These days there are few taboo subjects that haven’t been tackled by a photographer, and it takes something very unexpected to genuinely raise eyebrows. At least year’s Recontre d’Arles photography festival in the South of France, guest of honour and long-time provocateur Nan Goldin invited a group of talented photographers, some established and some emerging, to show their work in one of the main exhibition halls. After the opening week, one young photographer’s name was on everyone’s lips: Leigh Ledare
His exhibition there, currently on show in expanded form at the Pilar Corrias gallery in London, was an extraordinary exploration of his decidedly ambiguous relationship with his mother, and the conflicting desires faced by a young man and an aging woman. Brutally intimate, it featured a mix of poignant portraits, personal, often troubling letters between mother and son, and explicit shots of his mother involved in sexual acts with male prostitutes. For a son to witness his mother involved in such scenes is one thing, but to be able to coolly document them and realise a show based around them was something few, if any, were prepared for. His mother, a former model and professional ballerina, appears to have serious trouble reconciling herself with her increasing age and declining appeal to the opposite sex, actively going out of her way to be provocative and sexual, drawing Ledare into her subversive schemes. These images aren’t deliberately sensationalist though, and once you can get beyond the initial shock, Ledare’s work explores some serious, fundamental issues. He looks at what makes us who we are; our desires, aspirations and needs; primal urges which are often loaded with ethical and psychological conflict. The hand-written ‘Girls I Wanted To Do’ list, which include his mum and his then-girlfriend’s sister alongside more obvious objects of teenage lust, listed alongside heroes from his childhood, is a great, poignant illustration of the complicated urges and aspirations of adolescence. All of us have ideas of who we'd like to be and how we want to appear, but few have delved this deeply into the murkier parts of the psyche. The viewer wonders who this woman is, and who the photographer is that can put himself through this. Its raw therapy and role-play through photography in a way that Cindy Sherman never dreamed of, and the body of work as a whole is something very brave and unprecedented.
Perhaps unfortunately for him, Ledare was anointed the successor to Goldin’s throne after his triumph at Arles. But his work is very different to hers, and the fearless way he explores the themes he does set him apart from Goldin, who is more of a documentarian. Ledare has also been working on a series of self portraits which continue his exploration of identity and the role of photographer and model. Answering personal ads which reminded him of his mothers’ view of herself, he paid these women to photograph him at their homes, in scenarios of their choice. He also invited certain art collectors to photograph him within the context of their art collections, and both these series mix together to further blur our idea of who this complex, unsettling photographer is.
PLEASE BE AWARE THERE ARE SEXUALLY EXPLICIT IMAGES BELOW