Figures : f
For Jason Langer, architecture and the natural world have always been props on the stage of the human mind in action, and accordingly his images of nudes are at once studies of universal figures situated in space as well as portraits of the psyche within. Ultimately, however, these figure studies function as invitations for reflection and storytelling—not a single story, and not the photographer’s story—but the spectator’s own idiosyncratic train of associations and memories.
In order to achieve this quality, here in his figure studies as elsewhere, Langer eschews description and factual detail in lieu of idealized forms and gestures. Langer’s practice is instinctual and unpremeditated. He is concerned above all with capturing mood and feelings which are suggested, never declared. Typically his figures’ faces are occluded from the image so that the viewer will focus on nothing but the bodies within the frame: a foot turned inward on a stair, a pair of knees close-up, a rib cage pressing out against the skin. Are these expressions of bashfulness or seduction or something else entirely? His subjects are not only nameless and dateless—hence the convention for titling the images numerically—they are not even called nudes but “figures”, universal abstractions in space open to a world of interpretation.
A former photo educator, Langer is well versed in the history of nude photography as well as its feminist critique; and while he is aware of the so-called “male gaze” in which a gendered power asymmetry is reproduced within the frame, gender politics are not, per se, a concern of his work. Whether he photographs a man or a woman his interest is the same: to explore the private, reflective moment in search of traces of the universal. As a result, his figures are imbued with a relaxed sense of complicity between the subject and object that seems simultaneously to entice and distance the viewer.
Langer began photographing the nude and semi-nude figure almost by accident. While working on his “Secret City” series in 1998 he was introduced to a female friend through a mutual friend. He followed her through the streets of Brooklyn to her flat. Thus began a feminine presence in his work that had previously been absent.
Langer creates his images out of a kind of intimate tug of war with his subjects. He vacillates between intimacy with his subjects and distance from them. When making images of people in the street he tends to choose distance, looking for telling gesture and a relationship to surrounding settings and objects. When photographing in a more intimate setting such as nudes in a private home, Langer works with his subjects to find the most comfortable, unique and expressive gestures for each individual. He spends time with his sitters discussing their thoughts and feelings about themselves and their surroundings, all the while following and photographing them, looking for iconic moments where person, place and thing come together to tell an intimate story about that individual at that time. The stories are never fully answered but rather remain open-ended questions.
Then as now Langer is drawn most of all to capturing the solitary moments in the lives of his models, quiet moments which are often bathed in shadow. Some critics have suggested that Langer’s attraction to the shadowy side of life exemplifies a dare-devil sensibility imbuing his photographs with portent, but for Langer shadows are associated as much with contemplation and a life of the mind as they are with questionable moral values. In fact, Langer’s own philosophy tends toward an existentialist view of the world in which the categories of good and bad are understood to be manmade constructions. His images, thus, seek to represent an amoral universe in which the individual is a free agent charged with creating his own values. A long time Buddhist practitioner, the spectre of impermanence is ever present.
“I am always trying to recreate the same photograph,” says Langer. His images of the male and female figure are bound up in a larger quest for the essential, ultimate nature of being. Langer is the quintessential philosopher-photographer: observant, curious, reflective, and faithful above all that the secrets and mysteries of life may be revealed through quiet, careful attention.
John Hill, 2011