Cut and Repeat: The Woman Reworking the Canon of Photography | Photography
Valerie Solanas is famous for two things: filming Andy Warhol and writing the SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men), perhaps the most deliberately outrageous radical feminist polemic. Originally self-published and sold by her on the streets of New York in 1967, it called for “responsible, thrill-seeking women to overthrow the government…institute complete automation and eliminate the male gender.”
The book gained initial notoriety after Solanas attempted to assassinate Warhol at her studio, the Factory, on June 3, 1968. After turning herself in to police hours after the shooting, she was charged with attempted murder, then sentenced to three years for “reckless assault with intent to harm” after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After her arrest, she reportedly told a reporter, “Read my manifesto and it will tell you who I am.
Since then, Solanas, who died in 1988, has occupied a singular and complex place in the cultural landscape, her manifesto hailed by some feminist scholars as a visionary text and her story inspiring several plays and an acclaimed art film, I killed Andy Warhol. Now comes a new book by 52-year-old American photographer Justine Kurland, best known for her 2020 series, Pictures Of Girls, depicting young women in the American wilderness. Its intriguing title SCUMB Manifesto pays homage to the wildly transgressive spirit of Solanas, whom she describes in the book as “a revolutionary, a beggar, a prostitute and a wanderer, mad, brilliant and very funny”.
SCUMB stands for Society for Cutting Up Men’s Books, which is exactly what Kurland did, dismembering and reconfiguring the images of approximately 150 photo books by white male photographers. All the books came from Kurland’s shelves. They include those of Stephen Shore American surfacesby William Eggleston Los Alamosby Larry Clark Tulsaby Martin Parr Think of EnglandAlec Soth’s Sleep on the banks of the Mississippi, At Brassai Paris by night and, most famous of all, that of Robert Frank Americans.
Each collage bears the name of the book that provided the raw material, but does not refer to the photographer in question. Before exhibiting 65 of the SCUMB collages at a Brooklyn gallery last year, Kurland gifted each to the individual photographers whose work she cut and reassembled. “I sent emails saying, ‘I made collages from photo books and here’s yours,'” she laughs over the phone from her studio in New York. Most of them did not respond. Among those who did, she tells me, Tod Papageorge said he was flattered, Stephen Shore offered to trade for a print, and Jim Goldberg sent her a copy of his book. Raised by wolvesto use as raw material, but, she says, “others had less of a sense of humor and resented the work”.
This is hardly surprising given that his collages not only challenge patriarchy, but also raise questions about fatherhood and respect. “I’m not targeting anyone,” she said. “It’s about a system and power structures, not individuals, although I have to say some of these guys have been taking up too much space for too long.”
She ended up selling the first collages for $900 (£690) each, mostly to her students, although the Museum of Modern Art in New York also bought several. A selection, created from Lee Friedlander’s series Nudes are currently on display at the Herald Gallery in London as part of a collective show, Say Less.
Yes SCUMB Manifesto is a gleefully provocative assault on the patriarchal history of photography, it’s also a wonderfully complex act of creativity: collages possess a living, often viscerally powerful life. Kurland’s style ranges from playful surreal – Parr’s iconic English figure studies reconfigured as a mix of artfully arranged limbs, vegetables, flowers and faces, to minimal cool – Friedlander’s America by car rendered as a ballardian whirlwind of frills.
Often, the original photographs have been so transformed that it can be difficult, like me, to identify the photographer whose images she has reworked. She upsets the rigorous formal detachment of Robert Adams and makes Brassaï’s nocturnal Paris unrecognizable by cutting and rearranging the details of his photographs – a cobbled street, a coffee table, fabrics – into disturbing monochrome geometric shapes.
Elsewhere, its subversion is more ostensibly political. The female body, fetishized by photographers like Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin, is by turns sculptural, dreamlike and disturbing in works that float away from the voyeuristic male gaze while drawing attention to its voracity. The inclusion of renowned photographers such as Brassaï and Frank will no doubt be seen by some as an act of cultural vandalism, but that too is part of Kurland’s provocation.
The most angry element of the book is the cover, in which Kurland draws on Solanas’ fiercely combative and accusatory style of prose to tack on the patriarchy. On a blood-red collage of writhing female nudes, she declares, “I, Justine Kurland, am SCUMB. I thrive in the stagnant waste of your boring photography. I seethe, raw life force, multiplying from the useless excrement of your misogynistic books. His screed ends with the deceptively threatening line: “I come for you with my blade.” In its confrontational tone, it promises more than it delivers given that, throughout, its scalpel is more a tool of complex reconfiguration than violent dismemberment.
“I started to think it would be a pure punk act of destruction, but it’s really the trickiest, pickiest medium,” Kurland says, “I spent hours and hours making these cuts meticulous and lacy, then carefully putting them together. It’s about glue as well as scissors. For me, it’s a restorative act rather than a destructive one.
Kurland has been taking photographs since the age of 15. She studied at Yale in the late 1990s with Gregory Crewdson, a photographer known for his painstakingly staged cinematic tableaux, which she reworks in her book. The collages are a radical departure in tone and approach from his previous work, which explored and subverted a certain type of American frontier romanticism. His book type of highway (2016) was made during a series of epic road trips she took across the country in a battered motorhome, often with her young children in tow. Pictures Of Girls (2020) included images she made between 1997 and 2002, in which his rebellious young female subjects seem to inhabit an almost utopian world of freedom in nature.
Kurland’s shift from photography to collage was precipitated by a conjunction of events, personal and cultural: the death of his father, the seismic political and social upheavals of recent years, and a kind of moral realization with his own way of working. “In a way, my road trips joined an enduring idea in American photography, which is that you go out into the world and bring the news home,” she says. “It was like a holdover from the colonial impulse and I started to feel a little uncomfortable with it. I think that’s when I started to really feel ambivalent about my way of working.
Although not as transgressive as other acts of creative disfiguration – the Chapman brothers drawing clown heads on a rare edition of Goya etchings come immediately to mind – SCUMB Manifesto is certainly a well-targeted missive on what Kurland calls “the canon of male photography and its monopoly on meaning and value.”
Photography is still, to some extent, a male-dominated medium, particularly when it comes to the often obsessive world of photo book collecting, but, creatively, this monopoly is being challenged on many fronts, notably by an abundance of female photographers, curators and artist-activists. There is no doubt that he has reigned for too long, however, with revolutionary photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Gerda Taro and Germaine Krull, to name just three revolutionary women, still not as famous as their male counterparts.
“The history of photography is replete with women,” as Kurland puts it, “so there is no excuse or justification for their exclusion.”
For now, she tells me, collage is a way to “explore the ambivalence” she feels about the medium in which she has established her reputation. Will she return to photography? “You never know,” she said. “It’s a big, hot mess in my head and I haven’t really articulated it yet. I love photography and photo books have been a pathway to what I do in my work, but when I realized that 99% of those in my collection were white, straight men, that bothered me. SCUMB Manifesto isn’t it me who says: “To hell with all these photographers, they suck and they shouldn’t exist”. It’s more ambivalent than that. It’s angry and serious, but it’s also funny. I guess not everyone is laughing.