Text | Embrace

Heather Shuker’s Embrace

by Claudio Gusmini, Elaine Leidsman and Chee Yee Tang

 

The photographer Heather Shuker made a series of photographs that belong to her project Embrace (2012). This series is a photographic exploration about the way couples connect in a kiss. Because of the striking interplay of light and darkness, staged by Shuker, not every aspect of the couples involved in an embrace are depicted in a clear way. This should trigger the spectator to think about the notions of an embrace, and how the photographs present them in terms of representation, space/place and time.

The incompleteness of these embraces brings to mind the relationship between index and icon. One cannot deny the fact that the camera was present whilst making the pictures, which makes the instant available to spectators. According to Clive Scott a photograph is indexical whenever there is an authentic relationship between the camera and referent.[1] But he also stresses that photographs can be called iconic at the same time. Because of the contrast between light and dark the viewer becomes aware of the creative input by Shuker. She carefully composed the image like a painter, which makes the photographic series iconic in a certain way so it could be perceived as an imaginary reconstruction of the gestural concept ‘embrace’.

Shuker has brought the context of the existing place into anonymity. By illuminating the subject from certain angles, thus eliminating mid tone shadow, she makes sure that the spectator’s eye directly hits the subject. By doing so she is actively reversing the space and place connotation of geographer Yi-Fu Tuan: “When space feels thoroughly familiar to us it has become place.”[2] By making the place unfamiliar, an unidentifiable, infinite space is created. As the beholder we can merely cling to what is visible and familiar to us:  the pose and the gestures, which we all have experienced in our lives. By constructing this space, which only exists in this particular photographic frame Shuker transforms her voyeuristic gaze into a universal one, an observation of the human state both physical and emotional, which we all can relate to.

A substantial part of these photographs is concealed in darkness, so how can this be related to time? Both notions could be linked to the loss of memory. The vaguer the memory the more hidden it becomes until it is lost in a sea of other forgotten memories. For a person to recollect a lost memory a hint of scent sometimes is enough. The way Shuker depicts the embrace could be perceived in the same way. The spectator can be reminded of the whole image (or memory) without actually seeing every aspect of it. This notion of remembrance underlines the memory theory described by Siegfried Kracauer. He claims that memory cannot be perceived as linear or chronological: “Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance.”[3] By highlighting selected aspects Shuker creates significance exclusively for them.

The title of the series suggests a double meaning. By concealing the embraces in different ways Shuker has triggered the beholder to think about the notion of embrace; by keeping the different viewpoints of the spectator in mind she embraces the importance of the imaginary concepts of the spectator.

 



[1] Clive Scott, The Spoken Image. Photography and Language, London: Reaktion Books, 1999, p. 28.

[2] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience [3rd print], Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, p. 73.

[3] Siegfried Kracauer, ‘Photography’ (Transl. Thomas Y. Levin), Critical Inquiry (1993), p. 425.

 

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