wears a three-piece suit and poses in ways that amplify the costume’s typical gender presentation. She feels the architecture and the history of the suit shaping her posture; she likes the feeling of taking up space, of being in control. She becomes characters in well-known photographs, reinventing images by Man Ray and others, even as she plays their poses with a difference. A pose, she writes, “is an idea that is expressed with the body.” That idea, which Venegas explores through formally elegant and emotionally layered photographs, is about knowledge — of both the self and others — and, therefore, power.

What if, Venegas wonders, the women in her photographs could also be knowing participants? And, what if they could be many people? Could Venegas show them playing multiple roles at once? Can one person be many things, many people? The answer is definitively: yes, and more.

These experiments unfold across the book’s several sections. After Venegas’ self-portraits (some printed at photobooth thumbnail size on black pages, which cleverly resist the gaze), come a series of portraits of more than two dozen different women. Each spread is accompanied by hundreds of names for the roles they’ve played, whether in their professional acting careers or in daily lives: “singer,” “architect,” “small-town girl,” “revolutionary,” “mother,” “daughter,” “wife.” Many of the roles overlap or repeat and the reader cannot know whether the noun on the page refers to a character on stage or to one of the many roles that women play without preparation, simply because they exist in the world. The list equalizes any difference between acted or natural parts. Quickly, it becomes clear that these are all roles. They are all played. None is more natural than another. As the twentieth-century sociologist Irving Goffman wrote in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, we are not the same person across all areas of our life. When we sit down in a diner or a doctor’s office, on the couch of a friend or a therapist, we play a different version of ourselves.

Photographs are a strange version of this stagecraft not only because they circulate widely, sometimes far beyond their intended audiences, but also because they are the product of two visions of a person coming together. During the portrait sessions for this book, Venegas describes engaging in conversations about posing with the women who stood before her lens. The photographer and the photographed were deliberately working together to produce an image of a character. In other words, they were reclaiming the pose as a pose. Rather than adopting a posture or a gesture as a marker of some generalized feminine role, like the submissive gaze at the parents in small-town wedding portraits, Venegas and the women she photographed were consciously deconstructing the elements of each pose and revealing their artifice.

In these portraits, Venegas and her sitters are taking a bite of the apple. They’re making knowledge visible by breaking down the demands of naturalness that have accompanied photographic portraiture since the nineteenth century. Like looking at a Sherrie Levine photograph of a Walker Evans portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, suddenly we’re forced to ask: what if someone else took this picture? Specifically, a woman? Except here, in Venegas’ book, we don’t have to wonder. We can see.

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Kim Beil is an art historian who teaches at Stanford University. She is the author of Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography.