Carmen Winant investigates photography’s possible to teach us how to reside

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Winant’s latest publication contemplates how we understand everything from the body to consciousness through ‘instructional photography’

Ohio-based artist Carmen Winant scours music shops, bookstores and garage area sales for instructional pictures. In her studio, a large number of images about performing breast examinations, home pap smudges, self-defence techniques, triple axels and the Heimlich manoeuvre sit among pamphlets on local community organising, bereavement, dog training and feminist healing practices. Winant’s obsession, which has developed more than 15 years, is an query into the expansive nature associated with photography. After all, research for that artist is practice — the rigorous discipline associated with searching, looking and sensation as fundamental as the final artwork.  

Winant’s impulse to collect was born from reading Our Bodies, Ourselves — a landmark book about women’s health and sexuality published in 1970. “I pulled this off my parent’s bookshelf as a teenager, ” she explains. “I remember there were pictures of women getting surgical abortions and also images of the tools used. I’m within awe of those pictures and the effect they had on myself — I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since. ”

© Carmen Winant.

© Carmen Winant.

In Instructional Picture taking: Learning How to Live Now , part of a new series of important essays published by SPBH Editions, Winant explores ‘instructional photographs’ — images which are not vernacular or documented but instead didactic pictures that will serve as guides or tools for learning. T hroughout the distribution , Winant contemplates how we understand everything from the body to consciousness through this particular photographic genre. She animates the capacity of such pictures to reflect the world in order to us. “These images […] have conceptual possibilities (photographs can teach within and of themselves) and politics ones (photographs can help all of us see and help each other as tools of solidarity, information-sharing, resistance and community building). ”

Searching for plus responding to these images is the lifeblood of Winant’s exercise. The artist finds, reduces and categorises such pictures, taping them to her studio room wall. The process allows for unexpected collisions and complex narratives to emerge. The pictures exist perpetually unresolved and unfixed, and each provides a system to grapple with problems of identity, power, national politics and women’s liberation.  

My Birth (2018), for instance, comprises a collection of over 2000 pictures of women preparing for and experiencing labour and childbirth. The installation, first exhibited within the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography exhibition, insists the viewer enter the work, a good avalanche of images engulfing their vision. Winant’s objective with My Birth can be political. The work circulates materials created to liberate women from gendered oppression, illuminating the particular close relationship between info and political power.  

© Carmen Winant.

© Carmen Winant.

In many ways, Instructional Photography encapsulates the essence of Winant’s work. It considers purpose, modes of construction as well as the politics of looking. Via a series of insights, questions and private anecdotes that vibrate between your academic and the lyrical, the artist invites viewers to take a position and reflect on how culture has conditioned us to see images and assign worth. She also draws parallels between instructional and artwork photography. “Don’t artists believe we have something to teach with and through our function? ” she says, “even if the strategy is more oblique or metaphorical. ” Within revealing the capacity of the instructional image “as an index, as a teacher, as narrative, and as a photograph, ” the lady destabilises the inherent structure between genres, unveiling just how images can be unbound from ego.

Winant’s book is a moving experience. She requires seemingly ordinary, functional and often transient instructional images and invites us to view them anew. Despite didactic becoming practically a slur in the art world, Winant reasserts how instructional images convey a complex web associated with physical, emotional and psychological experiences to transformational impact. “In a moment of heightened anxiety and re-imagination, ” Winant says, “ I wish to investigate photography’s potential to teach us how to live . ”

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster plus photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural areas, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo movie director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.

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