Elegant Violence: Amy Elkins by Carmen Winant

Photographer Amy Elkins peers through the lens of masculine identity into the eye of a high-contact sport with a new show at Yancey Richardson.

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Courtesy of Swagger New York and Loeffler Randall.

After seven years of living and working in New York, the photographer Amy Elkins recently moved to Portland, Oregon. However, her roots in the city are still strong: her current exhibition, Elegant Violence, is open through October 22nd at the Project space in the Yancey Richardson Gallery. In making portraits of rugby players, Elkins’s new work continues her ongoing investigation of masculine identity through photography.

Carmen Winant Your series of photographs, Elegant Violence, up now at Yancey Richardson gallery, was begun in 2010. As with your last body of work, Wallflower, you have chosen to make intimate portraits of young men. Will you address a question that I imagine you get a lot: why maleness? Artists often tend toward negotiating their own subjective experiences … is the driving force in your work to achieve the opposite, to probe maleness as a thing fundamentally unknowable?

Amy Elkins It’s a theme I began exploring once I moving to New York. I had lived in California and New Orleans prior to that, and had never considered narrowing my photographic explorations to sex and gender. I have always primarily worked within portraiture, but my interests were less formal and less specific. It is true to some extent that I am interested in the subject matter because it is foreign to me … I won’t ever really know why men are the way they are, or why they have been compelled throughout history to act on impulses of competition through sports or violence. I can read about it, look into it endlessly or talk for hours with the men I am photographing, but I will probably walk away just as curious. My curiosity also stems from my personal history. I’ve always been a keen observer of the men in my life. Though I tried to be tough for most of my childhood, my real friends were always the more sensitive boys, the artists, poets, and photographers, and I was always interested in our relationships. I also spent a lot of time with my father growing up—though my parents divorced when I was three—observing his routines, his interests, and his interactions with my older brother. When I moved to New York in 2004, my father was going through a very tough chapter in his life, which I suspect may have effected how I regarded my male peers. In fact, it’s around that time that I began photographing many of them for my project Wallflower. It wasn’t until the past few years that I began exploring the more competitive/violent aspects of masculinity.

CW Is the project ongoing? Or is this exhibition the culmination? If not, what plans do you have for its evolution?

AE The project is definitely ongoing. It’s part of a multi-chaptered project that looks into other contact sports and ties together these ideas of tradition, violence and athleticism. I want to continue shooting for the rugby chapter, as well as look into other sports. I’m not entirely sure what will result just yet, but I know I have more to explore.

CW I myself am really interested in the interactivity of sports and art—I think it is an incredibly rich area. How did you arrive at the idea to photograph male athletes, and do you look at other artists working in this particular cross section (Collier Schorr and Catherine Opie come to mind)?

AE I had never until very recently had any desire to photograph athletes, though since I have begun I have noticed that there are so many fascinating aspects involved … the physical demands, the team work, the rules and structure behind it, the lifestyle. The idea of rugby players came to me late one night with a friend in a bar. We had been drinking quite a bit, and a football game was on. We were joking about the idea that men have always created games that are centered on the chasing, grabbing and tackling of other men. As it turned out, my friend had played rugby at both Princeton (for his undergrad) and Yale (for his master’s) and explained to me that it was far, far rougher than football. I began researching the game the next day, and the more I found out the more I wanted to know. Eventually I had printed and taped up dozens of vintage portraits of rugby players in my studio and began contacting schools. It wasn’t long before I was standing on the sidelines of the game watching it up close. In terms of relating to other photographers work, while I’ve always admired the work of Collier Schorr and Catherine Opie, I haven’t spent a lot of time with it in regard to this project. I have been drawn more so to the works of Rineke Dijkstra and the notion of capturing a vulnerability in the aftermath of an event, in my case a rugby match. Her portraits of blood spattered matadors had certainly resonated with me over the years.

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Amy Elkins, Dan (Wing/Fullback), New Haven, CT, 2010, © Amy Elkins, Courtesy of the Artist and the Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York.

CW Your work recalls for me a certain painterliness in composition, color, and the portrait-based content. Do you look at historical painting? The formal qualities of your compositions recall a similar stillness and light.

AE Before I turned to photography, I studied painting and art history for years; I used to spend hours in the Met or MoMA just looking at paintings and nothing else. In particular, I still love the early Dutch and early American paintings that depict wealthy subjects against dark velvet drapes and lavish environments, the moody stillness in the light and shadow. Those sitters—their gazes sometimes still haunt me. In terms of photography, I am drawn to formal portraiture and have less interest in the spontaneous. I’ve always loved the works of August Sander, though I’ve spent a lot of time with Lise Sarfati’s portraits of young inmates in Europe, Fazal Sheikh’s daylight studio portraits in refugee camps and Carl de Keyzer’s Siberian Prison Camp portraits … and I have an absolute love for anonymous vintage studio portraits of athletes and inmates alike. I’ve spent a lot of time scouring both the internet and antique stores for these vintage gems. Sometimes I take images to photo shoots and tape them up next to the shooting area for the players to look at. I only ever use natural light, which also recalls the quality of painterly light, and which can bring also about that feeling of stillness you describe. With strobes, subjects can move about freely; with natural light one needs to sit and wait. It’s almost as if you can feel the passage of time throughout the shoot, or, that it is apparent that the photograph is dictated by its own environment.

CW Rugby is a particularly old-fashioned sport—originated in the UK in the early 1900s, I believe? For this project, you photographed contemporary American collegiate players from Princeton, Columbia, and Yale. I imagine that the intense aggression and physicality of the game drew you to it, but were you also interested in the history of the sport, and its more dated, anachronistic quality?

AE Yes, entirely. I wanted to find a sport that was less All-American, and was definitely attracted to the play of aggression and brutal body contact that was present in rugby, especially since there is no use of pads or helmets. It has a very rich history, dating back to Europe around 1845. The players I photographed were from American teams, but many of them were from France, England, Egypt, South Africa, and so on. Quite a few of them were “legacy players,” meaning their fathers and grandfathers had attended the same schools and played rugby as well. Yet, in comparison to football, soccer, basketball or baseball, the sport isn’t really watched or spoken of in this country. I was attracted to that notion as well: that it is a historical sport, rich in tradition but totally underexposed.

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Amy Elkins, Rick (Tight Head Prop Forward), Princeton, NJ, 2010, © Amy Elkins, Courtesy of the Artist and the Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York.

CW I know that these images where taken on the field, but they re-create a controlled studio environment, much like you last body of work, Wallflower. Have you ever photographed outside of a controlled environment? What draws you to that vacant “no-place”?

AE I have photographed outside of a controlled environment for certain projects. But, working with a larger camera that needs a tripod—as well as being dependent on available light—means making a photograph that can never be entirely spontaneous. But there is also a certain appeal to this “no-place” that you mention; I was originally drawn to that quality of vacancy when I moved to New York, which I found to be really claustrophobic. It seemed like there was always something distracting in the frame when I tried to photograph. So, I avoided the clutter by building small sets in my bedroom and inviting people over to be photographed. If I stripped the environment away, all that was left was the subject and to me—it felt so much more intense or powerful in that way. My sets are always so basic: a backdrop of some sort and a reflector. Many people don’t realize that the entire body of work Wallflower was shot in this way in my small Brooklyn bedroom with window light.

CW I am wondering if you can talk about eye contact. Many of your sitters do not make eye contact with the camera, but rather appear to look just beyond its gaze, awash with calm. In some sense, they remind me of Rineke Dijkstra’s images of women moments after giving birth, or bullfighters just after the spectacle (projects which you alluded to earlier). But in those images, her subjects always stare right into the camera. Can you talk about this choice, the direction you give to your sitters, and the implications of the stare?

AE When I am photographing somebody, I often have to wait for things to fall into place. The light sometimes shifts or the film runs out and I have to switch rolls. These pauses, while sometimes tiresome to them, are essential to me. It allows the person I’m photographing to forget for a moment or two that I am photographing them. They relax and often look off, waiting for the photo shoot to start or continue. I often am concerned about the sharpness of an image and am very conscious of this while I am shooting … I focus and refocus through my Mamiya RZ, waiting for the moment. The sitter stretches, and shifts their weight, lets their guard down. I don’t like people to be hyper-aware of the camera or of how they might feel in front of it, so I try not to direct too much. I shoot between five and 20 frames of a person at a time, so some of these choices are happening in the editing process as well.

CW You lived in New York for almost a decade, attending the School of Visual Arts during that time. You recently moved to Portland; what prompted your move, and has your own work shifted as a result?

AE I moved to New York to attend SVA for three years, and lived there for another four beyond that. After I graduated from school, I spent from 2007 until this past June of 2011 working a day job—at Major League Baseball—in the city, and making my own work. To tell you the truth, I love New York quite a lot but always knew it wasn’t home. When I got the Lightwork residency in Syracuse, I left my job, and that prompted my decision to subsequently move across the country. Whether it’s affected the photographs I make, I wouldn’t know yet … I’ve only been here for three months. Because I tend to remove the environment from my portraits, I am not sure being away from New York will be noticed, though I’ll be curious about that when the time comes.

CW A final question: when I look up the term “elegant violence” it brings me immediately to rugby websites. Is this a classic phrase used to describe the sport? It seems so fitting.

AE It is indeed, and it felt so perfect for the title of the project.

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Amy Elkins, Adam (Fullback), Princeton, NJ, 2010, © Amy Elkins, Courtesy of the Artist and the Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York.

Elegant Violence can be found at the Yancey Richardson project gallery through October 22nd, 2011. For more information, click here.

Carmen Winant is an artist and arts writer living and working in Brooklyn, New York. Winant is a graduate of UCLA, where she received her BA in 2006, and California College of the Arts, where she earned Masters degrees in Fine Art and Visual and Critical Studies. In addition to BOMBlog, Winant is a regular contributor to Frieze, WAX, and Aperture magazines, X-TRA and Dossier Journals, as well as Artforum.com, Daily Serving and The Believer blog. Winant writes about visual culture and sometimes sports.

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