Jonathan Stark at the Hallway Gallery
You might meet photographer Jonathan Stark out on the street one day. If you look like the sort he’s interested in, he could very well ask if you want to be photographed in private. And if in the course of that photo session you decide to take off some—or all of—your clothes, and maybe roll around naked in mud, then so much the better.
Don’t worry though—Stark isn't a pervert. He’s an artist.
“I’ve always been drawn to the human form,” Stark explains. “It attracts me visually but also has an emotional content to it. That’s what has been curious to me, how I respond emotionally, how I respond physically and how I respond sexually to those forms.”
His latest photo exhibit at Jamaica Plain's Hallway Gallery, "Hits Back," explores the moment when we reveal ourselves to others, and how we can actually be at our most powerful at what appears to be our most vulnerable point.
His fascination with all things intimate and sexual evolved out of his previous work, "The Zipper Project," in which he photographed people in the private moments of dressing or undressing. Out of that, he says, he was drawn to exploring that instant when we reveal ourselves to others.
As a photographer, Stark says he’s always aware of the influence he has on every picture that he takes, and the influence that the subject has on him. So the thing that classifies his photos of vivacious, naked women as art—as opposed to say, porn—is the way his interaction with the subject plays out in the frame.
“I’m emotionally involved,” he says. “Porn is an objectification of an image in the coldest of terms. There is no developing relationship with the subject.”
Alas, there are times when his subjects fail to go the full monty—but Stark says he has no problem with that.
“I’ve had some people come to me and the most I get out of it is a portrait, which is still plenty,” he says. “I don’t work with models, so there is always an interesting dynamic that comes out in the studio.”
Other times he hits the jackpot and gets the whole shebang, like the time he photographed a woman on the day of her divorce. She showed up to the shoot carrying a love letter from her ex-husband to his mistress—talk about loaded objects.
“She actually adhered it to her skin with mud,” recalls Stark. “But that first moment when she read it and looked up at the camera, that was enough. She could have been wearing a turtleneck and it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Not everyone has agreed with Stark’s view of his work. At one gallery space, he tried to combine an exhibit opening with a live photo shoot, but the owner shut down his operation with a quickness, fearing gallery-goers would start disrobing.
For Hits Back, he might find the ownership a little more philosophically sympathetic to his brand of on-premises art-making. But while intimacy is the order of the day, the 35-foot-long, six-foot-wide space that is the Hallway Gallery is just a bit too intimate for his purposes.
“If it was a different space I might try a shoot, but there it just wouldn’t work as far as the aesthetics I’d want,” Stark says.
Hallway owner and curator Brent Refsland moved here from Austin, Texas to open the gallery in May of 2009. He usually prefers to put on group shows, with artists showing in a variety of media. But Stark, with his huge body of work, will count among one of very few solo exhibitors at the space.
Refsland is excited to be featuring Stark's photographs, which come complete with a socially conscious message.
“A lot of what he’s showing will be about serious issues of women being vulnerable, sex trafficking and rape,” Refsland says. One of Stark’s subjects, a victim of sexual assault, inscribed words on her skin with a marker as she was being photographed, using the experience as a way of coming to terms with her assault.
Stark will be appearing in the flesh at the Hallway on November 23 to talk about the methods and philosophy behind his work. He’ll also be welcoming any intrepid volunteers to appear before his camera in a future private session.
Jonathan Stark, "Hits Back," The Hallway Gallery, 66A South Street, Jamaica Plain (617-818-5996, thehallwayjp.com) through Nov. 28; Artist’s talk Nov. 23, 7-9pm