Lee Friedlander once said: “The desert is a wonderful, awful, seductive, alluring stage on which to be acting out the photography game.” With Private, Mona Kuhn enters into the desert, that space that seems alien to us. The desert has becomes a constant reminder of the American way of life that we often experience through images. The deserts are filled with subjects at the brink of survival and adapted to the terrain, she documents the world they live in. The animals have adapted to this terrain, but we as humans are vulnerable to the searing heat and possible dangers. Private” proposes a world in which concrete reality and the imaginary are one.
Images of hotel rooms and shadows on the wall are littered throughout the book, the shadows a constant reminder of the deserts harsh light. Light is inherent to photography and Kuhn documents it beautifully, its abstractions, the bright sunlight, and the dark shadows, the images have a powerful and minimal feel to them.
The only image not taken in the desert, ruins in reverse shows the planned construction of California City taken from Google Earth. The roads are marked out in the desert for a civilisation that didn’t materialise. This image shows the harsh reality of living in the desert, alongside landscape images of large piles of sand, created over many years.
The barren desert is intercut with nudes, these seem odd at first but build into a familiarity. The nudes unsettle, we feel we shouldn’t look at the naked body but are fascinated by these images. There isn’t a hint of embarrassment in the images, the models seem confident, a shared intimacy between the artist and her model is apparent. Her dream-like and intimate nudes offer an intimacy amongst the harsh landscape of the desert. The nudes link to the desert through their form and shapes recreated in the desert through years of wind, shaping this landscape. An image of a scar on a nude stomach is followed by a scarred landscape, linking these seemingly disparate images together to create a narrative between fragility and strength.
The images reveal themselves through their subtleties, through tone, colour and clever image arrangements. The images are enigmatic and call for repeat viewing to unravel their subtle meaning. The desert is a space that has been photographed many times, but Kuhn reveals a more sensitive side that link it to mortality and the role of humans in this wild space.
Private by Mona Kuhn, published by Steidl can be purchased here.
Rory Duckhouse is an artist and writer based in South Wales. Using found images, his work looks at how the photographic image shifts and mutates when dislocated from its original context. Rory graduated with an MA in Photography: Contemporary Dialogues from Swansea Metropolitan University, and now works as the exhibitions assistant for the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea.