Jenny Rova

Älskling. A self-portrait through the eyes of my lovers

Book review by Greg Hobson

Later, Erica said she thought my response had something to do with a desire to leave a mark on another person’s body. “Skin is so soft” she said. “We’re easily cut and bruised. It’s not like she looks beaten or anything. It’s an ordinary little black and blue mark, but the way it’s painted makes it stick out. Its like he loved doing it, like he wanted to make a little wound that would last forever.”’

So reads an excerpt from What I Loved (2003) by Siri Hustvedt, which may serve as a useful coda for approaching Älskling. A self-portrait through the eyes of my lovers. Jenny Rova’s new book is her second with b.frank books, publishers of ‘carefully crafted and beautifully designed artist books’. Founded by Zurich-born photographer Roger Eberhard, and run together with Ester Vonplon, their titles are elegant and indeed smartly designed and their published artists always intriguing.

However, Älskling (which translates from Swedish as ‘sweetheart’) is perhaps best considered in the context of the now sold out first. Entitled I would also like to be. A work on jealousy, it documents Rova’s attempt to inhabit the life of her ex-lover by pasting her own photographs over those of her former boyfriend’s new partner, photographs she found of the couple on their respective Facebook sites. Unnerving and somewhat creepy, the work is nonetheless moving in its open and unabashed exploration of the very raw and overwhelming emotion of jealousy. Furthermore, it touches a contemporary nerve in its confrontation of Internet stalking, a curious and largely unacknowledged phenomena of navigating the complex codes of communication, in a disordered and melancholic 21st century society.

Älskling therefore sits as a companion piece to I would also like to be…, and in many respects, is part of a suite of works in which Rova frankly addresses her relationships, her body and the complex traffic between the two. In Älskling Rova has gathered together fifty-five photographs taken over a twenty-five year period by nine ex-boyfriends and lovers. Arranged chronologically, Rova presents the portraits as a biographical work and ‘an indirect portrait of the photographer, the partner behind the camera.’ She also describes them as capturing the way people look at one another when they are in love and ‘an attempt to capture closeness and attraction between two people within a photograph.’ This suggests that the photographs are romantic gestures and somewhat innocent in their execution, whereas they are in fact charged and complicated carriers of interwoven personal histories, emotions, desires, wishes and regrets.

The initial transactions – to take the photographs and to be photographed – are lost in a journey that fragments the photographs from their original purpose as carriers a private history. Now presented in the public arena, they become the subjects for new authors and viewers. Rova as the holder of the material and Roger Eberhard as the editor of the book, permeate the images with new imaginations, which for Rova, are created with the benefit of hindsight and for Eberhard, his own fictions and interests in the photographs as an artist. As viewers we only have the pictures themselves to make our own connections with Rova’s, or even our own experiences. Rova appears to age little in the photographs so it is difficult to read them chronologically or ascribe them with any narrative weight. They appear instead as disconnected moments that are more or less sexualised, firstly by an omnipresent and very obvious male gaze, and secondly by the many photographs that show Rova naked or in various states of undress. There is also a strong sense of melancholy, or at least a certain wistfulness that runs throughout, as if there is an anticipation of an inevitable ending.

Seen alongside I would also like to be, the photographs in Älskling take on an additional depth. One of the authors of the photographs is the subject of the former book. This turns notions of intimacy and affection on their heads and the photographs in Älskling become part of a wider nexus that is related to emotional pain, rather than happiness. It is also a comment on objectification, both of and by Rova. No matter how one views the photographs in Älskling, and, regardless of the extent of Rova’s complicity, she is nonetheless objectified and the photographers’ feelings about, or for her are manifested in the photographs. In I would also like to be… Rova takes this one step further by using her ex-lover’s photographs without his permission and obliterating his new partner’s presence and replacing it with her own. Seen as a whole, the works feel polemical rather than affectionate and in Älskling, in particular, there is a sense of Rova really exploring her own emotional conundrums, as opposed to the often-intrusive gaze of the photographer.

This extension and overlapping of histories in Rova’s photographs are part of what makes them so curious. They are not easily categorised, and, while they appear familiar in their composition, mostly echoing poses from modern independent film, they are uncomfortable to look at, largely because they draw on such unflinchingly personal and private moments. In a large majority of the photographs Rova appears vulnerable and, in other instances, awkward and disturbingly childlike. Despite her own description of the book it is hard to read these photographs of pleasant times. In some pictures she hides her face, in others she stiffly exposes her body. Yet Rova has taken control of her representation and, in doing so, has partially wrested control of the images from their authors.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Jenny Rova

Working as Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum in Bradford and Media Space in London between 1983 and 2016, Greg Hobson’s recent exhibitions include Only in England – Tony Ray Jones and Martin Parr (2013), Stranger Than Fiction: Joan Fontcuberta (2014), Revelations: Experiments in Photography (2015), and William Henry Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph (2016). Since August 2016 Greg has been working as a freelance photography curator. Current and recent projects include Photo Oxford 2017, which he guest curated together with Tim Clark, curating People, Places and Things: Photographs from the W. W. Winter Archive for FORMAT International Photography Festival 2017, working with artist Mat Collishaw on Thresholds, a VR reconstruction of William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1839 exhibition of photogenic drawings for the Birmingham meeting of the British Association (which premiered at Photo London in May 2017) and co-curating A Green and Pleasant Land for Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne.

Virginie Rebetez

Out of the Blue

Q&A with Greg Hobson

In the UK around 250,000 people are reported missing every year. Of these at least 16,000 are unaccounted for after 12 months. For the families of the missing, the experience is conflicted and painful. Missing people leave a gap that is filled with shock, pain, grief and, above all, hope. In describing the experience, Andrew O’Hagan, in his haunting book The Missing writes, “The space they occupy lies somewhere between what we know about the ways of being alive and what we hear about the ways of being dead . . . The person missing cannot be brought into focus.” He goes on to suggest that the most awful outcome is that the missing person is found dead, “the dark, worst, last thing” that means the end of hope.

With over 13 million CCTV cameras tracking UK movements alone, and increasingly networked data across bank accounts, passports, national insurance numbers and social media, it seems almost impossible to be missing and alive. Coupled with the grisly realism of television and film police dramas it means that the unthinkable is an ever-present reality for the families of the long-term disappeared.

Artist Virginie Rebetez’s projects are concerned with this space and, in particular, how a material identity can be created for someone who has become invisible. Her most recent work Out of the Blue, now released as a publication by Meta/Books focuses on the unsolved disappearance of Suzanne Gloria Lyall.

On March 2nd 1998, Lyall stepped off a bus after work and began her walk to her campus dormitory room at the State University of New York (SUNY). This was the last time she was seen. Fascinated by the Lyall case, Rebetez made contact with the parents, who even after eighteen years, have never lost hope of locating their daughter. The relationship between Rebetez and the Lyall family was immediately empathic and the family shared any evidence they possessed. These remaining, tangible scraps of photographs and papers are now worn and tattered through handling. Some testimonies – albeit unofficial – from psychics professing to know her whereabouts have also been saved by the family. Aged only 19 when she disappeared, Suzanne Lyall’s face has also been age progressed into an approximation of what she might look like now. Commissioned by Rebetez from a forensic artist, these latter images are perhaps the most uncanny in their attempt to give a present materiality to Suzanne. Set against the family’s memory of Suzanne, which is necessarily rooted in 1998, these are unsettling and sad images to see.

Rebetez brings these last tangible things relating to Suzanne’s life together in her layered and complex book with the Dutch editor Delphine Bedel. The book is presented in three parts: a text booklet includes essays, a key to the images with detailed captions and reproductions of a selection of psychic predictions; the commissioned, aged-progressed posters are inserted and the book itself that includes photographs of ephemera, Suzanne’s parents and various related topographical views.

Greg Hobson: I’d like to know about how you found out about this case and whet attracted you to it specifically (as opposed to the many disappearance and abduction cases)?

Virginie Rebetez: In all my projects I’m interested in the invisible, in traces left after a death or an absence, in the space created by loss, in unfinished or unresolved stories. When a person dies or goes missing, this absence leaves a space. All my work is about that space; I try to understand and immerse myself into that territory. I’m fascinated by our need as humans for physicality, in order to get closure. I can say, in a way, that I use photography to give matter to this space created by absence – trying to give a form, a shape, to what is not there anymore.

During my artist residency in New York in 2014, I decided to work on stories of missing persons, so I started to make a selection of different cases based on the location and the number of years of disappearance. I wanted to meet the families, so I chose locations reachable by car inside the NY State. Also, it was important for me that it was a more than 10 years case because I didn’t want to meet the family just after the disappearance of their children. It was important that some time passed. The first family I contacted was the Lyall’s. Since the disappearance of their daughter in 1998, Mary and Doug Lyall never stopped looking for Suzanne and for answers. They are really amazing people! Unfortunately, Suzanne’s father passed away last year. In 2001, they created ‘The Center for Hope’, where they provide assistance to others with similar loss. They connect people in working closely with the police and different missing people related organisations. Since they were very active in the search for their daughter and involved in several groups helping families of missing kids, they are used to speaking about their story and open to sharing their feelings. When we met for the first time in 2014, I knew straight away that I wanted to work on Suzanne’s story. I had the click and felt connected. Their story touched me a lot, we got along very well and the material related to the 18 years of investigation was incredible. Also, Suzanne is one year older than me.

It is actually the first time I’m working on one specific story. In my previous projects, the characters are rarely shown and usually anonymous…

GH: How did you get access to the material – in particular the spiritualists’ notes and predictions?

VR: All the material came from Suzanne’s parents. Since 1998, they were in contact with more than 75 psychics. In the book, the psychics’ material is only a small selection of the total amount. The parents kept all of it, printed it, photocopied it, annotated it, re-transcribed it. I was very interested in the fact that these are not originals and keep on being reprinted, recopied and so on…Many layers are added throughout the years. Some information is added while other parts are erased.

GH: What is missing, for example, are witness statements. Why did you exclude these?

VR: There is no access to the police files, because it’s still an open case, so the police are not allowed to show or speak about the case publicly. The material I have only comes from the family, even though it includes some police material such as the images of the first helicopter search in 1998 or some correspondence introducing psychics to the family, for instance. My focus was not on the police investigation aspect per se but I was really more interested in the different purposes of the images, how they were used, depending on all the different people involved in the case – press, police, family, psychics etc.

All this various material is combined and re-organised in order to bring another angle to the story, another context, all the while offering a reflection on the photographic medium and the different status of the image. In the book, it’s curious to see how the images connect with each other and thus forge new links and new interpretations. The status of each image and document is constantly shifting and offering new meaning and new context.

The project plays with the notion of visible and off-camera, the front and the back. The idea of touch, repetition, endlessness and materiality is also very present in the haptic qualities of the book.

GH: What is the significance of the photographs of the various collections of material relating to Suzanne – are these as you found them or have you placed them in that way?

VR: These ‘wall images’ are made in my studio, in Lausanne. During the 2 years I worked on the project, I produced a lot of images and collected a lot of different material, which I started to play with (reprinting it, altering it…) on my studio wall. When we started to work on the edit of the book in my studio, we decided to include the wall in the book. Each ‘wall image’ now becomes one image, where my own photographs, family archive material, as well as altered archive, can meet and speak to each other. It creates another layer, another context for these images. Also, a new voice is added to the story – mine.

In the book, the narrative aspect is punctuated by an alternation of my own full-page images and the ‘wall images’. In a manner similar to the traditional police wall, the studio wall can be seen as my own artist research wall, the investigative nature of which is obviously not the same. These ‘wall images’ align the book with the idea of endless search, where the narrative is made in a sort of circle, as some images reappear and recirculate several times in the book – whether they are printed, cropped or sized differently. This movement of back and forth is really manifest in the book form of the project in particular.

GH: Are the location photographs from the same places and time of year of Suzanne’s disappearance?

VR: I decided to photograph locations to elaborate on this idea of movement, of wandering and to show the area Suzanne Lyall comes from. Throughout the book, you have this feeling of cinematographic travelling, without a real beginning or end. The landscapes also bring some breaks in the rhythm of the book. They are made in various locations, more or less near to where Suzanne disappeared. You can notice their captions are very vague (“Upstate NY, 2014”), because they are not necessarily locations relevant to the disappearance of Suzanne.

GH: Did Suzanne’s parents collaborate with you willingly?

VR: As I said before, they are really open and warm people and they are also incredibly involved in other missing children cases so they are well-versed and of course open about discussing their story to the press etc.

Even if my project doesn’t take place in a documentary or journalistic mode, they are happy that their story is shared and spoken about. Throughout the whole process of developing this work, I always tried to update the family and show them my progress and where I wanted to go with it. Just a few weeks ago before going to press, I showed to Mary Lyall, Suzanne’s mother, the final version of the book and she was so very enthusiastic and emotional about it. That means a lot for me.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Virginie Rebetez

Greg Hobson is the former Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum, Bradford. Recent exhibition projects include William Henry Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph (2016), Revelations: Experiments in Photography (2015), and Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger than Fiction (2014), all of which showed at Media Space, London and the National Media Museum in Bradford. He is currently working on new photography projects as a freelance curator and arts advisor.

Sara Davidmann

Ken. To be destroyed

Book review by Greg Hobson

The series Ken. To be destroyed is the extraordinary story of Ken and Hazel Houston, retold by their niece, artist Sara Davidmann. Published by Schilt Publishing, the book is edited by Val Williams to accompany the current exhibition at the Schwules Museum Berlin, co-curated by Val Williams and Robin Silas Christian – yet another exciting project to emerge from Photography and the Archive Research Centre (PARC) based at the London College of Communication (LCC). The work weaves together Sara Davidmann’s contemporary responses to a collection of letters unearthed after Ken, Hazel and Davidmann’s mother, Audrey’s deaths, copies of which are included in the book along with various transcripts. Williams and Davidmann have also contributed writing to the publication.

Following Ken and Hazel’s marriage in 1954, it transpired that Ken was transgender. Set against the socially and culturally restrictive 1950s and 60s, this was a traumatic revelation for the pair, in particular as transsexuality was, at the time, largely misunderstood. Gender identity and sexual orientation were conflated and associated with homosexuality. Homosexual acts between men were against the law and men of this orientation were legally persecuted. Ken’s desire to be a woman therefore became a fiercely protected family secret, but one that Ken and Hazel were prepared to live with throughout their lives together.

The couple first corresponded in November 1953 and Hazel had accepted Ken’s proposal of marriage by February 1954. They married later that same year but it wasn’t until 1958 that Ken confided to Hazel that he was transgender.

His early letters to his love were overbearingly affectionate, constantly affirming the strength of his feelings. One from 3 May 1954 attests:

“That’s you my wonderful, darling. I love you, I love you, I love you. How much can I tell you beloved, but just to be with you is to know happiness and contentment I have never known before. How breathtakingly lovely you looked on Tuesday night lovely, dearest, you were the most beautiful female there. I can hardly realise my good fortune in winning your love even now.”

The two of them clearly built up a very strong bond from the outset of their relationship, marrying and settling together quickly, so it was a terrible shock for Hazel when Ken revealed he was transgender four years after their marriage. Despite her difficulty in dealing with this revelation Hazel continued in the relationship, largely through her love for and loyalty to her husband –notwithstanding what she described as intolerable strain. Hazel shared her distress through letters to her sister Audrey. In them she talks at length about her situation, while imploring her sister to keep the her circumstances and the content of the letters secret from everyone – including Ken – except Audrey’s husband, Manfred. There exists a desperate, tangible sadness that emerges from the letters. They articulate the incongruent and conflicted nature of Hazel’s situation, one that Val Williams describes as “asserting the power of love and respect while at the same time exposing the harm done by secrecy and dissimulation.”

The story unfolds through an archive of correspondence and photographs kept by Davidmann’s mother, Audrey and inherited by Sara Davidmann after Audrey’s death in 2013. The collection consists of letters between Hazel and Audrey, various notes and ephemera relating to Ken and Hazel’s life together and material from the 60s and 70s relating to Ken’s investigations into the possibility of treatment to become a woman.

Ken. To be destroyed is not simply the telling of a story through an extant archive however. In this book Davidmann has combined the legacy of letters and photographs with her own practice to explore personal histories and transgender issues. She has responded to the archive by reworking the photographic material, adding paint, developing fluid and marks to radically reinterpret apparently innocuous family photographs. Fascinated by the qualities of surfaces of the photographs; the various handling marks including the tactile engagement of both Ken and Hazel, as well as accretions of dust and grime accumulated over the years, Davidmann bears witness to the history of these remarkable lives.

Sara Davidmann’s work is an on-going investigation into the meanings of the archive and Ken’s condition as well as her own family history. A hybrid of history, archive material, literature, photography and painting, Ken is a complex and challenging project that sits between fact and fiction. The book is organised into a series of chapters or series that specifically delineate the history of Ken and Hazel’s responses to his transgenderism. There is nothing that alludes to their life beyond this, or to Hazel’s life in the considerable years she survived Ken (Ken died in 1979, Hazel in 2003). However, the unusual nature of the story, and Davidmann’s remarkable responses to it are dramatic and compelling.

In each series of new works, Davidmann has taken photographs from what appears to be a scant collection of those featuring Ken and/or Hazel and reworked them into a collection that reflects her personal response to the photographs and her familial connection to them. Davidmann’s explorations are often related to photographic process and the surfaces of the photographs, yet at the same time these new works speak for their subjects. In The Dress, Davidmann investigates the power of an elegant dress that Hazel wears in some of the photographs. In the original image Hazel looks poised and feminine and fashionable, her smile belying the turmoil that will become part of her everyday life. Scored, scratched and dripped on with paint and correction fluid by Davidmann, they take on an unnerving air of violence. Hazel’s face is obliterated and in one particularly powerful and moving image The Dress IV, her face appears to explode from the page. It is as if Davidmann is emancipating Hazel, expressing ire on her behalf, while also reflecting the utter hopelessness of her situation. Davidmann asserts that this was not her intention. However these works are extremely powerful, in particular in the aggressive treatment of the paper surfaces and the destruction of any of Hazel’s recognisable features.

In another series, Looking for K/Finding K, Davidmann has attempted to visualise how Ken might look as a woman, by digitally combining photographs of Hazel with photographs of Ken. These new photographs have then been hand-tinted in a manner that is typical of nineteenth century hand-colouring. These could well be some of the most uncomfortable images in the series. Replacing Hazel’s face with Ken’s in many respects strips away Hazel’s identity as a woman and furthermore, in replacing Hazel’s with Ken as a man (rather than made up as a woman), the photographs become a grotesque caricature of femininity.

Referring back to Hazel’s correspondence with Audrey, it is clear that Ken’s wish to be the woman in their house and his envy of Hazel’s womanliness is a troubling force for Hazel, as evinced in this letter from 10 September, 1959:

“’E’ knew I was beginning to resent this woman who was taking my place as mistress of my own home.
In the role of a woman, his personality changes quite a lot. Enjoys doing housework, washing and ironing, fussy about clothes. I have noticed even as the man he has been jealous of me as a woman.”

The final photographic work in the book is a document of the packages of letters, papers and photograph albums made by Davidmann in collaboration with Graham Goldwater. Stacked and tied with string, they give no indication of the dramas that they contain. The instruction ‘To be destroyed’ crops up more than once. Why they weren’t destroyed by Hazel or Audrey we will never know. That they have now formed the basis of this moving and important work by Davidmann, allows at least a partial understanding of the complex emotional and physical implications of living with transgenderism in the 1950s and 60s. To be a witness to this archive and Davidmann’s considered and intelligent response to it is a privilege.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Sara Davidmann

Greg Hobson is the former Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum, Bradford. Recent exhibition projects include William Henry Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph (2016), Revelations: Experiments in Photography (2015), and Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger than Fiction (2014), all of which showed at Media Space, London and the National Media Museum in Bradford.