Patricia Martín-Sánchez: All along your work has sought to challenge cultural standards of masculinity. For instance I think of your Wallflower portraits. With your on-going project, Elegant Violence, you take your exploration into the cultural boundaries of masculine identity onto a different space by examining the contact sport of rugby. Could you discuss the motive behind Elegant Violence?
Amy Elkins: Indeed. Most of my work seeks to challenge cultural standards of masculinity and gender code – whether working in an ephemeral way with the men who sat half-nude for me in a makeshift studio in my bedroom (as in Wallflower) or working closely with certain men in my life in order to make extended portraits over a span of years (Gray).
Over some time, I have experienced an unexplainable need to look into and explore parts of male identity that throughout my life I avoided: acts of violence, brutal force, aggression… even when merely being played out on a field but also pertaining to the men I write on death row who had committed violent crimes (Black is the Day, Black is the Night).
These past years I researched project ideas dealing with a certain type of athleticism. Mainly I was interested in contact sports where a high level of danger and impact was present. I stumbled across a large collection of vintage studio portraits of rugby players, which I ended up printing and taping to my studio walls. I came back to those portraits often. But I was not sure what exactly I would be able to achieve on the sidelines of a rugby field. I did not want the bleachers or the parking lot in the background, so I designed a portable daylight studio. I wanted my portraits to convey an air of formalism much like the vintage ones I found. I decided that the portraits had to be made after the game, so that I could immediately capture the players after eighty minutes of a high-level, dangerous confrontation without the use of pads or helmets.
PM: In Elegant Violence fresh bruises, busted noses, and sprained wrists abound. What does “elegant” stand for in such context?
AE: It stems from a fascination with a sport long viewed as both brutal and gentlemanly. As Henry Blaha once said, “Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen.” The project’s title, Elegant Violence, has been used in the past to describe the game and when I first heard it I realized how well it fitted the project, as it really speaks about the balance between violent/brutal body contact, tradition and formalism that fascinates me.
PM: How do these marks of violence contribute to the way you frame masculinity?
AE: Coming from several photographic projects that focused on masculine vulnerabilities, I became curious about the exploration of other aspects of masculinity. Especially, the idea that men are often drawn to act out upon violence, that they have been attracted to violence throughout history… We encounter such ideas repeatedly in classic plays and novels, famous films, music, contemporary culture, modes of competition, and of course contact sports… all the way down to play fighting and video games. These ideas have stayed with me for some time, as I have an older brother and grew up a tomboy; I witnessed many of these marks of play-violence again and again.
I do not have a blanket view of what defines masculinity, but rather I know there are many facets to male identity. In Elegant Violence, I cringed on the sidelines of games, witnessing the young men I photographed get knocked unconscious, have their heads split open, teeth knocked out, noses broken. I saw some players get rushed off to the hospital and others have their faces stitched on the field. It really is a fierce game and it fascinated me to know that these young athletes were well aware of what they signed up for and played with tremendous passion. Perhaps observing the games and photographing its players did not reshape how I thought about masculinity but it confirmed certain aspects for me.
PM: In some of the portraits, one perceives certain fragility in the gaze and body language of the male sitters. It seems that, rather than capturing the epic behind rugby (like vintage rugby photographs did by presenting authoritarian and heroic-looking men), your camera unveils the sitters’ fragile physical and psychological vulnerability… Do you think such reaction is mediated by the fact that you are a woman?
AE: I am not entirely sure that I am unveiling a fragile physicality; at least it is not what I am specifically after. I am seeking the immediate response each sitter has after such an extended period of intense physicality. For many it is inevitable to exude exhaustion. Some appear unscathed while others limped over to the shoot or held ice to a wound. These things could very well present a physical or psychological vulnerability to the camera or to me. Of course, depending on how the game went and whether the team won or lost sets a tone as well. I also pinned the vintage photographs up next to the daylight studio on the field for the players to take a look at before the shoot.
More often than not, the men sitting for me (both a stranger and a female interested in photographing them) proudly displayed their “battle wounds” as if they were trophies. Many tilted their chins up or crossed their arms firmly across their chests. They would tell me how they got injured during a certain tackle or how they had played rugby most of their lives. The testosterone in the air was palpable. I cannot tell how my role as a female photographer lends itself to how a male sitter performs before the lens or how it might intensify the reaction of those sitting before me. But I can state that at times, sharing a space like that with a complete stranger or as in this project, with a team of strangers, constitutes an intense and even challenging experience. This intensity and challenge make me come back to portraiture again and again.
PM: Whom do you see your work in dialogue with?
AE: In Elegant Violence I draw heavily from vintage portraits taken in Europe in the 1920s. In terms of contemporary photography, I would definitely include Rineke Dijkstra and her series of young matadors. It had a huge impact on me when I first encountered them and I still believe they are incredibly compelling. In addition, I can think of Lise Sarfati and her portraits of young inmates in Europe, Fazal Sheikh’s daylight studios in refugee camps, Carl de Keyzer’s Siberian Prison Camp portraits and definitely the works of August Sander.
PM: What are you reading and listening to nowadays and how they inform your practice?
AE: I tend to try and read several books at once and I am highly unsuccessful at finishing any of them. The several books I started months back all have dog-ears and bookmarks reminding me where to start back up – I had to take a break from reading to catch up on editing and prepping for some shows. The books now waiting for my return are The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Walden/Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau. Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise is one of my favorites and it has played a definite role in my desire to turn to Ivy League athletes and look into youth/male identity.
I am not sure if or how music informs my practice but I cannot live without it, especially while editing photos. My Pandora stations I listen to constantly are Electrelane, Devendra Banhart, Bon Iver, Radical Face, Johnny Flynn and lately Dark, Dark, Dark. I am also a huge fan of any kind of music coming out of New Orleans.
- Link to Amy Elkins’ official website.
- Link to Amy Elkins’ blog.
- Link to Women in Photography.
- Link to Yancey Richardson Gallery.
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Photographs Copyright © 2011 · Amy Elkins. All rights reserved.
Bio photograph Copyright © 2011 · dan mcmahon.