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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Jon Naiman


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This is not the Salon I’d intended for today. My intention was to examine the work of one of the old masters…but I’m going to put that off for a week. Why? Because as I was doing the research for that Salon I accidentally came across a photograph by a modern photographer, Jon Naiman, whose work struck me. It was a glancing blow, just enough to distract me for a moment. It was this image:

After taking a quick look at the photograph I continued on with my research. But for some reason that photo stuck with me. There was something whimsical about it, something that was oddly accentuated by its apparently straightforward approach. So after a few minutes of trying to do the work I was supposed to be doing, I gave in (as I always seem to do) to the temptation of the tangent; I went look for more work by Naiman and some information about him.

I was able to find the work. I was less fortunate with the information. This is what I learned about Jon Naiman: he apparently divides his time between Bern, Switzerland and Brooklyn, New York. That’s about the extent of it. I’ve decided it doesn’t matter. His work intrigues me; that’s enough.

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Naiman’s work seems to be centered around the notion of context. He has three primary series of photographs, all of which explore that notion. The earliest, Plain Air, is probably the least successful. Naiman photographed painters engaged at their easels…not in the studio, not in the sort of pastoral settings we often associate with painters, not even in the romanticized urban street settings we’ve seen so often in bad movies. These painters are painting in industrial locations, in low-rent alleys, from behind chain-link fences on construction sites, in warehouse districts.

It’s not so much that the subjects of the Plain Air series are out of context with their surroundings; it’s that the activity seems out of context. We generally think of this sort of painting as the result of quiet, meditative observation. There is something incongruous about painters concentrating at their easels surrounded by the noise of traffic or the chaos of construction work.

Naiman’s Natural Selection series (as seen in the first image) is more satisfying in its exploration of context. Here Naiman has made rather formal images depicting people engaged in various activities inside the wildlife dioramas of a natural history museum. The conjunction of living humans and stuffed animals isn’t entirely novel, of course. Other photographers have done similar work. What distinguishes Naiman’s photographs, though, is that his subjects totally ignore the stuffed animals. The animals are props that are not being treated as props by the subjects, but are being treated as props by the photographer. That discontinuity is appealing.

In Plain Air it was the activity that seemed out of context. In Natural Selection it is the human subjects who seem out of context. In his third series, Familiar Territory it is the animals who are presented out of context.

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Naiman takes home settings, populates them with appropriate-looking people dressed in appropriate clothing, then drops in a few barnyard animals. Donkeys, horses, goats, chickens. In this series the human subjects are treating the living animals in the same way they treat each other, with the sort of casual intimacy and affectionate disregard we reserve for close friends and family. That matter-of-fact quality to the photographs enhances the incongruity of the image.

One can imagine the donkey in the image above looking over the shoulder of the man sitting at the table, scanning the same magazine, and turning his head to make a comment to the women sitting in the love seat. It seems so ordinary, like any lazy Sunday afternoon.

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I don’t know anything about Jon Naiman. I don’t know where he went to school. I don’t know if he went to school. I don’t know who or what his influences were. I don’t know the foundation for his photographic approach. Knowing those things might add to our appreciation of his work. But the work speaks for itself.

This is a man (assuming ‘Jon Naiman’ isn’t a pseudonym for a woman photographer) with a strong sense of whimsy. This is a photographer who appreciates absurdity for its own sake. This is somebody who will go to ridiculous lengths to create images that celebrate ridiculousness.

I don’t know anything about Jon Naiman, but I like his work. And I’m pretty sure it would be a pleasure to sit down with him over a couple of beers and talk.