The Photographer Capturing Unvarnished Truths

Heji Shin’s striking, discomfiting work poses an important question for the contemporary age: What do we expect art to do, and does the artist have a responsibility to do it?

Credit…Heji Shin

“WE PUT A kind of call out for cocks. And they brought them. They’re beautiful. I mean, they’re extremely, extremely beautiful,” says the photographer Heji Shin in the midst of her latest shoot, her first since the Covid-19 lockdown: large-format studio portraits — “very sharp, very shiny” — of bellicose roosters. Two prints from the series, titled “Big Cocks,” recently appeared in a group show at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin. Roosters have long been associated with masculinity (though, in fact, they don’t have penises, Shin informs me); in an era in which violence tends to be systemic or “tactical,” she writes to me later, “the short-lived outbursts of angry cock energy look Hellenistic and virile.”

Shin is accustomed to unwieldy subjects, having shot everything from models having sex (for a discreetly pixelated spring 2017 campaign for the fashion label Eckhaus Latta) to newborns emerging bloodily into the world (“Baby,” 2016-17). Her trickiest subject to date was probably Kanye West, whom Shin captured on a trip with his family and entourage to Uganda and — briefly — in a Los Angeles studio (“Kanye,” 2018). Uncomfortable taking direction from her, he posed looking directly into the camera. Portrait photography always involves things outside the artist’s control — ruffled feathers, awkward angles, megalomaniacal personalities — but the South Korea-born German photographer is unflustered by difficulty. In fact, ideas that seem improbable or even unachievable excite her, and this is surely what makes her work stand out at a time in which images have never felt more fleetingly disposable and yet freighted with meaning. As eye-catching as they are unsettling, Shin’s photos offer a dose of style, levity and provocation at a particularly earnest moment in the arts, in which conversations about the ethics of representation are dominant and the social utility of art is emphasized.

Ever since the fall of 2016, there’s been an expectation, unspoken and not, that art comments on the political moment — an expectation that applies particularly to photography. Cameras, usually camera phones, have become a citizen’s best weapon, a powerful and essential form of defense; they’ve become necessary in the fight for equality, a way of documenting everything from murderous police to bigoted dog walkers — a way of holding individuals, and a racist society, accountable. But as Shin sees it, art-making has always been a kind of power grab. “You are making a claim that something is art, and this differentiation is, of course, like creating a sort of hierarchy. You cannot circumvent that. It’s not a democratic process,” she says. Case in point: the pearl-clutching with which her “Baby” series was initially greeted. “Are you kidding?” one (female) art adviser asked Shin when she saw them. Was she seriously putting this out into the world as art? Interestingly, Shin says that men tended to respond more positively to the images, seeing in them a kind of analogy for the creative process.

It’s impossible to look at the series without wondering how she managed to pull it off. Shin worked with a midwife to secure permission from the mothers, who received a set of more conventional photos documenting the birth in exchange for allowing Shin in the room. The focus is on the babies’ aggrieved and rumpled faces; the idea, Shin tells me, came from the German painter Ull Hohn’s unsettling, blurred paintings of creature-like infant bodies from the early 1990s. At first, Shin wasn’t sure she could show them. “I looked at them and I was like, ‘This is literally “The Exorcist.”’” Her retoucher started to cry. (Newborns, Shin notes, look completely different only seconds later, after they’ve drawn a few breaths.) She seems relieved when I tell her that, as someone with a little bit of experience — having given birth (traumatically, after being overdosed with Pitocin) — I find the pictures extraordinary, and not a little refreshing. Outside of medical contexts, babies tend to be photographed sentimentally, but Shin spares us none of the violent intensity of bringing about life and of being alive. To have a child is a risk, to make art is a risk — and Shin’s images simultaneously showcase the fragility of the human animal and the ferocity of its will. “I really do believe that we all have a cherry-picking view on what nature is, like it’s a beautiful landscape that we experience on a road trip,” she says. Her work is a repudiation of that romance, a reminder that nature can be brutal, even monstrous, and that we are ultimately at its mercy, much as we tend to believe the reverse to be true.

WE’RE SPEAKING — UNNATURALLY — via Skype, my hopes of meeting her in a more organic context dashed by quarantine; she’s in her apartment in New York’s Chinatown while I’m 700 miles away, in Chicago. It is May. But any framing device has a way of making certain details pre-eminent: Shin is wearing a zebra-patterned intarsia sweater that I immediately covet; the tail of a vintage Felix the Cat clock behind her swings in and out of the frame metronomically; her sleek hair has a cheekbone-grazing layer, which is striking at a moment in which most of us are still at home in athleisure wear with straggles and visible roots. Unable to travel, she’s spent a great deal of her time in lockdown perusing the news, as we all have, although Shin reads not only things like The Intercept and The Guardian but also Breitbart and RT, the Russian state-controlled network, as well as various Hong Kong news outlets. “Art seems a little bit impotent now,” she concedes.

I get the impression that Shin is motivated to read these ideologically divergent publications not only for a fuller picture of global politics but out of a very specific kind of curiosity, one felt by a very specific kind of artist. The assumptions we bring to seeing the world — our bubblelike frames of reference — interest Shin, the way we seem to form our spheres of belief to protect ourselves from things we might not want to see or know. Hence the surprise, of some, at the results of the 2016 election. Hence the astonishment, of others, at the chillingly offhand extinguishing of George Floyd’s life under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman, captured on a cellphone by a teenage girl. Our understanding of how power works is shaped by a checklist of demographic factors, from where and when we were born to what skin we were born into.

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Credit…Heji Shin

Similarly, we each bring a set of assumptions, a personal frame of reference, to how we perceive art. At one point, Shin turns the question on her interlocutor: “Do you think artists should be aware of the political circumstances they make art in and have to actually make it part of their art practice?” she asks, an onion of a question that points to what Shin sees as a kind of dogmatic turn in art, an expectation to convey appropriate liberal politics. Sensitivities are running high in the art world: Think of the uproar that met Jordan Wolfson’s ultraviolent virtual-reality film from 2017, “Real Violence,” in which the artist, with the help of an animatronic dummy and C.G.I., appears to beat a passive victim to death with a baseball bat — all too nauseatingly on the nose for some, given the excess of white-male rage in Trump’s America — or the widespread controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s 2016 painting of Emmett Till, “Open Casket.” The ambiguity of perspective and lack of context were, in both cases, seen to be problematic by many critics. (Schutz’s painting in particular has been seen as an unthought-through act of appropriation by a white artist of a painful, historic image in a time of ongoing brutality against Black bodies.) I think that these discussions are not only important but essential to have, and Shin does not disagree. But she also sees the way in which the fear of causing offense could lead to work that is politically and aesthetically overdetermined. This isn’t a matter of outright censorship but rather of public opinion, she says, something that’s potentially internalized.

In talking to her, I keep thinking of something Janet Malcolm wrote in her 1994 book on Sylvia Plath, “The Silent Woman”: “Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.” Art, in other words, isn’t about being nice. Shin isn’t willing to cater to public notions of acceptability or spare us our own discomfort. The reactions to her work tend to be very strong and not always straightforward. And so it makes a certain sense that her “Kanye” portraits are perhaps her most controversial works to date; those bright, oversize images, evocative of Warhol silk screens, have a sly grandiosity. The series of 11 photos includes a single candid of him on a safari with his young daughter North on his shoulders: West the vacationing dad versus West the cultural projection. When Shin submitted the work to the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the curators were displeased. At the time, West was an outspoken Donald Trump supporter; he had made an incendiary statement about slavery being a choice for African-Americans, for which he later apologized. “They said he would be too dominant,” Shin explains, as a big American entertainment-industry figure. “I mean, it was like, yeah, but an exhibition is not democracy. One even told me that it would exploit his mental illness. There were these absurd discussions, and it went on for weeks.” After some back and forth, they made a compromise — they would show two of the “Kanye” portraits if Shin would also include five images from the “Baby” series. (A Whitney spokesperson said that the curators had invited Shin to participate based on the “Baby” series and had selected those images from the beginning.) But in an 11th-hour twist, the curators displayed the “Kanye” prints in the basement, between the restrooms and the coat check. (The babies were displayed prominently on the fifth floor.) Shin was unperturbed, even delighted, by the Kanye portraits’ unusual placement. “I thought it was funny because everybody would see it and also wonder why, and then it’s like the basement is the area for repressed content.”

Art has always served as a playground for the cultural subconscious; it’s what keeps us coming back to look again and again. Just wait, I think, till Shin gets ahold of Steve Bannon, our American grotesque, who is one of the figures she names when I ask her whom she’d like to photograph next. Jane Goodall, so often pictured with a maternal, almost Madonna-like incandescence, holding a chimp, is another. (Shin has a thing for animals as amusing objects of human psychological projection; in 2016, she made “#LonelyGirl,” a series of portraits using a monkey to mock the selfie vernacular; one of them, in which the monkey is nibbling on a dildo, landed on the cover of Artforum in May 2016.) “To create is always a step into the unknown,” she says. “Everything has to submit to art. Everything. When you’re an artist, you have to submit politics to your art. Not the other way around. You have to submit your own emotions, your anxieties, your ideologies. That’s why art is this really kind of sacred thing. And to do it the other way around always compromises certain things, right?”

At the end of the day, I’m skeptical that politics can ever entirely submit to art, and I’m not convinced that it ever did; perhaps we’re just more conscious of differentials in power than we once were. We can all point to moments in the history of photography in which transgression became exploitation: Think of Robert Mapplethorpe’s ’80s-era nudes of Black men, who were often depersonalized or posed to embody (and perhaps mock) racial stereotypes. Shin mentions Irina Ionesco, the French photographer who built her career in the 1970s by taking erotic portraits of her prepubescent daughter, Eva; in 2015, Eva successfully sued her mother for damages and prevented her from further disseminating the images without Eva’s consent. “Doing something simply out of a desire to be transgressive is very stupid,” says Shin, “you know, just to break certain taboos. It has to have more substance than that, I think.”

If Shin is here to remind us of the sense of adventure to be found in art, she also reminds us of the risk — a moral risk, but most of all, the risk of artistic failure. “People react very intuitively to what risk is, and then you get excited when they react either in a negative way or in a positive way, it doesn’t matter, with their amygdala,” she says. “You know, you don’t react with your rational side. That’s where it should go.” That Shin’s work is drawing attention in a larger moment of outrage against a host of social ills doesn’t feel coincidental; looking at it tends to provoke reconsideration of the relevancy of art in this charged moment. Where is the risk in politically didactic art when it is posted on Instagram like a kind of virtuous trading card? How high are the stakes, really, when everyone who follows you agrees? Who and what, exactly, constitutes “public opinion,” and at what point does sensitivity tip over into pandering?

IN CONTEMPORARY PORTRAIT photography, it has often fallen to women to show us the potential of the form to subvert conventions and redirect the gaze, from Cindy Sherman’s stereotype-mocking self-portraits to Carrie Mae Weems staring down the camera in her “Kitchen Table Series,” filling decades of absence in representation with a demand to be seen. It’s difficult now to imagine the world would see AIDS in quite the same way without Nan Goldin, or the queer community without Catherine Opie. Such photography implicitly critiques absences in art history while imbuing the camera’s subject with dignity, as in Deana Lawson’s goddess-like nudes in their living rooms, or (arguably) Diane Arbus’s sideshow performers and sex workers. (Arbus, unsurprisingly, is a touchstone for Shin.) Women have dominated contemporary portraiture for good reason: There’s tremendous power to be found in moving the margins to the center. “Portraiture is always very psychological, and it has a huge palette of references,” says Shin, who began her career as a photographer shooting portraits for a German economics magazine in the early aughts. “And it always works. I’m always surprised that it works, but it does. There’s an impact we inherently recognize and react to.”

Shin came to photography late, she says, after receiving a camera for her 20th birthday. She attended art school in Hamburg before dropping out and moving to Berlin. It was the late 1990s, and the art scene hadn’t really arrived in Germany’s newly reunified capital just yet — the city was, at that point, a symbol as much as it was a geographic place — but there was a robust music scene, largely techno, and there were a lot of clubs and house parties. “Back then, Berlin was so cool,” she recalls. “But people weren’t even aware that it was cool at that time. We lived in very chic apartments that were huge and cost nothing. They all still had a coal oven.” She aspired to have an editorial career in fashion, but her art career took off first (she has also published work in Pop Magazine, CR Fashion Book and Purple, with shoots that blur the line between the artistic and commercial), and for a few years, she was back and forth between Berlin and New York with her husband, the Canadian artist Mathieu Malouf, whom she met in Berlin in 2008, before settling more permanently in New York.

Shin can be seen as an heir of the German photographers who also made their name shooting editorial work for magazines, including Juergen Teller, Wolfgang Tillmans and Helmut Newton (she especially admires Newton); she seems unconcerned that anyone might find this blurring of the line between commerce and art glib. I reminisce with Shin about being a teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s — we’re both Generation X’ers in our 40s — reading magazines like The Face, i-D and Visionaire, and it occurs to me that she’s never lost the barbed irreverence of that time. It was then that a sense of culture alternative to the popular and mainstream took hold, and Shin brings something of that era’s ironic sensibility and critique of the status quo to this one. The early 1990s — 1993, to be precise — also witnessed one of the most controversial Whitney Biennials, when queer, feminist and nonwhite artists who had been shut out from the institution finally began making their mark in the mainstream with work that was provocative and discomfiting. “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White,” read one of the admission buttons designed by Daniel Joseph Martinez. George Holliday’s video of the Rodney King beating was screened on the museum walls. Janine Antoni nibbled on 600-pound cubes of chocolate and lard. The purpose of art and who gets to make it was, quite explicitly, a theme. Surely one reason that art subsequently became so much about self-assertion and identity was in response to what had for so long been a white monopoly on the culture.

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Credit…Heji Shin

We’re nostalgic for the early 1990s, Shin says, for good reason. “It was the last time we really demonstrated an identity of what [the] times were,” she says. It was before fashion became a riff or remix of everything that had come before. Since the internet age, with its new digital platforms, visual culture has accelerated to a degree that makes it difficult to pin down; the curation of taste once found in print has gone online, becoming more individualized; anyone can cultivate a following on TikTok or Instagram. But Shin believes there is something more regressive afoot and wants to “dig deeper why things cannot culturally be just expressed. Like why this freedom has disappeared. For example, why millennials are a certain way, or they don’t like certain kinds of liberties anymore.”

Shin’s teen years may have been a heyday for fashion photography, but this period was also notorious for its embarrassing cultural appropriations — think of any number of fashion layouts from the 1980s and early 1990s starring a lanky white, blond model in Asia or Africa, dressed in designer fashion featuring motifs swiped from traditional clothing. To contemporary eyes, this sort of thing provokes a tremendous cringe, but it wasn’t long ago that this was a fashion magazine standard. These days, crimes of appropriation tend to be called out, but they’re not always as straightforwardly offensive or obvious as a Victoria’s Secret model in a feather headdress, and they extend well beyond the realms of fashion and photography to white chefs writing about healthy soul food, a novelist unconvincingly ventriloquizing a Mexican migration experience or a company or arts institution with nary a person of color in a position of power on staff celebrating Black creativity.

One side effect of this long history of white plundering of other cultures is a kind of defensive politics in which everyone is expected to speak only from their personal ethnic experiences, as though cultural identity is a form of intellectual property. While understandable, this too can be problematic in the assumptions it makes: Our identities aren’t always seamlessly pure or reducible. Shin clearly wants to stand apart from this kind of essentializing. A double immigrant, she has entirely resisted making art about self-definition in a foreign land, or that overtly addresses the condition of being an Asian woman first in Germany and then in the United States. Given the explicit nature of much of her work, it follows that making the pictures she does make surely requires a certain amount of trust from her subjects. And yet, intimacy is not what her images evoke; in fact, the opposite is true. She finds it liberating, she says, to be an outsider, to exist outside any given cultural framework.

IN ONE WAY or another, Shin has always been something of an initiated outsider, someone who knows all the rules but feels little need to heed them. She was born in Seoul, to Korean parents, but moved at 4 to Hamburg with her mother, a nurse who emigrated during a nursing shortage in Germany (her parents are divorced, and her father remained in South Korea; she had a German stepfather). It occurs to me that Shin has now been witnessing a culture — first in Germany, then in the United States — in the process of painfully contending with its own historical conscience for much of her life. When I ask her about the earliest visual memory she can recall, she tells me that she spent much of her early years, until she was about 10, in a residence for immigrant children run by the Catholic church. “All of the imagery is so fantastic,” she says. “I think children are always interested in the same things — Jesus’s body, and of course Mother Maria, because she’s so beautiful. People don’t understand anymore how influential and great it is to be surrounded by that kind of imagery.”

All portraiture, of course, is a form of icon-making, whether it’s the Virgin Mary or a pink-haired Kate Moss: a public face of our culture at a moment in time. In 2018, Shin made a witty series of X-rays of herself while holding a pug or a Chihuahua — one creepy skeleton holding another, stripped of cuteness and intimacy: the “look at me” transparency of the selfie taken to its logical (and absurdist) consequence, the artist exposing herself down to the bones while revealing nothing. But I also can’t help but think of the series as a commentary on the expectation that female artists put themselves into their work, baring their personal narratives, or even their own faces and bodies, as indeed many photographers of her generation have done, like Laurel Nakadate, who first became known for her eerie short films in which she threw herself birthday parties or danced to Britney Spears in the homes of strange men, or Elinor Carucci, who has documented herself throughout different phases of her life, including pregnancy and motherhood, her marital crisis, even her back pain. These skilled practitioners of first-person photography are inviting us to look at them, directing the gaze back onto themselves to elicit a certain potent intimacy. Shin seems to want us not to look at her but at ourselves.

The question of exactly whose gaze is on display is at the center of her 2018 series “Men Photographing Men,” for which Shin staged a cop-themed gay porn shoot in an art gallery and exhibited the resulting images in the same space, making visitors feel as if they were wandering onto a set. Immediately, we’re implicated in the looking: The absurdly good-looking male models in police uniforms seem to be monitoring the images of men having sex, and here we are as well, looking at all of it. The pictures themselves, all cheekbones and bare bottoms and holsters, are amusing, and the models — white, exuding vanity — seem to be in on the joke. At face value, it’s transgressive in a playful way. Did she do it just to prove that she, an Asian woman, another marginalized class, could objectify white men as a man might, and poke fun at masculine archetypes? Maybe. But what might be most radical about Shin’s work is the way she puts us front and center in her project, making us aware of ourselves as uneasy spectators, uncertain of our point of view. At the opening, she tells me, one attendee, a Black acquaintance who didn’t realize she had taken the pictures, told her that he thought the show was awful. “Why do you think that?” she asked. “Who do you think took them?” Some white dude, he replied. This doesn’t feel all that surprising to me, given the show’s title, though I get her point. As we question the flow of power (not to mention the symbolism of a police uniform), we are all uncomfortably destabilized right now; those who aren’t probably should be.

It seems right, then, that the art that is meaningful now isn’t the work that makes us feel secure or elated in our righteousness but that makes us question where we are in the grand scheme of things: art that dares us to question our intentions with imagery that feels raw and vital and sensibility-challenging. As Americans see their repressed content emerging at street level, in the things we call out on Twitter and in person en masse, across the country, the subtext of power has become text at a remarkable speed. Everything is under scrutiny, including the violence of silent acquiescence; no one can really be a bystander anymore. What we call outsiderness, implying a dispassionate, unbiased observer, was perhaps always more of a stance than an achievable reality. But maybe, Shin would have us believe, there’s a way to get past the limitations of our perspectives, to subvert our own framing devices via art’s ability to estrange and transubstantiate. What we see unfolding on the street will translate into disruptions and revolutions in galleries, too, in art that is skeptical of a heartwarming or cleanly unifying story. As we turn our camera on ourselves and each other, the visuals on the street have outpaced the ones on the walls, leaving us to ask how far it all will go and where we stand in the fray.

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