Margaryta Golovchenko (she/her) is a settler-immigrant from Tkaronto/Toronto, Canada, as well as a PhD student in art history at the University of Oregon. She is also a freelance critic and poet.See the exhibition here
Pictured: Leah Macdonald, No. 458, 2002, gelatin silver print, 16 x 16.5"
There is a sense of timelessness to Leah Macdonald’s photographs in the exhibition Lost Light Luv. This is unsurprising, as photography is often described as being capable of stopping and preserving time. Even if an image contains indicators of specific periods — an article of clothing, a hairstyle, a piece of technology, or a historical event — the idea that the scene and its figures have been removed from the natural flow of time gives the image a suspended quality. The physical image may be touched by time – the threat of destruction always looming over it – yet its contents remain preserved. By depicting anonymous female subjects outside of place and time, in locations that seem to be both nowhere and everywhere, Macdonald’s work emphasizes this sense of temporal ambiguity. It is difficult to view Lost Light Luv and resist piecing together the narrative for how each image was created, yet Macdonald does not give the viewer the easy satisfaction of knowing. Her images lend themselves to a multitude of meanings — inviting the viewer in, and appearing to actively encourage contemplation.
Type 55 polaroids have the appearance of old family heirlooms, the kind that are sometimes discovered in an old box, stored with the intention of one day being organized into an album. This format recalls the work of the nineteenth century portrait studios, when early photographers such as Andre-Adolphe-Eugene Disderi, Felix Nadar, and J.E. Mayall opened photographic studios that celebrities and members of the bourgeoisie could visit to have their photos taken. At this time, the carte de visite emerged as a distinct format where photographic portraits were mounted on cards and exchanged with people, almost like a photographic business card. While Macdonald’s polaroids appear to be a continuation of this photographic genre, they also disrupt the conventional iconography often found in the carte de visite: where the latter is taken indoors, the sitter posed and rigid, many of Macdonald’s photographs were taken outdoors. The women in her photographs feel like they’ve been caught in moments of reflection or meditation, when they are their most human.
Images like No. 508 (2006) exist on the border between posed and serendipitous, where the subject is absorbed in an act of observation, potentially even lost in thought. Yet, the way the model is posed, looking closely at the mannequin as if meeting the gaze of another living being, feels much more intimate. She could almost be Prince Hamlet holding Yorrick’s skull, but without the anger that plagues Shakespeare’s tragic hero. Instead, the atmosphere of the image is one of contemplation and care, as if the model were waiting for guidance from the adorned head. The positioning of the model, half-naked and turned away from the camera, lends the photograph an organic quality, as if Macdonald happened upon the scene and – touched by what she saw – made use of the polaroid’s instantaneity to capture it. Works like No. 519 (2009) and No. 507 (2012) have a similar spontaneity and intimacy, further heightened by the models’ more visible nudity. The surrounding foliage facilitates Macdonald’s dual role as the photographer taking a posed photograph, and as a wanderer who happened upon these women comfortably existing in their bodies. Perhaps the women of No. 519 and No. 507 were trying to escape the chaos of the world, relocating to a secluded spot where there would no longer be any need to be self-conscious of their bodies.
While Macdonald’s polaroids are more evocative of the carte de visite, her gelatin silver prints are more aligned with the artistic compositions of early photographers and portraitists such as Julia Margaret Cameron. Her photographs, characterized by soft-focus close-ups, often depicted characters from cultural and literary sources, such as the Madonna, angels, Vivien and Merlin, and a young Circe. Likewise, it is natural to imagine similar narratives for many of Macdonald’s photographs; the fact that the images are numbered instead of titled only adds to this desire for context. In No. 458 (2002) and No. 409 (2012), for example, the snakes draw associations between various women and legends throughout Western culture, such as Eve and Medusa, or sorceresses like Circe and Medea. Though these associations come to mind, Macdonald does not lean into them explicitly. For one, the thin lines from which the snakes are suspended remain visible, emphasizing their artificiality, leaving no real indication that the snakes and the model have a more-than-human partnership between them. This resistance to archetypal reference is present in pieces such as No. 568 (2011), where the viewer engages with the model’s body directly, made conscious of their gaze. In addition to emphasizing the beauty and confidence of female sexuality, Macdonald also imbues the sitter of No. 568 with the quality of a Venus, one who does not shy away nor act coy and seductive, but whose beauty lies in her monumental presence. The subject’s body is not there to be given meaning or worked into a system of signifiers, but it exists on its own terms.
Part of the appeal of Macdonald’s photographs is their openness, the fact that they lend themselves to multiple readings and approaches. While the celebration of femininity, the female body, and imagination – on both sides of the lens – is undeniable, there is no explicit definition of any of these concepts. Instead, Macdonald invites her viewer to explore them through the act of looking. For Macdonald, the first step becomes the removal of any sense of shame or impropriety: feelings that have historically been used to diminish female sexuality. By engaging with the images in Lost Light Luv openly and genuinely, spending time looking at them and partaking in this process of narrative creation, the visitor is able to engage in the celebration of Macdonald's subjects.