Afternoons by Jenna Westra featuring text by by Orit Gat.
Touch is almost shocking to see. In a movie, a group of friends seated around a table. One touches another’s shoulder affectionately and it feels like violence. On the street, people avoiding each other, like a dance, or... Read More
Afternoons by Jenna Westra featuring text by by Orit Gat.
Touch is almost shocking to see. In a movie, a group of friends seated around a table. One touches another’s shoulder affectionately and it feels like violence. On the street, people avoiding each other, like a dance, or a concession, making space one for the other just to stay away. Everything familiar has to be relearned, every instinct undone.
The city is changing. I move through it without touching anything, pulling sleeves over hands to call an elevator, open a door. I pay with a contactless credit card, I scan QR codes that were sent to me, I write my name and phone number, then put the pencil in a box marked “USED.” Sometimes, I think of being on a crowded subway car, the proximity of others, sometimes unwanted, always known, the fact-oflife that it was.
Seeing something you knew before is the shock. The dual realization: that it used to happen, that it isn’t now. And then, looking at Jenna Westra’s photographs, the shock is how it feels both like an imagined space and a bygone era. Dancers (Backbend), 2020, shows the bodies of two women encased. One woman bends forward and the other, facing the opposite way, leans back so that her back aligns against the other’s. They both wear leotards in shades of brown so close to their skin that they are almost nonexistent and the curves and contours of their bodies perfectly match, nesting one body in the other. It is a fgure of trust that is amazingly poignant even when no other information is available: not the models’ faces, nor the background which is simply a white wall. The smallest things—a tan line, a lock of dark hair, an armpit—join the gesture in the creation of a scene that feels endlessly intimate.
Westra often uses dancers for her models, she explains, since they have a good understanding of their body and how it moves and are comfortable being in front of the camera. She gives them directions based on ideas she’s written down before the session in the studio, but also leaves room for chance. The result feels casual, often spontaneous: these are women being creative, interacting, touching, feeling comfortable with one another. The photos both document and create a space for women to inhabit that feels free, youthful, and feminine. Gendered, but not overtly sexual, and conscious of being seen, still free from specifc kinds of sight.
Many of the photographs feature degrees of nudity. Once this book, these photographs, are out in the world, the tender consciousness of being seen between the models and the artist or the camera shifts. Whatever eyes rest on them, though, will recognize different things in their freedom. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to talk about a female gaze without it reading like a translation of the terminology of the male gaze. The comfort nude women feel around one another will read as familiar to many, and like a secret society to others. The photos do not explore this difference per se, but they also do not generate tension around the history of nude representation. Instead, there is tenderness. The camera upskirting a woman standing on a fre escape meets both her crotch and her gaze, as she looks down, directly, confdently (Claudia on the Fire Escape 2, 2018). In the page before, Claudia on the Fire Escape 1, 2018 shows her wearing the same short linen dress, reclining on those outdoor stairs in Manhattan, a moment of release, in the summer. Skin exposed to sun, eyes directed upward.
The lack of detail, the almost out-of-time sense of the photographs, often taken indoors and against neutral backgrounds, with a prop or two, and very few other signifers, makes what is feel momentous. In the black-and-white photo Cherry Seat, 2019, a nude woman in profle, her long hair covering her face and breast; in front of her is a plant whose leaves look like fngers, on the wooden box she sits on is a single cherry, and just behind her back is the hand of another woman, which she dips in a glass of water. The nude woman, whose body we see in full, is fxed in her seat, back straight, hands resting on her knees, but it is the fragmented arm in a striped T-shirt that makes all the movement. The following page features a photo of just that hand, the glass of water, the single cherry, and in color (Cherries 2, 2019). That dipping motion: Is it to clean a hand after eating cherries (sticky, summery, lush)? Or is it something else?
On the buses in the city where I am, posters for movies from six months ago. Crossing the city feels both familiar and external, like a scene from the end of the world, also from yesterday. I feel conscious of space, of time passing, of things lost. The book is called Afternoons: it comes built-in with a feeling of dusk, of shift or change. The loss of the day, the promise of the night, the end of the workday, the coming out into the world after it. On the cover, Park Picture (Les Fleurs), 2020, shows lovers in the park, shot from afar with a long lens. There is a man, his back to the camera and his arms around the woman whose hands are crossed behind his neck, a scrunchie on one feels like a detail so specifc to her, as if it becomes a stand-in for any kind of knowledge about her, for all narrative about them.
What Westra stages elsewhere—intimacy, familiarity, touch—is found by chance here, and the materiality of analogue photography, which defnes Westra’s work, is here palpable because of the grain that results from cropping and enlarging high ISO flm. Like the process of developing a black-and-white photo in a room lit with red, a moment of appearance, here as well. The knowledge that everything you look for can be found everywhere. In an empty city, in the memory of touch, in a brief moment, in an image. The lightness of Westra’s photographs: the joy of coming together which feels so youthful, energetic, and free, that lightness is laced with sadness. The thing about youth is, it’s marked by being feeting.