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OCTOBER 2002, Volume 95, Issue 1
Photography by Laura Letinsky
Text by Mary Ruth Yoe
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Morning and Melancholia

Photographing objects often overlooked, Laura Letinsky chronicles the changing shape and texture of domestic intimacy.

If Laura Letinsky's still lifes make you think of Martha Stewart the morning after, the photographer will understand. Letinsky, an associate professor in the Committee on the Visual Arts and the College, intends the 40-plus images in her Morning and Melancholia series to be a commentary on society's material-mindedness-the same emphasis that spawned Stewart and her ilk. The "proliferation in our culture of magazines about the home," Letinsky says, implicitly touts the "promise of things." But while Martha's things are pristine and untouched, Letinsky is interested in how domestic objects are used, how they behave "after the camera leaves," and how they contribute to life's most intimate texture.

She has tackled intimacy before; her six-year project Venus Inferred (University of Chicago Press, 2000), a series of large color photographs of heterosexual couples, was her attempt to "picture what love-tenderness, vulnerability, desire, regret, and abjection-looks and feels like." As Venus progressed, she explains, "I became less interested in the gestures of people and more interested in their surroundings-their stuff and what that told about them."

Letinsky made Morning's first photographs during a 1997 stay in Berlin. In unfamiliar surroundings, unable to speak the language and "amazed" by the local and regional foodstuffs in the city's markets, she became "intensely aware of my own cultural and material relationship to food." Back home in the States she continued to look closely at food in pictures that focused on ordinary details of cooking and eating.

Letinsky, who has degrees from the University of Manitoba and Yale, became interested in photography at age 20 "more by accident than by choice." She considers accident and happenstance-words missing from Martha Stewart's lexicon-important to the composition and meaning of her still lifes. Home, she explains, "is a place of work, comfort, joys, and accident."

"I'm always interested in the tension between what is set up and what is accidental," Letinsky continues. "A lot of these pictures are about paying attention to what's around me, so that I'm open to" the scene.

That openness led her to observe a contradiction explored throughout the series, the way in which "unexpectedly beautiful tableaux" are formed by "dirty dishes and messy countertops. The formal arrangements I saw were almost classical in an art-history way and at the same time assemblages of completely banal personal details of appetites, habits, and implements."

Objects both banal and beautiful populate 16th- and 17th-century Dutch-Flemish, Italian, and Spanish still-life paintings, works that Letinsky has studied and emulated. Dutch-Flemish and Northern Renaissance still lifes, she points out, presaged photography, emphasizing reality and "the democratic scene," describing everything equally, with "a blade of grass seen in the same way as a crystal glass."

Letinsky's works echo other traditional still-life elements: the black backdrop that appears in some of the photographs recalls the dark backgrounds found in works by the Spanish painters Francisco de Zurbarán and Juan Sánchez Cotán, both known for simple arrangements of homely objects. At times Letinsky has set up photographs "with a painting in mind," her colors "playing off one another, harmonizing, with the notes being slightly off, like minor keys."

Although Morning and Melancholia is a work in progress ("Until the project feels done, I'm still working on it"), images from the series will be shown in galleries in Atlanta, Chicago, Napa Valley, and Toronto this fall and winter.

What next? Just as shapes in her photographs often metamorphose from flat to three-dimensional and back again, Letinsky's focus alters and transforms. Recently she has photographed sweets-"candy, old or rotten fruit, sugary things, cakes, pies, tarts." She's fascinated partly by the "colors that sweets come in" and partly by the "connection between nature and the sweets, how they mirror each other and how they are different" in form and color. Once again, the promise of untouched things has come into play: "My son is almost four," she notes. "I couldn't work with Gummi Worms while he was around."

View the slideshow

Image Captions:
Untitled, #34, Berlin, 2001. "I saw the three indentations on the top glass," Letinsky says, explaining the mixture of planning and accident that goes into each photograph, "so I set up the three spoons to continue the pattern across. The reflections also set up stepping stones."

The black background of Untitled, #10, New Haven, 1999, is a still-life tradition. Its use is also pragmatic: "The walls were painted a mud green, and I couldn't do anything with it," Letinsky says. "I want the feeling that the table was eaten on, that things have been touched, tasted, caressed, bitten, a part of life."

Untitled, #38, Berlin, 2001, was composed "with an image in mind," says Letinsky, "setting up lines of color and shape that cross one another. I made everyone leave the dishes after dinner, and we sealed off the room. The next morning fruit flies were buzzing everywhere."

"I'd been working on a picture all day," Letinsky says, "when I looked back at the table where I had the props and the light was coming in the window. I swung the camera around and moved one peach." She likes Untitled, #35, Rome, 2001, because its ambiguous planes mirror the "confusion of domesticity, how you make a home."

Using the black backdrop was a lesson in "the malleability of photographic space, how I could transform the edge of this table into a very different sense of gravity by the use of black and white." The china in Untitled, #7, New Haven, 1999, belonged to Letinsky's grandmother.

Of Untitled, #47, Rome, 2001,
Letinsky says, "In this phase of working I was looking at a lot of Italian painting, The Last Supper and other narratives where the fruit and foodstuffs are about wanting and
seduction and decay, and about it being too late."

In Untitled, #43, Rome, 2001, Letinsky "wanted to leave enough space so that it felt as though a person was absent, that a person had left." The sense of space is also meant "as an invitation to the viewer to come to the table."

 

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