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The Playful Wonder of Kenneth Josephson

Look at almost any Kenneth Josephson photo from the 1960s, and you want to giggle. Or scratch your head. Or giggle and scratch your head. They’re witty and puckish and weird, signatured by a meta use of snapshots that questions the image and medium itself. Matthew is no exception. Here, Josephson’s son is holding an upside-down Polaroid of himself. What do we do with it, besides smile quizzically?

Josephson’s photographs evoke the work of Rene Magritte. Visual tricksters, both artists relish in taking quotidian objects and making them strange. We may not always get what’s going on in their images, but we get that there’s a meaning to get. Like Magritte, Josephson is fascinated by perspective. In several photos, his arm holds a ruler on a vast and distant landscape, its size rendered teeny-weeny, its sublimity stripped, by the rudeness of the gesture. Viewing them, we understand how easily perspective can become optical illusion. The experience feels like a joke and assault at once.

Many of Josephson’s images, like Magritte’s, contain other images. In one photograph (Polapan, 1973), we see a mini-skirted torso lying on a bed, a snapshot of a naked vagina laid over the spot of the torso’s (clothed) vagina. Voila! The photographer, it seems, has X-ray vision. In another (Michigan, 1981), Josephson’s arm holds out a postcard of a woman in a grass skirt, standing in the Pacific Ocean. This postcard overlays an image of Lake Michigan, one body of water sliding seamlessly into the other.

Matthew, 1965 © Kenneth Josephson.
Kenneth Josephson, Matthew, 1965.

These images remind us that the photograph is both an illusionistic space and a material object that can be held, mass-produced, manipulated, and imitated. They alert us to conventionalities of seeing, to how we frame different spaces in similar ways. And they exuberantly assert photography’s playfulness. Play suggests a cognitive life that, like a child’s, is unstructured, making no distinction between real and unreal, seeing everything as arbitrary and changeable. And play defines Josephson’s work, just as it does Magritte’s.

But, of course, there’s a difference. Josephson employs a medium that in the 1960s still carried associations of trustworthiness. It’s all well and good to paint a pipe and say, “This is Not a Pipe.” But to play a similar trick with a photograph was more confrontational, upsetting viewers’ notions of the medium as a purveyor of Truth. In this sense, Josephson is aligned with photographers like Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus, whose images are whimsical on the surface but charged with a reflexive approach that felt brand-new and slightly sinister in the 1960s.

To return to Matthew: with his blond hair and chubby arms, the boy is precisely the kind of subject snapshot photography loves. And indeed, in its seeming simplicity and spontaneity, there is something quite snapshot-like about this photo.

But this is no snapshot. Josephson may be Matthew’s dad but he is also a professional artist trained by Aaron Siskind and Harry Calahan, and is now regarded as one of the founders of “conceptual” photography. So he frames his son against a brick wall, depriving him of the snapshot’s usual backdrops of backyards and parks, depriving him, even, of the parent/snapshooter’s loving gaze. Here, the boy figures less as his dad’s pride and joy than as an unwitting messenger of his ideas.

And what are those ideas? To answer, we might begin with the photo Matthew holds. We can see that it’s a Polaroid of him, dressed in the same outfit and presumably taken on the same day, perhaps minutes before. As a Polaroid, it asks us to consider its own instantaneity and amateur quality against the time and effort it takes to produce a professional photograph. It also redoubles what Roland Barthes calls the medium’s “madness,” the way a photograph instantly renders a living subject into a dead object.

But Matthew cares for none of this. He holds the photo inversely and covers his face from our view, a naughty boy refusing to cooperate. Fascinated by the backside of his image rather than the front, he treats the photo as just another object—something to play with and then discard, exposing the ridiculousness of treating a photograph as the subject itself.

Nearly 50 years later—at this uncertain juncture for the medium—how do we respond to Matthew? In a sense, the image feels démodé, given how accustomed we are to all manner of photographic funny business. But it also produces a curious nostalgia for a time when self-reflexive images like this one still got us to question the metaphysics of the photograph, which held a wonder and authority that now seem gone forever.

Nancy West’s essay was originally published as part of the Hillman Photography Initiative‘s This Picture project, which explored the breadth of response a single image can trigger.