The world of contemporary art photography (photoland) lives with a very basic contradiction. On the hand, it routinely belittles all those who are not part of it as shallow when they take photographs. If you want to believe most art critics and writers, selfies and photographs of food are signs of a complete lack of sophistication and class (which, and this is implied, exists in sheer abundance in photoland [it doesn’t]).
On the other hand, photoland often goes gaga over photographs taken by outsiders, given that they are unfettered by the many unnecessary restrictions and rules photolandians live with. A good example are the photographs taken by Corita Kent, now available in book form as Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us.
Before we proceed, a couple of small notes. First, Corita Kent was born as Frances Elizabeth Kent, became a nun (Sister Mary Corita Kent), and later returned to secular life as Corita Kent or simply Corita. Second, the photographs in question were taken not only by Sister Mary Corita Kent but also by others, including (then) Sister Mary Lenore (now Lenore Dowling). There is a short essay by Olivian Cha in the book with more details. When looking at the photographs, you do not want to focus on the aspect of authorship in the strict photolandian sense all that much, because you’d be missing most of the points made by Corita Kent during her life time.
Kent, Cha explains, “did not make prints from her slides or exhibit her photographs as artworks. She described them fore most as plentiful sources, precursory, exploratory, and meant to be shared: ‘Anything can be a source, even a mistake. The sorcery or the thievery is the art of relating sources into a new solution.'” (emphases in the original) By itself, this is not necessarily a very original approach — ever since photography was invented, (non-photographic) artists have treated it as a way to create source material.
That said, there is considerable visual wit in these photographs, which makes them very interesting to look at. If you only know the photographs and know nothing about Corita Kent’s art, it might not surprise you to learn that she was a very gifted maker of screenprints. She now is seen as an important pop artist. Many of the photographs in the book indeed are very graphic in the sense that they extract snippets of the world (often signage) to amplify the basic graphic elements therein.
Furthermore, there is a vast sense of wit and play in a lot of the photographs, something that I personally do not associate with the organisation that Corita Kent was a part of (the Catholic church) — until she was pushed out by some cardinal who frankly does not deserve to get any more attention, so I will ignore his name. Kent’s best revenge — even though I think she might not have seen it that way — was to later design a US stamp with the message “love”, which was sold hundreds of millions of times.
The photographs in Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us were taken in the 1950s and 60s, and they easily tie in with the counterculture that would blossom in the later part of that period — to then come crashing down. A little over ten years later, the election of Ronald Reagan would trigger the massive counter-revolution that we now have to live with. I have no way of knowing how the photographs would have been viewed around the time they were made or when they were used by Corita Kent in workshops and lectures.
Looking back and being mindful of the atmosphere that now pervades the US, one can’t help but almost feel nostalgic for the time depicted in the photographs — even if that nostalgia is in fact completely misplaced (as nostalgia always is). This brings me to the book itself, in particular the way it was designed and put together. I don’t know how the book would have been conceived when the pictures were made. I don’t have a time machine available to find out.
That all said, what bothers me is the fact that the book has basically turned the photographs and spirit of Corita Kent’s work into something you might find at Urban Outfitters: material to be consumed by well-off hipsters.
The book is trying way too hard to create something fun out of a collection of pictures that don’t need that help. Looking through the book, at every turn of the page I almost expected someone to pop up behind me, exclaiming “Haha! Get it? Such fun!” Yes, the pictures are fun, but please don’t hit me over the head with that.
Furthermore, the pictures are actually a lot more than merely fun. Their wit and playfulness have a lot to offer: they invite introspection and a re-discovery of one’s inner child. Unfortunately, the book’s relentless over-the-top effort to be fun itself gets in the way of a deeper and more meaningful engagement with Corita Kent’s core message.
Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us; photographs by Corita Kent; texts by Corita Kent and Olivian Cha; J&L Books/Magic Hour Press; 2023
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