Into the Other, Back to Self
by Allen Frame
Keren Moscovitch’s photos are not just engrossing for their radical content; they are also strikingly formal. Moscovitch explores the intimate moments of sex between men and women, but abstractly, withholding enough information to defamiliarize the scene. She reinvents the way sex is portrayed, devising an ambiguous space that invites open readings rather than judgment or thrill. The subject is active and requires careful psychological negotiation, and the photographer sometimes participates in the action, yet she manages somehow to create a sense of calm and control. The circumstances may be raw and volatile, but she approaches them with a sensitive awareness.
Her figures are not the idealized, casual beauties found in so many intimate contemporary images but the underrepresented larger bodies, sometimes interracial, of an actual experience that is her own. She makes them palpable by a precise choice of detail, often focusing on hands and conveying a sense of warmth and touch. Beauty is found in the graceful gesture, the spectrum of skin tone, the surprise of color, and the seductive undulations and drifts of flesh.
There’s an elegance to the results, and a bold risk taken in achieving them. The social space of the photographs is a complicated mine field of taboos. The photographer acknowledges her participation in the exploration of non-monogamous sex in a long-term relationship and shares her experience of living within an open sexual community. Her honesty is disarming but also invites reaction. She is dealing with her own and her subjects’ vulnerability; they are experimenting with boundaries. Keeping track of everyone’s sensitivities and different thresholds must be an even more formidable balancing act than creating formal compositions that maintain a sense of the contemplative while referencing the visceral.
Moscovitch’s quiet but intense pictures eschew familiar narratives of sexual conquest and seduction. Instead, the artist pays attention to the mutual, fleeting moments in which a connection is made, and two become one. Not all the pictures are reassuring, though. Some suggest the collapse of trust or the encroachment of jealousy, as we see a woman crying, or another one observed voyeuristically from a different room. These images create tension among the more numerous pictures of tenderness and empathy.
There has been a long tradition of photographers daring to venture into the subject of sex, from Bellocq’s portraits of prostitutes to Brassai’s glimpses of couples in hotel rooms, and more recently, Barbara Nitke’s depictions of sex in the S/M,B/D world and Mariette Pathy Allen’s in-depth studies of trans identities and relationships. Moscovitch creates her own niche by locating her couples in an unconventional community of her own experience.
She also adds a new twist to the self-portrait, now a de rigeur rite of passage among female photographers after the canonized precedent of Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman. What’s interesting in Moscovitch’s self-reflexive strategy is that she blurs the distinctions between herself and the other figures that replace her as the photographer shifts from participant to observer.
Allen Frame lives in New York where he teaches photography at the School of Visual Arts, Pratt Institute and the International Center of Photograpy. His book Detour, a compilation of his photographs over a decade, was published by Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg in 2001. He is represented by Gitterman Gallery in New York where he had a solo show in 2009.