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Published in the 2014 Summer Issue
SANDY KIM takes her notorious photos by never not taking photos. Her process is a blur, and even her camera is a question mark. In a recent talk at the Aperture Foundation in New York, Kim described her tool in highly untechnical terms as a low-budget Yashica; Matthew Schnipper’s introduction to the 2009 monograph Sandy Kim (Unpiano Books) has it that she’s often lost said Yashica and used a disposable instead. Back then, in the aughts, when Kim was living in San Francisco and shooting shows, street scenes, and wasted adventurings with the band Girls, you could have landed in any major city and found dozens like her: In Toronto, where I lived, we used Kodak Fun Savers and Yashicas to snap Pabst-y, rainbowed parties and hops in the pool after dark. We were not friends with Girls, however, or with anybody who would become famous, and we thought flash photography would make us look like stars until it didn’t, until eventually our Downtown, Anywhere demographic stopped taking photos every night, then stopped going out every night. But Kim kept going and going out, and when she moved to New York and found new friends and subjects, many of whom were becoming recognizable—the singer Sky Ferreira, the rapper Danny Brown—it became clear that her talent was rarer than her material. She could make stars look like ourselves.
Kim is often compared to Nan Goldin by virtue of her vices, or her gender. They share a ken for diegetic lighting (in New York, Kim has all but quit her flash) and a careless, heartbreaking way of snapping limbs. But Goldin said she wanted her hand to be a camera, whereas to see Kim—at a club in Miami, in a gallery in Bushwick, half-naked on a subway—is to think her whole body must be one. She is light, compact, unblinking. Her pics are shot from above or below or around the corner, sideways or over a shoulder, as if each of her orifices is a lens and she doesn’t aim. Or as if she’s less a fly on the wall than a fly on your nightstand, buzzing wherever you spill something.
These spillages Kim easily contains. Take her shot atop the Gaylord Apartments in Los Angeles, bathed in a green so blockbuster-apocalyptic it must be faked in postproduction—only the longer you look, the more you see it’s real. Or the one of a boy kneeling in front of an open portal, its glow turning red in the startled dark, so that he’s raiding the lost ark and not the fridge. Or the bull’s-eye framing of a menstrual stain on white, white sheets, white walls. Composition thrives in the banal. Smoke cumuluses perfectly between the pot-smoking mouths in a perfectly not-kissing kiss, and the klieg-like illumination of a Shell station renders some rest stop a religious tableau. If Kim can seem indiscriminate, it’s only when you are not waiting long enough; lovers in spirit, her pictures give exactly as much as you have decided they’re worth.
And, of course, the pictures are often of lovers. Kim likes shooting boys in sleepily undressed states and she likes shooting girls the same, but she likes her boyfriend, Colby, better than anything. She shoots her period blood all over him. Her gaze would be proudly hetero-female if we could be sure the female gaze existed and if that term hadn’t been so corrupted by shoddy thought. All things remaining unequal between men and women of the same class—a laughably obvious statement that is especially unfunny in the art world—the female photographer today cannot maintain an equal and opposite gaze simply by switching the gender of her subject (as Aneta Bartos did with her masterly images of naked young men in 2011) or making a subject of her gender (as Petra Collins does in discussing her David Hamilton–hued shots of comely girls—including Kim). An oppositional gaze, maybe. But “empowered” always sounds like an excuse, and the “female gaze” never exists free of or uncomplicated by the “male gaze.” Better to join what literary critic Elaine Showalter called the “wild zone”: an elemental and literal no-man’s-land that is alien to the state and “has no corresponding male space since all of male consciousness is within the circle of the dominant structure.” The wild zone is not a country warring with men, or with the mainstream; it is not exactly separatist, nor can it ever be autonomous. Rather, it snakes along the border between old and nowhere. Here we find libidinal freaks of femininity, like Goldin and Diane Arbus and Corinne Day, whose bathroom-sink realism prefaces Kim’s, but also the late, almost-forgotten Rose Mandel, who snapped proto-Kim window selfies in the San Fran arcades in the 1940s. In the wild zone, images feel as though no one is looking.
And in the wild zone of Sandy Kim, a double take replaces the gaze and the gendered transaction of nudity on film becomes a freer, more fluid, I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours exchange. Yes, fluid is precisely the substance of her: the blood that could be anyone’s. The alcohol, the emulsion, the cum. The light that, when it sticks to something, she rushes to lick it up.
–Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer living in New York.