by Don Stradley
The photographs can trick you. At first glance you're seeing a pile of litter on a table. It's only when the photographs are viewed up close that the messes are revealed to be neatly arranged collections of random items: cups, ribbons, a slice of toast, a pepper. Still, the items seem incongruous, they're not actual cups and ribbons, but clipped photos of said items organized in familiar ways.
Letinsky, a Chicago based photographer who has been shooting table scraps and dirty saucers for more than a decade, is taking a new approach to her still life work in ‘When Creases Turn Sour,’ a seven piece exhibit currently showing at Carroll and Sons in Boston. Her usual motifs are here, namely a fascination with leftovers, but as her fans know from earlier work, the objects being photographed are often secondary to Letinsky's profound facility with angles and light.
"The object has multiple functions," Letinsky said. "I don't want to see something I already know. I don't want the image to just be an image. It's about the experience of looking at the thing. A peach is not just a peach; it’s every peach you’ve ever seen.”
Most of Letinsky's photographs have to do with food and the way food is presented in the media. The reality for most is that we're not Martha Stewart spending two hours on an epic dinner for a family gathering. The idea of "home," Letinsky says, has changed. "We learn about it through a media culture because it's no longer natural. My interest is about that phenomenon, not just about food."
At times Letinsky's work feels less like photography and more painterly. Other observers have smartly compared her older photographs to 17th Century Dutch still life paintings, but her pieces sometimes recall the early surrealists. Her tables, the edges of which are often shot in a way that suggests a cold, lifeless horizon, serve as a kind of landscape, her colorful crumbs resembling the undefined blobs and figures of Yves Tanguy. The link to surrealism isn’t a total stretch, for Letinsky will admit a fondness for Rene Magritte, whose 'This is Not a Pipe' echoes throughout the current Boston show. Letinsky's recent photographs also owe a bit to pop art, for instead of shooting an actual piece of fruit, she's now shooting a picture of fruit snipped from a magazine. Yet, to say she is merely creating collages and photographing them is too glib. When the photographs are seen in person, rather than on a website, Letinsky’s meticulous process is palpable.
"Photography is supposed to be real, but it's just as manipulative as painting," she said, strongly rejecting the romantic idea that photography captures a moment. "There is no truth out there that anyone can capture. A photographer uses tools; photographs are made."
Compared to her past work, where blueberries and cherries appeared to pulse with life (sometimes looking like planets strewn across a galaxy), the new pieces seem quieter. She also refuses to put her photographs behind glass. Without glass, the potential hauteur of a gallery setting is removed, leaving the viewer confronted by something both durable and delicate, the photographic equivalent of a Haiku poem.
Letinsky's newer photographs also put the spectator through something like a Rorschach test. What one person sees as a table's edge may look to someone else like the point where a wall meets a floor. A shadow may play across one edge of the piece, but Letinsky's mischievous streak cuts it off unexpectedly. A trace left by a chunk of Scotch tape may be seen where it held pieces of the collage together, and what appears to be perfectly cut reveals, upon inspection, a frayed edge. As exacting as Letinsky can be, she embraces the imperfections of an artist at work, part of an effort to alert viewers that these photographs have been prepared by someone.
Letinsky claims there is no rigorous science behind her methods, saying only that some of her pieces take shape quickly, while others require tinkering until something "unfolds over time." The result is both playful and cerebral. Some of her new photographs are so visually interesting that a viewer can be enthused even without understanding the ideas behind them.
Yet, there is something about this new collection that isn’t quite satisfying. In the past, Letinsky created a more beautiful interplay between objects and light. The new works are less vital, and feel more like intellectual experiments. The photographs in her previous Boston exhibit were bold, fiery. The new ones? They whisper. Still, the new pieces are intriguing in their own right, their inscrutability perhaps aiding what Letinsky calls a “seduction of the viewer.”
Whether or not Letinsky carries on with her current collage style, we’ll continue to see her work filled with images of berries, melon rinds, and banana peels. For Letinsky, food is a powerful vehicle to describe "desires, and wants, and sustenance." In a way, food is even political.
"Everyone has to eat," Letinsky said. "What you feed your kids is a sign of your ideology."