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The Metamorphosis of Photographer Alex Stoddard

I met the photographer, Alex Stoddard, on Day #306 in his piece, “Metamorphosis, interrupted.” The piece (featured above) was arresting. Is this a youth being born or a youth dying mid-birth? Is the photograph the interruption, or are we seeing a subject in the midst of its demise?

“Metamorphosis, interrupted” is a dark muscular thing occurring, all the more alarming because it happens surrounded by such tranquility—by such clear summer light. The boy screams, falls, forcibly awkwardly forward-right even as he is tugged by both cling and frame off to the left. The composition is all wrong, yet utterly right. Sure, I can see what happens in this photograph. But I still can’t tell you what is happening in this photograph.

Stoddard was 17 years-old when he planned, posed, and took “Metamorphosis, interrupted,” and well into the final quarter of his 365 Project—which involves a photographer taking and presenting a photo of something for a full calendar year. He was still living in Georgia with his family and shooting photos in off-time between high school studies and a part-time job in a restaurant (according to a 2012 interview with Chase Jarvis blog).

Stoddard did photos partly because nothing else had stuck—Teagan Alex of SLR Lounge relates that he had tried drawing and painting the year before, without engagement or success—yet also because he wanted to finish something. He told Chase Jarvis in a blog interview that:

Another part of [the 365 Project] was this almost subconscious need for completion. I’d never finished anything in my life up to that point. I’d always given up when things became too difficult. I wanted to be able to prove to myself that I was capable of finishing something I started.

Not many photographers who start a 365 Project finish it. Far fewer leave the project with a body of work capable of garnering as much well-deserved respect or attention as Stoddard has seen. B&H Photo and [FRAMED] featured Alex in their first season of “Framed Show,” back in July of 2013, and Flickr recently named Alex as one of its “20 Under 20,” showcasing the finest talent among young photographers working today.

Many of those who feature Alex’s work describe it as “surreal.” Honestly, I think it’s the most often used descriptor; even Alex himself uses it in some interviews. And I’m not disagreeing…

Yet for me, Erin Fitzpatrick, writing for Refinery29, gets closer still:

What makes a good photographer? Well, if it has anything to do with being able to capture the human spirit in its most vulnerable state, then 21-year-old Alex Stoddard is one hell of a photographer…Moody, moving, and at times creepy, many of his images bring to life some of our most powerful emotions—resilience, heartbreak, hope—while others are intended to spin a fantastical story.

Fitzpatrick slants on a truth from Susan Sontag, the premiere photography theorist, who says that: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability”; Fitzpatrick suggests that the business of photography done well—and Alex Stoddard, she seems to believe, fits into this category—is the business of trafficking in change: be it time, be it essential humanness, be it that which transforms. I marvel, often, at the potential for photography to tell these kinds of stories, share these kinds of truths.

Especially in the light of so much paradox. Because, let’s face it, photography is in some ways a brief history of paradox. Words common to the art, words like “capture” or “take,” belie the essential truth as Sontag and Fitzpatrick tell it; because very little wisdom or exchange develops from a vocabulary of predation. Still further, photography in its earlier days swung wildly away from art as a tradition, eschewing pictorialism and choosing representation as its primary practice. Is it any wonder then that so many from the traditional schools of visual art have disagreed wildly about the consequences of its inclusion in these schools?

Let’s not forget that Sontag also says of photography that: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

I believe that Alex Stoddard’s photographs are perhaps the best of both these views: their own paradox is that they can be both participatory (and thus transformative) while also a kind of dark self-violation. Perhaps that is what makes them beautiful to me: my own uncertainty when I first looked at them repeats itself upon further viewing, yet it’s this exact uncertainty that grounds (and saves) them for me. I feel at once like these photographs tell me a lot about what Stoddard thinks—not always something I can say about a photographer I like, and not just because Alex takes so many self-portraits—while simultaneously revealing very little about themselves as stories. When he first started the 365 Project, Alex reports to SLR Lounge: “I would sneak around and make up lies about where I was going, because I didn’t think my friends or family would understand.” I think this seeps into the work.

Earlier this month, Canon Australia did a piece for YouTube called “Decoy” about six photographers shooting portraits of the same man. Yet Canon told each of the photographers a different story about their subject—six exceptionally different stories. It is unsurprising that six equally different photographs resulted from these sessions, all claiming a kind of true seeing of who the subject really was. Hence “Decoy,” a name meant to wink at what a photographer claims to be engaged in and fails at: telling a kind of representative truth.

As a photographer myself, I believe we only get at the truth sideways—or slant, as Emily Dickinson would tell it, something I’ve learned from poetry—and what we plan to elide, namely ourselves, really never disappears at all. Someone once said that a photograph was a trick. Well, if it is, it’s a trick on the photographer: which I think is the beauty of seeing a body of work like Alex’s, rich, diverse, yet both possessing of a signature look and compressed into this four-year span.

Alex, then, is braver than I am as an artist—yes, this is why I admire him—for putting more of himself deliberately into his photographs (something I shy from, or plain fool myself into thinking I can avoid). By writing meaning into his work, in convention, in metaphor, even in one of his dreamy and incomprehensible narratives, Stoddard also succeeds at the participation that Sontag speaks of—less like a gun, more like a book to be laid open. His other works, included here, have names that are telling: “Dying Angels,” “Anointment,” “the forgotten housewife,” etc.; they tap into a shared vocabulary, visual and otherwise, which speaks wider than each photograph can alone.

When I consider “Metamorphosis, interrupted” now, I no longer see either youth alone: the boy dying mid-birth is the man being born. Now I struggle to see what’s being interrupted.

You can see more of Stoddard’s work at his website, Alex also offers a series of workshops, should his technique interest you. Print inquiries can go to the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles, CA.

Stay Backwords,

Matthew D. Kulisch

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