Carmen Winant – Instructional Photography: Learning How to Live Now
In the presence of an instructional picture, I am called to mirror back: I attempt to work the air bubbles out of old clay and conduct self-breast examinations. It is all there, laid out for on the page across dozens of photographs and staged by a body double. This is part of their charge. These pictures look outward – toward us, their incipient readers – and expect their gaze to be met, if remade, in return.
A page like this one from the book embodies so much of I have written about so far: instructional image as index, as teacher, as narrative, as photograph. Honey Lee as a master at this genre, especially when it came to matters of pleasure. She once said that her work was an attempt to ‘try to see ourselves without mirrors.’
Honey Lee Cottrell was a photographer, filmmaker, activist, and educator in San Francisco, with most of her work developed in the 1970s and 1980s. She was a groundbreaking voice of pro-sex, pro-porn feminism and contributed to publications as diverse and innovative as an anthology of lesbian portraiture called Nothing but the Girl, A Dyke’s Bike Repair Handbook, a photographic study of female masturbation called I am My Lover, and was a frequent contributor to the groundbreaking feminist and lesbian magazine On Our Backs. She is also a key part of the collage lexicon created by artist Carmen Winant, appearing as a hero, icon, and metaphor in Winant’s innovative visual/textual narratives.
Carmen Winant is an artist and writer based in Columbus, Ohio, and well known for her work about women and gender identity in media representations, using collage, installation, and an innovative approach to bookmaking to challenge patriarch and heteronormativity. Her newest book, Instructional Photography: Learning How to Live Now, a small book published by SPBH Editions, is an essay constructed with found images and laconic statements that asks some essential questions – how do we use photographs to construct our identities? Can we see them in ways we haven’t before to help breakdown social barriers? And how can we use them for self-actualization and to create new social orders? The pictures included were all collected from Winant’s extensive archive, a unique collection of photographic ephemera she calls instructional photographs. All were previously used in books intended as instruction manuals, photographs to illustrate how to do something – how to rock climb, how to braid hair, how to masturbate, how to do a good downward dog, how to throw pottery etc. – but coupled with Winant’s text reveal much more complicated ideas about the cultivation of identity. She subverts the original intent of the pictures and convinces her audience that the real idea these pictures illustrate isn’t how to do something but rather how to be someone. In an era defined by unprecedented media access and crippling political and social anxiety, Winant suggests that we reassess our relationship with photography and self, specifically in regard to its role in defining normative behavior and hierarchical constructs. In her own words, “In a moment – we might agree? – of heightened anxiety and re-imagination, I want, on these pages and together, to investigate the potential of photography to teach us how to live. Which is to ask if photographs can teach us. If so, how can look to them to demonstrate possibilities, from social organizing to self-actualization.”
Throughout Instructional Photography, Winant refers to Honey Lee Cottrell, and thus I present the idea that a look at some of Cottrell’s work can illuminate a great deal about Winant’s philosophies and path towards self-actualization through photography. Specifically, I want to look at Cottrell’s contributions to the magazine On Our Backs: Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian, and a magazine about feminism, pornography, gender identity, and sexuality made in San Francisco between 1984-2005. Intended to provide sexual content and images for lesbians, the magazine provided an incredible outlet for identity and self-affirmation for many women. Founded by Debi Sundahl, Myrna Elana, Susie Bright, Nan Kinney, and Honey Lee Cottrell, early staff and contributors to the magazine included Jill Posener Morgan Gwenwald, Catherine Opie, Phyllis Christopher, Lisa Palac, Tee Corinne (an artist and photographer that features prominently in Winant’s book Notes on Fundamental Joy), and Tristan Taoromino, all now acknowledged as leading voices, artists, writers and educators advocating for sex positivity and feminism.
It’s important to recognize the significance of when On Our Backs was first published, not only to understand how radical it was, but this also helps us understand its relationship to what Winant coins instructional photography, and thus a template for Winant’s own publication. In 1984, the feminist movement was decidedly antipornography, the AIDS crisis was raging, and there was an incredibly fundamentalist conservative movement in power in the United States, headed by the likes of Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan (leadership that referred to AIDS as “gay cancer”). For this incredible group of women to be publishing pictures of leather-clad bull dykes looking tough and proud, a queer post-orgasmic couple relaxing together in a bathtub with a joint, and nude portraits of gender nonbinary physiologies was beyond progressive, but I think fundamentally intended as instructional. In addition to providing a forum for lesbian voices, On Our Backs’ aim was to teach and inform, to the tell world that all these incredible people and expressions of sexual joy and freedom existed, deserved representation, and that we should all greet them openly and celebrate them with pride. They told other women with similar desires and bodies to not only embrace themselves, but to explore their bodies and inclinations with passion and creativity and encouraged them to break free from the confines of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and thus to actualize their own sense of self. Fundamentally, On Our Backs was about owning images and representation, declaring a self through visual media outside of mainstream expectations.
Honey Lee Cottrell provided photographs for some early editions of the magazine. With her camera, she witnessed and documented an explosive scene of gender pride and exploration in San Francisco in the wake of Harvey Milk, a time of incredible liberation, inquiry, and a push towards Civil Rights for LGBTQ+ people in one of the United States’ largest and most vibrant cities. On Our Backs provided her the outlet to teach the world who the women behind this movement were, illustrating what they did, why they did it, and who they did it with. She provided the photographs to mirror how to be queer, proud, and free.
To better understand this in relation Instructional Photography: Learning How to Live Now, it’s worth taking a quick look at Winant’s previous two books, My Birth (ImageTextIthaca/SPBH 2018)and Notes on Fundamental Joy (Printed Matter 2019). My Birth is a largescale collage of photographs of women giving birth, created by Winant as an attempt to better understand her own experience of such profound physical and emotional gravity, to closely see the incredible mix of joy and trauma at the heart of human conception. Notes on Fundamental Joy, a gorgeous example of creative bookmaking, tells the story of a women’s commune in the Pacific Northwestern United States that ran in the 1970s-1980s. An attempt to fully liberate themselves from patriarchy, it was an entirely egalitarian community created to discover and cultivate free and self-defined women. Early in the commune’s development, photography was used as a tool, and many of the participants either learned the medium or sat for pictures, using an array of cameras and formats (there is a great illustration in the book of several nude women getting a lesson on using a 4×5). Sited in Winant’s narrative in Notes on Fundamental Joy is a photographer, illustrator and activist named Tee Corinne, a colleague of Honey Lee Cottrell and another contributor to early editions of On Our Backs.
Instructional Photography: Learning How to Live Now is best understood as Winant’s manifesto, grounded in ideas explored in these earlier books, providing a laconic, evocative and insightful philosophy about how to use and consume photographs for cultivating a better self, to use it as a mirror, a window, and metaphor for finding and exploring freedom and awareness. It is a very small and simple book, unobtrusively collaging photographs combined with very brief, almost Zen-like statements about personal and cultural history only available because of photography. Presented alongside the photographs, Winant’s words shape ideas around the pictures rather than explaining them. She suggests to her readers that our interaction with the pictures holds layers of meaning much deeper than the acts they illustrate: “My argument will center on the creative and political value of instructional photographs – distinct from documentary – as an urgent and dedicated category of picture-making. Through this kind of image and using as few words as possible (and by speaking through images), I hope to make a larger case about the function of photographs as guides, particularly in moments of personal and collective awakening.” Like On Our Backs, Winant’s book provides an impetus, maybe even a cognitive template, for using photography as a tool for cultural reflection and self-exploration, pushing beyond the boundaries defined by the patriarchy that controls media outlets and social organizations.
On a personal level, I find Winant one of the most exciting and original voices in contemporary photography. There are a number of really interesting artists that have emerged working with photography but not cameras – Penelope Umbrico and Erik Kessels are the first to my mind. Somehow Winant is able to humanize our massive consumption of photographs in way neither of these artists achieve. She’s able to couple the intellectual framework found in Kessels book series – Useful Photography and In Almost Every Picture – with a much more emotional and autobiographical approach. My Birth and Notes on Fundamental Joy are decidedly less sterile and cool than the Useful Photography series, and relish in a messy, personal connection found in the photographs we all make and collect. I can point to many ideas I’ve discovered from Winant’s books but one that I keep coming back to is that both Tee Corinne and Honey Lee Cottrell deserve much more attention than they have received, as pioneering voices of feminist photography.
*A note on the writing of this article: February 14 – September 30, 2022, the Hirshland Exhibition Gallery in the Carl A. Kroch Library will be exhibiting Radical Desire: Making On Our Backs Magazine. The Library holds the Human Sexuality Collection, a substantial collection of materials (zines, magazines, photographs, papers, and books) documenting the sexual revolution and beyond in the United States. My writing was inspired by reading Winant’s book just before seeing this exhibition. All photographs by Honey Lee Cottrell or On Our Backs are installation photographs made from the exhibition at Cornell.