Modern photographers are losing their heads.
A letter from the editor
PhotoVerso was established as a publication in January 2022, with the goal of bringing art appreciation to the blockchain photography community. Since then, we’ve had the pleasure of presenting at least one collection weekly, giving a growing base of subscribers new perspectives on the state of the art in blockchain photography and the lenses through which artists are seeing their worlds.
Since May 2022, we’ve been looking forward to presenting a more long-form examination of works exploring the same theme, with the goal of starting discourse around why we see the art we see today. As such, we’re thrilled to present our first PV Catalog: a cross-sectional glance at pictures being made today, and how they talk to each other.
Headless figures in conceptual photography
In the past weeks, we’ve examined Karl Robert’s narrative self-portraits, Ada Crow’s surrealist sitters, and Ben Hopper’s masked, not-nude models. To this foreground, we’d like to introduce the work of Brooke Didonato and Ben Zank, two photographers who set the tone for lens-based play with the human form. Our short form exhibition today will take a walk from Ben Hopper’s original “Naked With Masks”, through to “Stranger Together”, a collaboration between DiDonato and Zank, following the theme of exposure and vanishing of the body as its central thread.
When we began putting together September’s series, we were fascinated with the threads between the work of artists doing conceptual portraiture, and the common threads distorting, vanishing, decapitating, and dressing the human body. Portraits capture images of people we think are important, or people that look like us — as such, examining the creation of portraits can be a powerful glimpse into how the buyers of modern art feel about themselves.
Eyes, faces and heads are closely associated with identity. We commonly refer to eyes as the windows to the soul, and think of the face as the place where emotions and reactions are written in expression. Heads are the representation of all the thoughts, plans, and logical functions that give us our human qualities. By creating portraits that disguise, hide, vanish, or distort the singular body part most commonly associated with identity, the artists we follow make different statements about the identity and awareness of their subjects.
Ben Hopper, Naked with Masks.
From left to right:
Angela. Mask from Escapade.co.uk. June 2014.
Scarlett. Mask by Ghoulia's Peculiars (Jules Newman). June 2010.
Holly. Mask made from tights. November 2016.
Nudity has a queer relationship with self-disclosure. The naked human body is a body in its most vulnerable state. However, turning a naked body into a nude can fortify it, by creating an image for the pleasure and consumption of the viewer. We see this transformation most clearly in the twin collections of Ben Hopper: “(not) Naked with Masks” and the counterpart nudes. His naked bodies are vulnerable, but his nudes are objects created for worship.
Without faces to indicate otherwise, the hands and postures are the next best places to get hints about the emotional tone of the images. By putting themselves on display, the faceless nudes communicate confidence. Covered up, however, Hopper’s models project sensitivity. The poses are contracted, as though they may be cold or shy; hands are held close to the body, gripping their coverings. Not yet naked, the figures are not yet nudes. By covering the head, Ben denies his models an opportunity to communicate their humanity, thereby creating portraits of a sort of self-conscious alienation.
This distinction between nudes and not-nudes is explored by comparing DiDonato’s 1/1 works on SuperRare to one of the images captured as part of her “Make Yourself at Home” series.
In Growing in Odd Directions, we see a blonde with her hair done up, posed against a teal curtain, meticulously wrapped in a floral garland. The garland is more decorative and modesty preserving than it is binding: legs and arms are left loose, and the flora strategically covers NSFW parts of the body — including the eyes — while leaving lips, collarbones, waist, wrists, waist and thighs on display. A stiff posture completes the image, recalling Hopper’s not-nudes. In covering the body and refusing her subject the opportunity to become spectacle, Brooke creates discomfort in the viewers of the decorated figure. We are given the distinct sense that our gaze is a violation.
Contrast this with two more images (naked and not). In Learned a Lesson Then Forgot It, we find our naked subject coiled up strangely in a red brick fire place, with a tabby cat curiously observing the scene. The full frontal perspective, thoughtful posing, and turned away (rather than masked or vanished), as well as the presence of a second voyeur, gives the image a sense of play.
Here, our presence is not a violation — rather, we’re witnesses to a show. Note the attention to our gaze the subject expresses, separating her back from the fireplace wall and creating sharp geometries between her shins and forearms. She presents her naked body thoughtfully.
In particular the posing of the head gives the image a sense of agency: unlike Hopper’s subjects, who have their inner worlds hidden by masks, DiDonato’s model is petulantly denying us the opportunity to connect with her. She wants to be a spectacle, and treats nudity as a costume.
In Plot Hole, from Brooke’s series Make Yourself at Home, we discover someone dressed for the comforts of home.
Like the previous image, Plot Hole features a figure coiled up in a tight space, framed by books rather than bricks. Although the subject is covered up, the image is one of vulnerability. The pose resembles the fetal position more than an effort at gymnastics; the face is covered rather than hidden, leaving the mouth exposed; and although fully dressed, the subject isn’t presented for the camera. Paradoxically, vulnerability is expressed by covering up the body.
Roberts plays around with vulnerability by telling his life story, candidly and theatrically, leaving himself headless in the process. The scene playing out in Opposition Agreement is described by Roberts as “the artist part of me (right) in blue… agreeing to part ways with the businessman part of me (left) in white”.
Robert’s work is emotionally exhibitionist in a way that Didonato’s and Hopper’s nudes can’t be. The subjects have too much narrative to objectify, but are also denied the opportunity to tell us a story other than what Roberts puts in front of us. They lack the ability to express.
In contrast, Patron features a similar tableau (two figures, reaching towards each other) with a different effect. Rather than two headless figures, both representing the artist, Patron features a young man and a Dementor-like figure in a black cloak.
The young man’s face is patient and genuine, giving the impression of an attempt to bridge the gap with the covered creature. We aren’t invited to learn how the cloaked figure feels about her role in the scene, but Patron seems to be a hopeful story.
Roberts alternates creating images of subjects and objects, distinguishing the two based on who gets to keep their heads, and who, like his business-man persona and the ghoul in Patron, has to dress up.
The effect achieved by putting ghosts in costumes, as in Crow’s “Hanger People” series, is striking. Crow sets a tone for aestheticizing her vanished subjects, while rejecting the aesthetic lens of examination outright.
In This is not art, Crow makes a strong statement about the condition of the figure we’re faced with. Formal wear (black suit, red tie) above the waist, artist’s jeans below, and surrounded by floating top-hats, our hanger-man is rightfully confused about what precisely he is: apparently, not art.
Denied the right to be art, the situation is clownish. The subject is a spectacle, without a say-so in whether he accepts the role.
Crow’s other headless subjects are sitting comfortably; in their home environments at breakfast, in the woods with their loved ones, holding their pets. In spite of the circumstantial oddity, the headless sitters seem at home in their robes, sun dresses, oddly matched fall clothing, fur coats and silk skirts. As we get past our own reactions, the overall mood is one of pleasant contentment.
Compare Crow’s Memoirs of a Goldfish to DiDonato’s Ten Stages of Grief, in which we find a woman sitting stiffly in a lounge chair behind a stack of many-colored pastel throw pillows. The images both have a certain domestic quality, down to the pastels and the style of chair, but the comparisons stop there.
Where Crow’s sitter seems comfortable in her uncanniness, DiDonato’s is exposed in more than one sense of the word. She is turned into an artistic statement in spite of herself.
Ten Stages of Grief communicates emotional vulnerability, made ironic (though not comical) by stacking pillows. The orange pillow in the stack of ten compliments the color of the lounge chair, the white curtain backdrop helps the scene pop, the pillows go up high enough to fill the scene with visual interest. However, the circumstances of the image indicate the viewer is an intruder. DiDonato’s subject is naked but not posed, hidden behind throw pillows and unable to see us.
DiDonato’s work is characterized by tension between emotional discomfort, and artful presentation. Her images are a pleasure to look at: colors are soft and harmonious, composition is created masterfully, subjects are attractive and well-presented. The complexity of the subject matter, however, make the prospect of consuming the work as image a violation.
Am I doing this right? and Corporate Ladder are two particularly interesting takes on the performative nature of dressing, and the role of conventions of dress in objectifying individuals.
Am I doing this right? features an upside-down model standing on her hands, complete with dress (on buttocks) and wig (on feet) pitched against a wall. The satin pink dress blends with the satin pink wall and sheer pink curtains. The position is stiff, likely because the handstand is an untenable position. The image seems to gesture loosely at a certain degree of discomfort with the performance.
Corporate Ladder presents a conceptually similar scene: a woman in a skirt and matching jacket - layered with another jacket for each day of the work week. The scene is shot against the same satin pink wall, and carries a strong tone of overwhelm.
Unlike DiDonato’s earlier works, which hide or camouflage parts of the face, these last three remove the face and head from view entirely. The focus is no longer person as subject, but figure as object. The images turn their models into social commentary.
The jury on whether costumes are empowering or objectifying is still out. One school of thought is that sharp and well-structured attire covers the fleshy physiques of modern professionals. Another sees the role of professional attire as a way to turn the person into a corporate persona. Ben Zank’s treatment of white-collar professionals turns these personas back into people by placing them as objects into the sorts of situations that remind us they are indeed still human.
Socks are an interesting common detail among many of Zank’s images. Never bland, the slight show of undergarments introduces a point of visual interest as well as conceptual curiosity.
Whether its color in a monotone scene (This is not a firehydrant), pattern in a sea of solids, or even mismatch (as in No one seemed to care that someone was burning in public), socks are often the most humanizing things we see about the figures Zank shows us.
The figures Zank captures have their heads, faces, and even hands (the next expressive parts of the body) hidden from view, and their clothing is professional but unremarkable. We are left to find sympathy with the models based on socks and setting, which is used to powerful effect.
Mixed Signals? is an artful expression of the loneliness, misanthropy, and confusion we sometimes put a good face on for the general public. Our protagonist, impeccably dressed in a burgundy suit in hot summer weather, is cut at the head between two sign posts which indicate opposite messages. His body is stuck in the world that indicates parking as well as humping (check the signage!) can be found on the left; his head, mostly hidden, has moved to the world of no stopping in either direction.
Many of us can relate to putting on a good show of pushing past the desire to rest. The experience is simultaneously surreal, empowering, and alienating. Zank’s ability to capture these conflicting emotions and turn them into aesthetically pleasant images may well be at the core of his success with the Web3 base of collectors.
Brooke DiDonato and Ben Zank
Zank and Didonato both use surrealism to capture the sense of alienation felt by many white collar professionals in the modern world. Created in 2021, Stranger Together is a meditation on what happens when people in this state of existence come together.
Images in Stranger Together converge around themes of entanglement, and the distance created by distractions and costuming. The photos have an undeniable humor - native to both Didonato’s and Zank’s work - and blend Didonato’s signature pastels and Zank’s peculiar treatment of his protagonists.
The collection seems to oscillate between a couple in intense entanglement, and distance. Protagonists are arranged artfully around street signs, deck posts and often each other, or else positioned to share space if not time together. The titles, add to the fun by begging different questions in the bigger picture.
What makes a man staring at a cellphone with a woman in aluminum foil “Probably” a missed connection, while a woman staring at a phone with her mate wrapped in cloth is “Definitely” a missed connection? The collection creates tension between faceless people, broaches questions about gender dynamics, and invites us to step in their shoes to find answers.
Born in Israel and based in London, Ben Hopper is a conceptual photographer with work published in the likes of HuffPost, The Guardian, GQ and ELLE. His collection, (not) Naked With Masks, is a companion series to his thought provoking body of work, Naked With Masks, shot between 2010 and 2016 as a manifest against censorship. Outside of blockchain photography, he’s received two grants from Arts Council England, and participated in over 30 exhibitions worldwide.
Originally from Ohio, Brooke DiDonato started her career interning as a photojournalist at a Kentucky newspaper, making self portraits on the side. Now based in NYC, Brooke has shown her uneasy pastel portraits around the globe, starting with A House is not a Home in 2017. She currently splits time between authorial work and commissions for clients including Adobe, Burberry, Coach and The New Yorker.
Surrounded by the endless fields of England’s East Midlands, Karl Roberts had to push beyond the scenario to create his surreal self portraits. Instead, he reached into himself to find the inspiration to his style. Alone with the camera, the open fields, and an idea, Karl creates illusions sparked by magic, time, and his own thoughts and feelings.
After finding a Pentax ME Super in his grandmother's attic at the age of 18, Ben Zank, now 33, started a journey into what would become a remarkable body of work about the bizarre banalities of modern life, with a pungent twist of dark humor. Since his first publication in 2013, Ben’s clean and uncomfortable portraits have been exhibited in Germany, China, South Korea and featured in magazines like Featured Shoot, Ignant and Harvard Business Review.