Culture: Visual Arts

Claire Aho: Studio Works

Claire Aho

Dazzling colours, a touch of kitsch and playful use of patterns are the hallmarks of Finnish photographer Claire Aho.

It takes you back to the days when there was a sweetness and gentleness to photography, and in particular, the advertising world. This is not a harsh assault on the senses a la the brutalist movement.

Rather, there’s a deftness of touch, particularly in the first image of the show – a simple bunch of flowers.

But look again and you see it’s riot of colour, a vivid arrangement in which the reds, pinks and  deep purple tones sing out. A rose on the left turns its head from the bunch, a rogue bloom that is striking in profile.

The Photographers’ Gallery exhibition focuses on Aho’s studio-based work in the areas of advertising, fashion, editorial photography and magazine covers.

Aho has had a unique career. She was hired by Warner Pathe News, New York, as the only female photographer among 400 men, and she was practically the only woman photographer working in the commercial sector during the 1950s and 1960s.

When I chatted with her after seeing the show, I asked if she felt there was a reason why she was the only woman photographer at the time. She just shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.

She just refuses to see any difference between herself and other photographers because of her gender.

And yet I can sense a difference. What I see in the images is a sense of humour; the woman is aware of being the object of the gaze – the model meets your gaze with a wry look, as if to say, ‘Yes, this is really a strange thing to be doing, holding up a typewriter like its a tea tray.’

I could see shades of Cindy Sherman’s ideology in Aho’s image construction – or that should probably be the other way around. The models look slightly ill at ease, with splayed out legs as if they have been caught in awkward poses. If you’ve ever tried to replicate a Cindy Sherman pose (as I have, and don’t ask why), it’s really very uncomfortable and painful to hold for longer than a few seconds.

But the poses do look good. Because they are not natural poses, they catch the viewer’s eye and you need to stop and look to figure out what’s odd about the composition.

What Aho does is very difficult to achieve. She brings together a sense of mischief, fun, and surrealism as well as authenticity to her images.

There’s a marvellous image of a buxom redhead in an emerald green sweater, with her breasts proudly standing out, which is more to do with upholstery than breast implants. Once you tear your eyes off her breasts, your eyes are drawn to the equally prominent bottle of Erikois beer – which is the selling point of the image. Beer and breasts – a double whammy you just can’t beat.

Now a sprightly 88, Aho is in demand and receiving the recognition as a pioneering photographer she richly deserves. She is giving a talk on Saturday 20 April and there are screenings of her documentary films on 24, 25, 26 & 29 May at the ICA.

Claire Aho: Studio Works is at the Photographers’ Gallery until 21 July 2013.

Words: Fiona Keating

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