April 06, 2009
The Colonization by Photography of a Country/Western Singer
Heidi Newfield's been getting a lot of press lately as the result of her five nominations for the Country Music Association awards. She's the former singer in a successful country band, Trick Pony. Now she's getting a lot of airplay for her new single "Johnny and June" (referring to Cash and Carter, respectively). She's a talented singer and songwriter. She's also the subject of some strangely unnatural photography poses.
Here the hapless Ms. Newfield, who is a dynamic and dominant performer on stage, is reduced her to a physical position of submission, artificiality, and objectification. The photographer has placed her in a pigeon-toed stance, backed into a corner, with her hands pressed against each wall. Her blouse is suggestively open, revealing the top of her bra line. She is photographed from above, as if she's staring upward at a viewer who is larger and more dominant. Her face is radiating what used to be called a "come hither" stance.
In other words, she's been subjugated.
Then there's this image:
Here Ms. Newfield is perched on a couch, with her feet once again pigeon-toed. She is cantilevered forward and to one side, which gives her an unnatural center of balance. This picture has less of a sexual undertone. The primary subtext appears to be, "I'm off balance."
This author was once one of the subjects of the photo shoot for a corporate brochure. The photographer asked me to perch on a desk, lean over a "colleague" seated at the desk, and point to the piece of paper she was holding in her hand. The shoot was interrupted while he taped my tie to my shirt, causing it to seemingly defy gravity. Then he insisted I increase my angle of attack on the paper until I, too, had lost my center of gravity. Finally the inevitable words came:
Ms. Newfield is merely one more example of that universe of photographic subjects who are ... well, subjected ...to poses that reflect unnatural physical or social laws. And then asked to "look natural." A profile of her in the Los Angeles Times this weekend included two such images, inspiring this mini-study in portrait photography as a colonizing force. After all, an occupying power does pretty much what the photographer does in images like these: It alters social and physical relationships, then demands that its subject act as if this were the natural state of affairs.
(And are we slightly tongue-in-cheek about this subject? Perhaps - although the sexual dominance theme is no laughing matter.)
Here she apparently dominates the men. But what's she doing with those walls? Is she holding them up? That would be slightly reminiscent of the corner picture above. But there's an undertone of a wild beast being chained, isn't there? Is there a subtext of women imprisoned, enslaved, as Caged Heat?
There was another image in the Times piece, one that's unavailable for this piece but was clearly from the same photo shoot as the first one. In it Ms. Newfield is once again in a corner. As in several of these pictures she seems to be holding the walls apart, like those old horror movies where a room fills with water as the sides close in. The image is off-kilter. It's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as shot for a Country Music Television video. It's Fritz Lang, Nashville-style.
Well, maybe not really. But I'll get off the topic before my wife starts to worry I have a Heidi Newfield obsession. I don't ... although I like her music. She has a friendly, just-folks face that augurs well for a lengthy Reba-McIntyre sort of career in the years to come. And she is a prime example of the photography subject as colonized citizen.
That, or she needs a new photographer. One of her songs says,
I'm five years in to a two year plan/standing here with the walls closing in/behind this open door/what am I waiting for?
Stop waiting, Ms. Newfield. Now's your chance. Make a break for it.
Posted by Richard Eskow at 12:15 PM | Permalink