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Insignificant Objects: Laura Letinsky--Are they about anything?

"Still life ... interests me as a genre in the same way that concepts of love interest me—its association with the feminine, its characterization as "less important," its affiliation with domesticity and intimacy."—Laura Letinsky, Aperture, January 1, 2013

In the late 1990s, Laura Lewinsky started making photographs also centered on the domestic realm. Invoking the tradition of Dutch still life painting, she focused on the table and even deployed many of the same motifs—fruits and oyster shells, glassware and vases of wilted flowers—as her 17th-century predecessors.

But the comparison goes only so far. Scholars might insist that these Dutch paintings served as allegories of the vanity of life, as memento more. Still, the uninitiated among us are most struck by the sumptuousness on display. While nodding to Christian morals, these paintings are equally a celebration of wealth. The Dutch masters wanted to have their cake and eat it: Sure, the fruit might be rotting and the pocket watch ticking, but just take a look at the Venetian stemware and that Chinese porcelain.

Letinsky, too, is working in the heart of an empire—the American—but, at least judging from her imagery, not one in its ascendance. In one sequence of photographs, the forks are plastic, the cups Styrofoam, and the food? That's from McDonald's. These images may be invoking the tradition of Dutch tabletop still lifes, but where the Dutch pictured the bounty of the table, Letinsky shoots the aftermath.

Her first showings of this body of work went under the title Mornings and Melancholia, a nod to Freud's essay Mourning and Melancholia. In that exploration of the experience of loss, Freud identified two states that share a common parentage but diverge in kind. Mourners suffer consciously, he argued, grieving a specific, nameable loss. Melancholic grief, by contrast, is a phantom grief; "one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost." Unable to consciously grieve—to make sense of the loss—the mind of the melancholic turns on itself and succumbs to "a delusion of a (mainly) moral inferiority."

For Letinsky, the Freudian reference isn't just word play. Mourning—the mind's healthy response to loss—is banished, replaced by the melancholy of the morning after. The party's over; the guests all fled last night, leaving behind only mess and the fading memory of happy times. As exquisite as they are, these pictures don't evoke high spirits and conviviality—the life of the party. Rather, they document its ragged butt ends.

In her later work, Letinsky rackets up the melancholy. Here, she uses preexisting images—fashion and food shots, high-end magazine ads--and even cannibalizes her own work to create a new generation of tabletop still lifes. Only now, the banquet is a second-generation affair: a photograph of photographs of the birthday cake and the cantaloupe. And "reality"—the specific nameable thing—collapses into its phantom.

"A piece of schmutz and a Tiffany diamond," Letinsky told Aperture, "become the same thing once they're photographed—they become photographs. I have a love/hate relationship with this power of the camera to flatten difference. "

One cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, indeed.

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