William A. Ewing’s The Body: Photographs of the Human Form was something of a pop-culture phenomenon when it was published in 1994 (editions in 13 languages; 500,000 sold). A compact brick of a book, it was a broad historical survey of the subject – Roger Fenton to Robert Mapplethorpe – wonderfully shrewd, witty, and as sexy as it was scholarly. With Ewing’s blessing, Nathalie Herschdorfer (who first came to attention as Ewing’s most talented protégée at Lausanne’s jewel-box Musée de L’Elysée) picks up where he left off with Body: The Photography Book (Thames & Hudson), focusing on work made mostly since 2000. I miss a historical component (and the wealth of anonymous and vernacular material Ewing pulled together), but Herschdorfer makes up for that with the range of her choices, notably a number of European and Asian photographers who will be new to most viewers, and her focused attention to gender and bodily nonconformity. “Never before in human history has it been so easy to manipulate our flesh,” she writes in her introduction, “to create new identities for ourselves and to disseminate images so widely. And never before in human history have we been exposed to so many photographs depicting magnified, scrutinized, restructured, modified or enhanced bodies.”
Following Ewing’s example, Herschdorfer divides her book into sections – “Physique,” “Constructions,” “Mutations,” etc. – each with its own brief introduction and loosely defined borders. “Love” bleeds into “Celebration,” which overlaps with “Alter Ego.” No matter; individual choices are strong, often startling, and it all adds up. The most unsettling segment, “Flesh,” deals with the body at its most stressed: leaking, wounded, withered, failing, enduring. Some of the toughest images – by Andres Serrano, Sally Mann, Pyotr Pavlensky, and Jacob Aue Sobol – are also the most touching. Throughout, Herschdorfer is careful to maintain this balance, challenging and consoling her readers, who are constantly made aware of our fragile, flawed, remarkably heroic bodies. The book may be driven by an idiosyncratic curatorial intelligence, sensitive to the marginalized and the outré, but beauty in all its complexity is the overriding force.
With so many fine contemporary photographers in the mix – including Zanele Muholi, Pieter Hugo, Ren Hang, Deana Lawson, Thomas Ruff, and Collier Schorr – it would be petty to point out who’s missing from Body. But Talia Chetrit belongs here. Her new book, Showcaller (Mack), is one of the year’s most original – at once provocative and playful. Known primarily for pictures of herself naked (and occasionally having sex), Chetrit intercuts those terrific images with portraits of friends and family that she made as a young teen. The result, covering a 24-year time span, is brilliant and disorienting – as if Valie Export and Nan Goldin had highjacked your junior-high yearbook. Chetrit is nothing if not versatile; dropped into the center of her book is a portfolio of radically cropped New York street scenes that suggest a whole other career path. But she’s at her best when she strips down, grabs the cable release, and performs for the camera. For all their peculiar staginess, many of these images feel deliberately “wrong:” awkward, uncomfortable, fucked up. Chetrit isn’t really interested in anyone’s gaze but her own, which is both pitiless and amused. When Chetrit isn’t naked and staring us down, she appears in fragments – an arm, a leg, a pubic bush. In one knockout shot, she raises her bare legs invitingly for a camera set up on a tripod between them, spoofing her own submission, maintaining total control. In a pair of pictures of her and a boyfriend having sex in an idyllic landscape, the cord of her camera’s cable release cuts across the images like a snake in the garden. In a book that combines innocence and experience, Chetrit smashes the dividing line.