Memory and indifference: Thomas Dozol at French Riviera

Susan Sontag once said that the painter constructs, and the photographer discloses. But what if the photographer is also able to hide things from the spectator?

In the show ‘Memory Played Like a Violin’, Thomas Dozol does it by covering his photographs with colorful stripes, to which he adds abstracts shapes, patches, and other graphic marks that are printed atop faces, creating some sort of frames. 

This work is result of some intimacy with these subjects, as Dozol explains: “I wanted to photograph people with whom I had any sort of relationship”. However, these portraits are far from empathetic.

People look like they are busy interacting with an imaginary friend. The atmosphere of the works evokes strangeness. There is a discomfort felt by the subjects, which is probably provoked by us, the audience. 

But who are these people, what do they represent? What are they up to? Even if we stare them at length, we cannot get much out of anyone. 

They are facing us with distant eyes. There is a cold obliviousness also found in Cézanne’s portraits (coincidentally showing in London during the same weeks). In the exhibition pamphlet, Dozol admits “the impossibility of desire” but, contradictorily, he also tells being influenced by Peter Hujar. 

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Peter Hujar

Hujar was a huge presence in 1980s’ homoerotic photography in New York. His work will be always remembered for the HIV crisis at the time, whereas he ended up as a both photographer, model, and victim of the tragedy. Hugar was, as Sontag would say, the personification of the disease in its cruel metaphors.

In his early career of the late 1970s, like Dozol, Hugar had also delivered intriguing portraits of indifference, whether the purposeless Bruce de St Croix or the sacrosanct intellectual Susan Sontag herself.  

Dozol’s admitted influence appears because his models also seem to be floating. However, in Hujar, even when models are absolutely in the nude, they express some form of command. In Dozol’s, on the other hand, who often shows nudity too, the photograph falls short of such density. For his merit, this non-intended remoteness of his portraits is something harder to build in our time, than it must have been to the former, as Hujar lived and loved during the fuzzy 1980’s New York.  

Where Hujar wished it explicit and in black & white (as if to hide any trace of obviousness), other photographers of the male, such as Alair Gomes, wanted it from distant, and voyeur-like (to hide romanticism). Dozol has a take on intimacy that stem from refusing to give us the eyes of the models. His models are those who skip eye contact, as they all carry a persistent fatigue and helplessness.

How does the addition of geometric forms interact with this human background? It certainly does not hide key information (face, body, sex), as it adds up a game of hide-and-seek, which does not disturb its beauty. It otherwise affects the sincerity of the representation. In short, graphs applied onto sensitive human pictures could easily fit in to the purpose of a piece of advertisement.  

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Thomas Dozol

At the same time, his models being mostly male, the photographer unexpectedly denies us bolder insights into their nudities, making gay gratifications not central at all. A little of models’ transitory nakedness hints at a strange type of knowledge of the body that we earn, a flashy and undesired gaze of the other’s intimacy, like a rapport between prostitute and client.  

This work is about feeding into one’s voluntary ignorance of the other. It in reality represents the melancholy that derives from sights that will never cross with each other.  

By encasing these large photographs in a small, narrow gallery, where we cannot face it at distance, we are bound to a lack of full scale view, which reinforces the odd feeling of being face to face with those strangers.

Similarly, Dozol’s own presence as photographer and personality is elusive (although he is married to a celebrity, the singer Michael Stipe).

And yet, his poetics seems to be evolving towards a less-vague ground (especially if one compares this and his first works). Fortunately, this work has no rush to flood galleries and hit Instagram and this is his great merit.

On one side, Dozol’s indifferent photography seems refreshing due to the massive, repetitive, and anti-memory use of selfies (not to mention of the self) in contemporary photography. On the other side, if the response to the selfie is a sharp razor to cut our empathy, then we need more purpose that leads photography to out of this New York-ish, tedious, fashion brand-appropriated, rich-kind habit, which is quickly becoming.

In any case, more critique and appraisal of the, let’s call it, this emerging form of self-related photography is urgently needed.