Beautiful and astonishing
by Jan Schlain
Joanne Leonard's twenty-one photographs at the U-M Institute for the Humanities gallery are what the 71-year-old feminist calls "visual analogies." In each are two images (one a news photo and the other a book reproduction, visually if not historically connected) that Leonard photographs and turns into one.
Describing them (as she does in the subtitle of the show) as "trompe-l'oeil" ("trick the eye") photographs is a distraction, because the whole idea of deception seems counter to the spirit of the artist and the show. There is no visual trickery here-no diffused light, no blurred edges, no wondering if you can pick up the book or reposition the newspaper clipping resting on it. Putting the title of the show aside (because to my mind it is not a diary, either, any more than my collection of newspaper tear sheets is a diary), Leonard's photographs are arrestingly beautiful and historically astonishing.
The similarities of color, gesture, composition, and feel within each photo are striking. They include Emil Nolde's painting Flood juxtaposed with the April 2010 news photo and headline "Volcanic Ash Grounds Air Traffic in Northern Europe," and a 2006 news photo of a Peugeot factory in Slovakia photographed alongside a book reproduction of Diego Rivera's 1933 mural "Detroit Industry."
A departure from this is Leonard's Anne's Tree. This one touches more deeply because it brings together a book reproduction of the living chestnut tree that gave Anne Frank a sense of life during her years in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and an October 2007 news photo headlined, "A New Wave of Support for Anne Frank's Ailing Tree." Says Leonard, "When I try to explain, to myself even, why my work is autobiographic, I think Anne Frank." (Leonard was eleven years old when Anne Frank's diary was first published in the U.S. in 1952.)
Resting on a chair just inside the gallery is Leonard's own diary, Being in Pictures: An Intimate Photographic Memoir. I recommend looking through it. It includes Leonard's
earlier, more intimate photographs of her psychoanalyst mother, her Holocaust survivor father, her identical twin sister, and her daughter Julia as a child, and it helps us better understand Leonard's inclination toward diaries and everyday records. It also gives us a better understanding of what she sees and responds to.
The most private and stunning photograph juxtaposes a book reproduction of Leonard's "Julia, half asleep"-a photo of her daughter as a young child, lying naked on a bed, her right arm stretched across her body, her knees bent, feet touching the floor-with a New York Times photograph of Eros in the identical pose. Leonard found the Eros while reading the newspaper one morning in December 2011. "That's a 2,000 year old bronze!" she says, still amazed.
Clever and thought provoking, Leonard's Newspaper Diary offers us a different kind of engagement with newspapers and books and, mostly through associations, brings us home. "It's part of a way of going forward," she says.
[Originally published in May, 2012.]