|Sam Henry: I first heard about your work in a critique class at School of Visual Arts. One student started talking about Nan Goldin and the teacher mentioned you. He tried to be brief by describing your work as “pictures of the photographer’s mom with her lovers.” There were a few muffled gasps to go along with a high-pitched, Long Island-tinged, “Eewww, that’s gross.” And no one in the room, aside from the teacher, had seen a single one of your images. Does this sort of scenario—one where your work is whittled down to a few easily recognizable elements—bother you?|
Leigh Ledare, interviewed by Sam Henry
Sam Henry: I first heard about your work in a critique class at School of Visual Arts. One student started talking about Nan Goldin and the teacher mentioned you. He tried to be brief by describing your work as “pictures of the photographer’s mom with her lovers.” There were a few muffled gasps to go along with a high-pitched, Long Island-tinged, “Eewww, that’s gross.” And no one in the room, aside from the teacher, had seen a single one of your images. Does this sort of scenario—one where your work is whittled down to a few easily recognizable elements—bother you?
Leigh Ledare: I’ve always understood that at the core of the work is a deep ambivalence, one that isn’t easy to reduce to generalizations. So many people are in the habit of trying to package intricate ideas in broad gestures, and their efforts make it impossible for them to recognize the nuances and complexities that exist. There’s just too much stuff to look at today. These associative comparisons sometimes really hinder actually looking at something directly for what it is. Take Nan Goldin [for example]. Just on a basic level there’s a gap of almost 30 years from when she started putting out work till when I started my own. So many things are different; the arguments that influenced and shaped things then are so different now. This isn’t to suggest that people haven’t caught up, and it’s certainly not to diminish any of the importance of earlier work, but as cookie-cutter categories, I don’t find the associations useful.
In terms of influence there was a much broader range I was drawing from: film, literature, psychology, cultural studies, the actual circumstances of my lived experience. I wasn’t adopting a photographic approach, and certainly not Nan’s. And although I work with photography, I probably wouldn’t even consider myself to be a photographer.
With regards to my work, I appreciate a clear distinction between subject matter and content. I see the latter as the approach to the work and the attitude that it carries, the ways in which it is open or closed, and how it understands itself. This conception of content allows for a more comprehensive understanding of disposition toward the world. At least this is how I see myself involved with it, and it’s something that happens across the oeuvre of someone’s work. It’s not in one project. I never saw the work with my mother as being a portrait of her. It was always a broader exploration of a set of relationships: me in relation to her, her in relation to her father and the rest of my family, and of course to broader culture and where it meets, models, and conflicts with what we were enacting in the world. It was about looking at the subject not on the basis of identity, but in relation to our projected desires, aspirations, and needs: motivations which often carry conflicting material, psychological and ethical demands. Threads of this content weave through all the other projects I’ve made.
SH: I’m also curious about how people’s reactions—either their initial responses and as well as more considered evaluations—compare to how you view your work. I realize this is a tough question. After all, how can you know what people are really truly thinking, especially when the most confrontational part, your mother’s sexuality, is such a taboo?
LL: I understand my own motivations for making the work with my mother from a number of different perspectives that evolved over the course of the eight years where I worked on this project, a period during which I investigated a much larger terrain. No single one of those perspectives was complete, and the same can be said for the viewer’s response. There are many different registers to read things from. It’s a very multifaceted thing, full of contradiction and ambivalence. Still, no single one of them can be faulted. Ironically, people’s readings end up often revealing more about themselves, as viewers, than about the work itself.
There are also many ways of thinking about my mother’s actions within the work. My mother’s sexuality, one of the central issues of this work, functions in multiple ways. At times she trades on her now-waning beauty, while at other moments she antagonized the demands that she felt social conventions imposed on her. She was also practicing a kind of masochistic domination over other people in social situations, while attempting to shield herself from her own sense of aging. Paradoxically, she was challenging a posterity that she was actively seeking out. All the while, she was accessing different levels of intimacy with me, often through substitute figures and through the camera. At other moments it can be read as an attempt to continuously subvert and resist her father’s patriarchal expectations of how she should behave, as a daughter and mother. But a lot of it is pure play, and play that comes directly out of who she was as a former professional ballerina and as an artist.
One more thing, I find that the impulse to define my output solely by the project with my mother seems silly when there are a number of subsequent projects and embellishments to that work. People simplify things drastically in order to have something to hold tightly onto. But this is based on a very rigid attempt to identify me directly with the work, and only part of the work at that. Who I am, and what the work is, is much more fluid than this.
SH: When I first saw these pictures I was struck most by the range of emotions they inspired. The group of images of your mother in bed with lovers seemed to run the gamut from playfully frisky to introspective and depressed. And the strip of photo booth images made me think about all the good times I’ve had partying with my mom. Is this range of experiences something you went out specifically trying to capture, or did you only find them after shooting and editing?
LL: I’d say that my work is discursive, both within the work itself and with my mother, as well as from project to project. While the project with my mother can be read as being about the closed circuit of the relationship that my mother and I have with each other, we are both well aware of the viewer within this configuration, and the ripple of effects that come along with viewing ourselves and being subjected to other people’s perceptions. This is true in terms of representation and in actual experienced life: I’ve approached all my work with an interest in looking at the multiple motivations that move us to navigate relationships, to tactically re-appropriate and resist ways we’re told to behave in the world, and how we’re influenced by and subsequently respond to our surroundings. The psychological and inter-relational negotiation of relationships and structures in society is, for me, one of the most important parts of the work.
However, because the work deals with the enactment of these actions in the world, the effects of the work are ultimately produced by the experiences and boundaries that the viewer brings to the table. The level of depth and sophistication the viewer brings to the work reflects the degree to which they are able to engage with the questions the work asks. This demands time and openness. This level of engagement is something I try to ask of work that I consider to be good. My viewpoint of the world and relationships is one that contains room for ambivalence and ambiguity, multiplicity, even space for a non-rationality and contradiction. I think this sort of irreconcilability becomes a center to what the work is, a complexity that is about provoking questioning and continues to do so the more one spends time with it. I’d prefer the work to tell people to think rather than telling them what to think.