Learn to Live Now – The Brooklyn Rail

Carmen Winant
Educational photography: learning to live now
(SPBH Editions, 2021)

“Regardless of the constraints of the gallery wall or the exhibition catalog, instructional photographs have something to teach me about arrangement, flow, density, and ultimately vision,” notes Carmen Winant in Educational photography: learning to live now. The writer and artist defends this little-known typology: books that advise on “practical skills (here’s how you could redo your hair), as well as ideological possibilities (here’s how you could redo your life)”. A collector of the genre, with archives scavenged from thrift stores, she came across tomes on dog training, breast examination, meditation, grief, sex and childcare. The pedagogical approach is seen as an antithesis – if not an antagonism – to high-level artistic endeavours: direct directive rather than visionary production. “My students wouldn’t dare — wouldn’t care — to make instructional images, meaning images designed to teach,” remarks Winant, who was a professor at Ohio State University. “In art school, we call work ‘didactic’ when we think it’s bad (ostensibly preachy, demonstrative or easy), and we praise photographs for their ambiguity.”

However, Winant sees value, both aesthetic and symbolic, in the pedagogical parenthesis because it is “shifted through fragmentary time in a series of discrete, often sequential movements.” Through this framing, one could create a loose affinity with Eadweard Muybridge, and by extension a sense of heritage in the history of photography. One could alternatively think of these sequences as distant cousins ​​to other forms of visual art: panels from a graphic novel or a movie storyboard. By reinvesting what the genre can give, it suddenly takes on a new dimension: moving from dry inculcation to a disturbing narrative. “I’m reconsidering their potential as a decentralized image,” Winant muses, collating the individual images into a kind of flip book from which gestures and erudition can be extracted. (The loose-leaf book feel is aided by the book’s micro size, about four by six inches.) There are gardening aids, carpentry skills for the incarcerated, and information on the Heimlich maneuver.

Winant is inspired by the 1962 book by Franco-Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar Cronopios and Famas as an influential reference, with its sly and absurd side “Instruction Manual”, including “Instructions on how to sing” (“Start by breaking all the mirrors in the house, let your arms drop to your side, stare blankly at the wall”) and “Instructions on how to cry” (“a cry that does not turn into a great uproar”). But if there is a foolishness in relying too much on dictates, reaching instruction also recognizes a certain feeling of drift. One could think of the autofiction of the Canadian writer Sheila Heti How should a person be?—which, as an examination in the Guardian emphasizes, “does not answer the question, how should a person be? But he finds an engaging new way to put it. The sinuous form of Heti reflects the curiosity of the human spirit and the ceaseless artistic search, but leaves the questions unanswered. The pedagogical trope functions as a kind of pseudo-appeasement thanks to its very absence of ambiguity.

The selected images that accompany Winant’s text – all in black and white, all found from images from his collection – often seem unremarkable, if not recognizable: a woman stretching in a black leotard, or hands reaching for clay on a potter’s wheel. But as the silhouette evolves slightly with each new frame, the photographs take on a collective power, a sort of choreography. Images showing the naked body are less pedestrian – they surprise with their anatomical stripping (especially in a time when nipples are monitored by the Instagram algorithm). The deconstruction of what gaze is at stake when we look at an image – lessons learned from John Berger – are dispelled by clinical purpose, whether orchestrating a pap smear or cataloging the shapes of the vulva. Carefully cropped to show only the relevant bodily reality, the images offer a landmark on which any reader can attach themselves.

Like an anti-portrait, the educational image fascinates with its lack of individuality, its anonymity: photographic normcore. Even a woman who has had a single mastectomy – the cropped image of her collarbone down to where her small intestines would be, her subtle scar and a partial view of her left breast remaining visible – looks nothing like with one person’s experience. It is simply projecting a phenomenon that anyone could have experienced, including the reader.

Just being in a body and understanding how to handle it is no mean feat. This in turn makes the “instructive” nature almost seem like a form of gentleness. Winant notes: “Most young artists don’t believe for a second that photographs can go so far as to affirm or deny existence. But these images, to some extent, provide affirmation: even in their depersonalization, they reveal the nature of feeling lost, of wishing for guidance, of wishing for validation that we are doing things ‘right’. While there’s no definitive guide or answer, the images provide a short-lived crutch for navigating a rudderless world.