Alhadeff’s photographs unveil tension between what is seen as natural and as synthetic

by Shin Hae-In in The Korea Herald, April 17, 2006

Today, we live in a world where synthetic or artificial substances ironically appear more natural than unbleached organic substances. Struggling to capture the tension between the natural and the synthetic, the familiar and the unfamiliar, American artist Cara Judea Alhadeff chose “nudity” as the main subject of her photography.

“It’s not just the human body or nudity that I’m interested in. My interest is more on the tension between what is seen as natural and as synthetic,” Alhadeff said in an interview with The Korea Herald. “I find it interesting that the artificial substances actually appear more natural in our world than organic substances. It shows that what we define as reality could actually be unreal.”

In her photographs, the 35-year-old artist throws in organic and synthetic objects with naked models, the objects and bodies lined up in ways to blur the line separating them.
To the viewer’s eyes, the body parts and objects slip in and out of their human and nonhuman categories, realizing the “tension” Alhadeff strived to express in her photographs. By challenging the viewer’s expectations concerning the familiar, she confronts the cultural distinction between public and private, real and unreal.

For the first time, Alhadeff’s works are being exhibited in Seoul, giving Koreans the chance to make their own judgments on her controversial works.

With an art historian father and a painter mother in Colorado, Alhadeff’s interest and inquiry into human bodies came as a child.

“Much of my understanding about the human body as an art form developed as a child while watching how my parents worked,” she said. “Although bodies are often seen as a separate entity from our daily lives, I consider art and the human body as integrated, not separated.”

After spending her teenage years in Belgium and North Africa, Alhadeff returned home to the United States and met photographer Joel Sternfeld, who became her mentor at Sarah Lawrence College.

Collaborating with artists of other disciplines such as dancers, poets, sculptors, musicians and architects, Alhadeff took her first step to serious photography in 1991.
Moving to Pennsylvania in 1993, Alhadeff devised her own program of study at Pennsylvania State University and created a body of work that dealt with multiculturalism and issues of difference.

Initially, Alhadeff’s works were very “tight” in the closeness of the camera and the subject. After exploring the vulnerability of tight and ambiguous body parts such as armpits, she began to back off and include space in her photographs.

“In order to capture a cleaner sensibility, I didn’t want to get into people’s personalities. This is why I chose nude,” Alhadeff explained. “Because I consider clothing to very much convey one’s personality, I excluded clothing, jewelery, everything but flesh.”

Avoiding digital cameras, Alhadeff does not manipulate the photograph during the developing or printing process. She emphasized that it was important for her that people know her works weren’t fabricated in order to convey the core of her pieces.

“I find reality peculiar enough, without any manipulation or exaggeration,” she said. “All of my works are constructed in the sense that I put the objects where I want them, but everything else in the works show what was there and actually happening in front of the camera.”

Alhadeff’s series of pregnant women – included in the Seoul exhibition – came after thorough thinking about the role of pregnant women in her earlier works.

Realizing that the pregnant body represented the whole of her photographic work – as in terms of contradictions between familiarity and unfamiliarity – Alhadeff planned a project with 15 pregnant women, capturing their nudes in public places such as hair salons, zoos, bookstores, empty auditoriums and bars in San Francisco.

“One of the women said that she felt the most natural and simultaneously the most unnatural about her body, and that just set up sparks for me,” she said. “At first these women were very self-conscious about having pictures taken in public places. But after a while they said that it was therapeutic to be surrounded by other pregnant women in unfamiliar places.”

Because Alhadeff’s relationship with models had always been intimate – they were mostly family members and friends – working with women that she did not really know was also a new experience for her.

In the early 90s, Alhadeff’s works caused controversy in the United States as she tried to display her works in public places. With people challenging her works for “degrading the human body, immoral and inappropriate,” her images were subject to censorship on both U.S. coasts.

“Then, I had really wanted my works to be up in public spaces because I don’t see art as a separate thing but as a sector that needs to be incorporated into our daily world,” Alhadeff explained.

What amused Alhadeff was that people actually saw what was not even in the photographs.

“People would see a vagina or a penis when it was actually a chin or an armpit that was there,” she remembered. “And from this I learned that fragments of bodies are sometimes more threatening because people’s imagination can take them to places that are not the reality.”

Alhadeff said that she had looked forward to her visit to Korea largely due to director Kim Ki-duk and artist Kim A-ta.

Watching director Kim’s movies in San Francisco, Alhadeff said that she had hoped his works – sexually bold and daring – to be a mirror of Korean sensibility. Coming to Korea, she realized that his works were more marginal than she had hoped.

“But I find a huge variety in the art scene here,” she said. “A lot of the works are very experimental, refreshing and less repetitive than what I saw in the U.S. art world.”
Presenting her works throughout the United States, Europe and Asia, Alhadeff is currently considered as one of the most talented emerging artists of America in surrealist, erotic photography and interdisciplinary art.

She recently exhibited her large-format color photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which will continue to be part of their permanent collection.
The Seoul exhibition “The Alchemy of Intimacy” will run through May 1 at Gallery Ssamzie near Anguk Station, Subway Line No. 3, Exit 6. For more information, visit