Articulation considers the firm, intimate, joyful and productive traces of our hands. This exhibit is a response to a class assignment that required us to curate an online show around a photo we chose from the International Center of Photography’s Triennial Dress Codes. The photo I chose was Hu Yang’s portrait of Xu Xian Yuann. In relation to Hu Yang’s piece, Articulation seeks to explore how hands as detail define the subjects in these photographs. Some of the images use hands in a straight forward manner, while others allow the viewer to access their cultural knowledge to translate the moment in the photograph. Others show the hands graphically, where they conform to the structure of the image as well.
In Lewis Hine’s Powerhouse, the photo presents a mechanical surrounding. The machine, first, is made up of rounded, distinct shapes. The worker, as a part of the machine, continues the contour of the equipment in his rounded back, muscular arms, and hands that run above and parallel to the bolts he is tightening. In Margarethe Mather’s photo of Billy Justema in a Kimono, his hands curl as does the design and drape of the oversized garment he is wearing. His hands are postured in pose and, perhaps of equal importance, to hold the large kimono in place.
Clarence White’s Ring Toss and Barbara Morgan’s photo of Martha Graham’s kick, takes our attention to the twists of the body. The technique of tossing a ring rounds the hand, the arm, the waist and then the shoulders. Is this young girl the skilled one whose rings have scored points? Or are the two girls in the background reclined in confidence that she will not succeed on this try? In Morgan’s photo, the viewer can be assured of proper technique in Graham’s face, which contrasts the control, strength and balance needed for such a “kick”. Her face offers the emotion while her right hand accents despair, and along with the left hand, continue the intensity, direction and curve of her rising leg. In Heinrich Zille’s Handstands, there is yet again, balance and support, offering playful and crude shapes, but a novice attempt at positions that take our bodies beyond what nature, perhaps, intended.
The hands can, no doubt, be quite expressive communicating with common signs in common language. In Felix H. Man’s photo of Igor Stravinsky in rehearsal, the hands are crucial for musical communication. They control the tempo, the dynamics, when the music begins and when it ends. Stravinsky is the interpreter. His hands command the players and the eventual audience experience. In Lidell Sawyer’s In the Twilight,we are witnesses of more subtle gestures. If one is to interpret the presence of a man and a woman alone with a boat on the shore as a romantic scene, one could assume a new relationship. There is a physical distance, but their eye contact and body language suggests attachment. The woman’s right hand is positioned to fix her hair, creating a bend in the arm that her companion mirrors with his right hand. In Eugene Richard’s photo, the hands close the distance in a playful act between two family members. Richard’s photograph also draws us in with the calendar as the focal point. The contrast between the peaceful portrait held with aged hands, and the playful tickling in the back, provide a lively dynamic of image within image.
Moving on to the subject of labor, we have Andre Kortesz’s photo of Alexander Calder holding strings belonging to the trapeze portion of the miniature circus he is building. His hands are still while he contemplates his next move. His thoughtful, stern expression, brings a significance to this task. Surrounded by miniature horses and acrobatic performers that we can assume he made, one can see this is a serious endeavor. He is skillful, and methodical in his progression. In Lukas Einsele’s Landmine Impact Survey in Bosnia, hands emphasize distance and scale. As the men gather information, the standing man’s hands work to point past the landmine site towards developed land that, from a distance, seems fully recovered from war. In Alois Locherer’s photograph of men transporting the torso of the great Bavaria statue, the symbolic and literal meet in their work. The Bavaria was designed to allegorically represent power and strength. It was so large that it had to be built in four portions and then moved in stages to its final location.
In Alec Soth’s Two Towels, in my own piece Keep Sakes, and in Sarah Hobb’s Perfectionist, we see the left behind evidence of work. In Soth’s, we have a cliché and textbook decoration that anyone who has been on a cruise (or maybe a fancy hotel) would recognize as a swan sculpture your housekeeper made as a punctuation to the daily room cleaning. In Keep Sakes, a simple task of browsing through personal memorabilia shows the presence of belongings, but only the shadow of hands. Hobb’s Perfectionist is hyperbole, and conjures images of an obsessive individual with busy hands. The photo would suggest a writer of some sort: a perfectionist beginning a book, a perfectionist beginning a letter, a perfectionist looking for that perfect piece of paper. Perhaps the task was successful, or the scene is waiting for the writer to return to their impossible burden.
In Trish Morrissey’s April 16, 1967 photograph, hands are clasped in hope, harmonizing with an expected exhale. The photo is frozen in that time right after the birthday wish, and before its release. There is also joy in the relaxed shoulders and clasped hands of the woman in the blue dress. In Hu Yang’s portrait of Xu Xian Yuann and his wife, we see their hands at work and in anticipation. Are their smiles attributed to each other, their work, or both? In Xian Yuan’s accompanying quote to this photo, we learn about his life’s journey:
I came back to China before the liberation to contribute myself to China’s aviation construction. I was wronged when the Communist Party was denouncing Hu Feng and later, I was sent to Qinghai for reformation. I came back to Shanghai after my retirement and spend my late life singing and playing harmonica. When I had a good health a few years ago, I went to Fuxing Park every day to take charge of the English Corner there and teach people sing songs. My dream is to spread abroad the over 100 Chinese folk songs I’ve translated. I don’t have pains because I have an optimistic attitude towards life.
There are years of skills in Xian Yuan’s hands. This candid portrait promises that his joy and skill continues.