Tara Bogart’s, A Modern Hair Study, is an obsessive-compulsive’s desire writ large. The work is, at first glance, a study in photography. A photography student’s attempt at “getting it right.” This is no slight to the decades-accomplished woman behind the portraits. Bogart’s work feels uncomplicated and effortless. Why? At first glance, the viewer sees oval-shaped photos of the backsides, middle back upwards, of disrobed women. Satisfyingly similar, I thought. A second look elucidates the subtleties of the female body, hair and the choices women make about how they fashion themselves; always fraught with complication it becomes my entrée to the work.
Women notice nuanced dissimilarities about each other. Hair, thinness, bone structure, skin tags, sensuality, height, weight, lightness, and darkness of the flesh, texture, ink, adornment. We eye each other up and vivisect. Bogart thwarts those instincts. Instead, the female gaze graces each photo prior to our attendance. This isn’t judgment. This is how a female photographer sees her female subjects and how the women oblige her. To be sure, a man would approach this differently. In fact, he did. Felix Nadar, in 1856, did Hair Study, Bogart’s inspiration.
But there is so much more going on than the difference of hair and the comparison to another time. The viewer is forced to contemplate if they care about the identities of the women. I did. What, I wondered, would I see if a head was half-cocked, barely a cheekbone or a brow showing? Is she intelligent? Sanguine- insouciant-mournful? Would I want to protect her or would I pity her? How old is she? What is written on the front of her body, if anything? Does she wear a cross or a Star of David? Maybe she wears the circle-A. Are some women alluring, others repulsive? So many impositions a viewer-yes, perhaps a female viewer-puts on her subject.
The unbearable frustration and intrigue that goes with not seeing a face, not looking into the eyes is what Bogart has put on us. Is the portal to the soul really the eyes? And so I ponder, my own eyes sauntering over her shoulders, scrutinizing her hairstyle, the color; and then shift down to her naked back. I place my left hand, index finger touching the soft skin, atop the shoulder blade and then run it down the spine, avoiding, not avoiding, the markers of birth; tracing the spontaneous or calculated tats. A tan line; was she recently in South America? Maybe a tanning salon? She must work out. Most women have visible bone structure, others a thick layer of dermis blanketing their skeletons, disguising our evolution.
Without deviation, all photos are tinged with milky pastels. They’re visually quiet and unobtrusive. What does her face do when she hears the shutter? Did she want to laugh or is this serious business? I couldn’t help but think the picture was taken minutes from disrobement. The cavity left from the bra straps of several women betrays the unknown banalities of agreements between photographer and subject. Does this mean that some women came not wearing a bra or did they just take their time before being shot? Are the women nervous having their portrait taken even if they can’t see what’s happening? Maybe they’re more nervous. Were they sitting or standing? Portraiture is so often done with the subject sitting. Portraiture can be such a passive activity yet my minds alight with what must be going on in these sittings!
The history of portraiture neither naturally nor logically leads you to this conclusion or momentary consideration. And why should it? Wikipedia instructs us:
A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person.
Fair enough, but what of this definition from the Tate’s UK website:
A portrait is a representation of a particular person. A self-portrait is a portrait of the artist by the artist.
It makes no mention of the face. Have they come to understand that portraiture is many things? I only believe in the portrait in as much as a historical record. And this: all portraiture is self-portraiture. Where does this leave us? Where does it place this photographer?
To be fair, we are told that this work is a study. I might expect that portraiture is not on her mind save for the frame. Oval-shaped timepieces were a remembrance, still are, for many. It is unavoidable that this is not portraiture and simply a study. It is a new way of seeing, a new way to look at this genre. Bogart frames each subject elegantly, and clearly knew in advance what she wanted. But from there, so much is left to the viewer. This is A Modern Hair study’s brilliance.
Admittedly, instinct told me, “I’m going to enjoy this for its monomaniacal fetishism.” That’s okay, not anyone can pull that off well. As it turned out, I enjoyed this for its reckless, cacophonous solitude. A collective work asking me, imploring me to please consider not only what I see, but more so, what I cannot see.