Many photographers use images to get under the skin of reality and touch the more elusive corners of human experience. For Jo Ann Callis, that more often than not means a carefully constructed zone of personal eroticism. In a new book, Other Rooms (Aperture), on display at Rose Gallery in Santa Monica through August 16, her twin portfolios from the mid-1970s, one in color and one in black-and-white, focus on the female body in various states of undress and hints of eccentric bondage.
By her account, that era was a rough time for Callis — a dissolving marriage, young children to raise, the challenges and self-doubt of surviving as an artist, and the lasting trauma of her father’s death. So Callis’ early work evinces darker emotions, though not without humor and the catharsis of sensuality made visible. She was especially enthralled by “doing some magic” on her black-and-white photos in the darkroom. “You transform that experience into something else, and that was really intriguing.”
The turbulent social change that pervaded the 1970s infected Callis and her Los Angeles circle with a willingness to experiment with their own lives, and focus candidly on their own emotions. The models in these tableaux are all friends or friends of friends, people she knew and who clearly trusted her. Callis sees the images as metaphors for states of mind, for the ineffable consciousness of living in and with bodies. All of the scenes play out in domestic spaces, interiors within interiors.
Callis’ stage is fairly minimalist, conjured out of modest furniture, fabric and primarily women in langorous poses. All are of solitary figures, often with head and/or limbs cropped out of the frame. The tweaked color, she says, was inspired by the work of Paul Outerbridge. Though Callis has a taste for fetishy setups, they’re intimate without being prurient. Her world is one of contemplation, gesture, ambivalence, anatomy made formal even as it transgresses the comfortable — an ever intriguing paradox of the cozy milieu as a backdrop for various shades of transport and malaise. Sex is not demystified so much as re-mystified: As Francine Prose points out in her lucid introduction to Other Rooms, sex has been commodified by pornographers and admen; restoring some of its subtlety of effect and meaning, in shots made 40 years ago, is worth celebrating.
More from the Photographer Spotlight Series: