Anti-Portraiture: Elaine Stocki

Elaine Stocki, a Winnipeg-based photographer who is currently working towards her Master’s degree at Yale, is adamant about what her images are not doing. “My photographs are absolutely not about portraiture. The distance in them reflects that what I’m talking about isn’t the personality of the person. My interest in the body as a sculptural form is a way of straying from this idea of portrait that gets slapped on every photograph of a person.” In a photograph called George (Stocki’s images take the name of the subject), a man is isolated in a large space and is shot in such a way that he seems not to have a lower body. Heather is sitting down in a stark basement, wearing a nightgown, a fur coat and a look of quizzical apprehension. Bonnie’s head is framed below a railing at an outdoor sports stadium; she wears a halo of a white hat and is backed by a lovely sunset. Still, she looks worried. Stocki’s images may not be portraits of individuals, but they’re portraits of people thinking about themselves and their condition in the world. In that way, they are psychological more than documentary.

Elaine Stocki, Bonnie, 2007, C-print, 24 x 24”.

Stocki admits that viewers may register a certain degree of discomfort in looking at her work but she resists any comparisons between her approach and that of someone like Diane Arbus. “Arbus strove to represent a minority and I’m interested in representing a majority. I’ve read reviews of my work in which the writer says I take pictures of people on the fringes of society. It’s laughable because I take pictures of people who are working class, who live in the downtown or the North End of Winnipeg, and who are very, very regular people.”

Stocki’s subjects responded to ads she placed in newspapers for models over 30. She pays them for the work they do with her, which can be time-consuming. “I’ll usually take many, many rolls of an almost identical thing and then pick the negative I like the best. I always have an idea what I want but, over the series of shoots, that would change and oftentimes I would see in their shifting around something that was much more interesting than what I had conceived.” Stocki is intrigued by movement and by what it looks like when it’s frozen; Marlene stands on a bed in the Winnipeg Hotel on Main Street, facing the wall; with Bruce she captured “some sort of unglorified male athleticism” by pulling down his pants while he hangs on a white bar.

Stocki’s most recent interest is in multiplication.“I want to see if a photograph of groups of people can carry the same ambiguous and psychological weight, because as soon as you put in more than one person the audience automatically starts to read relationships into the figures. What I want to do is subvert their expectations about what those relationships are to each other and to the photographer.”

Elaine Stocki, Left to Right: Dennis, 2006, C-print, 24 x 24”, Ken, 2007, C-print, 24 x 24”., Bruce, 2007, C-print, 24 x 24”.

Volume 27, Number 1: Wangechi Mutu

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #105, published February 2008.

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