Blake Gopnik uses the Washington Post and Michelle Yo’s photography to explore the state of fine art photography. Yo is a student and a photojournalist who insists on working on color film with a Hasselblad viewfinder camera. Here Gopnik explains how these choices make her far less a journalist than an artist:
“I have a style,” Yo says, “and I have certain idiosyncrasies about me that I like, and that I’m exploring.” That puts her squarely in the grand tradition of fine-art photography — a tradition that started to grind down sometime in the late 1970s, when just perfecting a unique style didn’t seem to cut it anymore. It was a time when Jeff Wall, with his elaborately staged, conceptually rich photographs, took over from the more purely photographic “vision” of figures such as Lee Friedlander.
If Yo were shooting, say, in 1972 — just when her technology was fiercely up to date — she’d be on the cutting edge, as good as anyone, and her future would seem certain. All she’d have to do is keep developing the skills that nature gave her. Nowadays, however, to fully realize her promise, she’ll have to aim at redefining what a photograph can do, not just at taking yet another telling shot.
Here Gopnik limns her work:
On one of the first rolls Yo shot, with her first serious camera, in her sophomore color-photo class — the first such class she’d taken — there’s already a picture that could hang on a gallery wall. It’s a view down through branches into a messy back yard in Petworth, with a virtuosic play of line and sharpness and blur. Its coloring is equally complex, a tangle of subtle green and yellow foliage given focus by the single dot of red of a discarded traffic cone. Which means that the most appealing detail in Yo’s composition is provided by the most dreary object in her scene.
In Yo’s images “the composition includes the color, as a part of it,” says Grundberg, comparing her to William Eggleston, the great pioneer of color photography whose work was recently shown in the Corcoran’s museum. (Disclosure: My wife teaches in fine arts at the college, but does not know Yo.)
What’s so impressive isn’t that Yo managed to take the shot — all sorts of accidental miracles can happen when a shutter snaps. It’s that, looking at a contact sheet full of more conventionally “successful” images, Yo knew right away that this mess of a picture was the one that mattered.
Yo says she’s most proud of images she’s made that aren’t “immediately pleasing to people.” She cites a standard “impact of the recession” assignment she was given in one photojournalism class, for which she photographed the empty, and un-photogenic, interiors of closed Circuit City stores — “because it was the most banal thing I could choose.” Grundberg says he was “blown away” by the images’ maturity. “There were no compositional theatrics — they were straightforward images. It was just so telling about what that shutdown was like.”
She’s Old School in a New Age (Washington Post)