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Review of "Girls, Some Boys and Other Cookies"

By Ute Behrend
Scalo Books, 1996
Review by Christian Perring on Oct 16th 2001
Girls, Some Boys and Other CookiesI've had this book on my desk for months. I probably wouldn't have paid it much attention if I hadn't wanted to review it. I've picked it up, browsed though its pages, furrowed my brow, and put it down again. But I have gone back to these photographs time and again. What could I say about them? As editor for this book review section, I've tried to solve my problem by getting another reviewer for the book, but it's surprisingly hard to find people who want to review books of photography. So now I sit at my keyboard wondering what to write. I could just have put Behrend's book on the shelves with hundreds of other books waiting to be reviewed. After all, this review is not likely to get many readers, and the book certainly doesn't have a close relation to mental health, the main focus of Metapsychology. I don't think I'll be returning to it often once I have completed the review. But it's a book I'm glad I know.

I've reviewed enough books of photographic art to have a sense of what is usual and unusual. It's not unusual for art photographers to leave their pictures unexplained -- they are artists, after all, and if they could simply put it into words, what would be the point of going to all the agony of creating their art? When the artist, or more often an art critic or university professor adds a foreword, one can expect that the explanation of the artist's work will be pretentious and misleading. As a reviewer, one has to rely on one's own judgment. When a book has a clear theme or approach, the task of a reviewer is a good deal easier. If you have a collection of pictures of graceful nude girls, it's simple to work out what the artist is trying to achieve, whether they are successful, what to compare the pictures with, what kinds of concerns the pictures will raise. If you have a collection of dark, nihilistic images, there are other traditions that immediately spring to mind as comparisons. If you have someone documenting his life with pictures of his family, there's a story told, and a reviewer can discuss whether the story is told well.

Given the photographer's name, and the fact that her quotation above also appears in German, and some of the words that appear in the photographs, it seems that most of them, maybe all, were taken in Germany and other European countries. But there's no reason to say that her images could be called "typically German" and it would not be surprising to learn that half of them had been taken in Atlanta, Toronto, or Sydney. Indeed, at first glance, browsing through these images, one gets an impression of a bewildering mixture of subjects with few discernible patterns.

Yet Behrend's photographs do have themes, methods, and motifs. Most of the pictures here are of girls or nature. The photographs are in full color, mostly in sharp focus. They have no titles, and the book does not have page numbers. It doesn't even have a title page. The only information we have is on the cover, with a list of people the photographer thanks, and a quotation from her. In full, the quotation is, "Brave girls need good shoes so they can run away when things get dangerous."

The girls and women in these pictures are not models, and they are captured in ordinary life situations. On the fourth page, a teenage girl sits on a curbside with the legs of an older woman behind her. It's not clear why the girl is sitting there, although it seems like it must be night time. Her black and white T-shirt has "babe" written on the front; her short skirt rides up, but she keeps her legs together and her arms round them, she has three necklaces, and dirty fingernails. She has a couple of marks of acne blemishing her pretty face, and it looks like she might have chewed her lip. Her dark brown eyes look up to the photographer, and her face, framed by unkempt dark hair, is pale, the color bleached out maybe by the camera flash. On the opposite page, in another evening scene, we see the silhouette of a large chimney and some tree branches. On top of the chimney is a giant bird nest, and on top of the nest one can make out the shape of a bird, maybe a heron -- it is hard to know the scale of the image.

On the next page there's a similar comparison. On the left side, bright yellow blooms on small tree branches, and on the left, a young girl, maybe five years old, in a yellow top, slightly darker in shade than the blossoms. the girl is distracted, holding two plastic sticks, maybe cocktail stirrers, but watching something to the right of the photographer. With perfect skin and dark eyes and hair, the girl is pretty. A few pages on, a young blue-eyed blond child, maybe a boy, in a white top, stands in a park holding up a giant plastic toy shiny green insect with both hands. On the opposite page, there's an image of the large shiny leaves of a bush with the sun reflecting off them. Following that, there's a little girl with straggly hair and scabbed knees crouching down in a field, a pen knife in her right hand, a stick in her left. She looks like she is sharpening the stick. The photograph is taken from low down, at the same level as the girl's head. On the opposite page is what looks like a cave drawing of a reindeer.

So Behrend is using juxtapositions of childhood, mostly girls, and nature, mostly flowers and blooms, especially with related colors in the images. Some of the images of bizarre -- a cardboard cut out of Madonna in what looks like the back room of a wine shop, a young blond woman in a white lacy dress and high riding boots apparently trying to clamber on or off a standing horse, a piece of a wilting green thistley plant lying on the hood of a car. There's a sense of humor here, as well as enigma and playfulness. As the book progresses, there are more images of older women, in their twenties or thirties, often with men, sometimes kissing, or drinking, or else looking into the camera lens with a slightly frozen smile. The women are conspicuously clad in the trappings of femininity -- there's a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, a woman on a bar stool in high heels, a woman with bright red press-on false fingernails, a woman in fish-net tights. The juxtaposition with other images from nature or elsewhere highlights the oddness of both.

As a whole, this is a discomforting collection of images. It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Behrend is attempting a deconstruction of the construction of femininity. But it's clear that the life of women is the main preoccupation here, and the images suggest it's a strange life. Contemporary culture is artificial and uncomfortable, making women seek pleasure in the brief moments they can find it. Not that Behrend is suggesting a return to nature -- her images of nature don't promise an alternative way of life or even a necessarily pleasurable distraction. The function of nature in this book is more to provide an ironic or dramatic contrast to the other images.

I find this art impressive -- it's an interesting and subtle approach to its topic. Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman are possible points of comparison and contrast. Although there's a political element to this work, and some clear social commentary, it's nevertheless more personal than didactic. The images of often spontaneous and even random; even though the juxtapositions of images are deliberate, there's also a readiness to experiment.

It would be very interesting to talk with the photographer about these images, and to learn more about the people she depicts, and why she chose the images and juxtapositions she did. But even without words, Behrend does convey a reaction to the world and the place of women in it. Although there's no explicit declaration of feminist intent here, this certainly isn't a celebration of femininity in modern life. If we could ask Behrend what she thinks of the contemporary world, I imagine she would give an exasperated laugh.

© 2001 Christian Perring

This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001