Review in the Collector Daily
Aaron McElroy’s The Devil May Care is a parade of photographs of anonymous young women, often naked or half naked, and always “caught” in scenes of messy domestic banality. His photobook takes us on an intimate voyeuristic ride, capturing the female body from angles atypical for a male gaze, obscuring identities by cropping out faces, and concentrating on awkward and often far from flattering body positions. Yet nothing is too openly on display in McElroy’s pictures and his sensitivity brings a poetic and mysterious mood to the visual flow. He observes and captures, keeps things from being seen, and allows us to glance over his shoulder. His work is particularly compelling in book form as the paging from image to image conveys a fleeting sensibility that cannot otherwise be articulated by a single photograph.
The Devil May Care takes the tantalizing ideas of voyeurism and desire a step or two further than we normally encounter. Faded pictures of young women are mixed together with carefully selected fragments of daily life and everyday objects (a spoon, a lamp, a cigarette butt, etc), and McElroy seems particularly interested in the folds of skin and in all forms of hair, from the hair on heads and pubes to the stubble of freshly shaved skin. Abstract cropped body parts are shot in flash-lit domestic interiors, with crumpled sheets, empty floor surfaces, and forgettable walls often serving as a kind of background, as if it to remind us of a private space.
The book begins with a painting by a Canadian artist Brad Phillips, drawn from one of the images included the book; it’s a wide back of a woman with a bra on her waist, her form captured in the midst of removing the black band. The first photograph shows us a female nude leaning towards her leg straightened in the air, shot against a blue background – we are exposed to her breasts and shaved sex but the strong harsh light of the flash flattens out the texture of the skin and the body begins to resemble a sculpture. Are we looking at something we shouldn’t be looking at? Who are these faceless women? Wild lovers, close friends, occasional strangers? We might wonder as we flip through the pages, yet this exciting sense of mystery guides our perception. As the camera reveals no faces, it also hides emotions and feelings, especially those not so easily conveyed through body language alone. The approach pushes us into a voyeuristic position, and we eagerly start to invent our own stories, identities, and histories.
The book offers no particular narrative, and the sequence of the photographs is instead based on the repetition of shapes and colors. The careful pairing and ordering of images seems essential to McElroy’s vision, with visual parallels and echoes his method of creating forward momentum (a female body under foamy water in a bathtub leading to a close up of a flowering bush in sunlight). Figures are mixed with images of flowers, panties, rocks, dry branches and leaves, a crack pipe, heroin packets, posters, and other seemingly random items. A close up of a bush covered in snow reminds us of McElroy’s many images of hair, and his muted washed out palette, with a particular accent on the color of pinkish cream, ties all the images together in a soft, hazy, atmosphere. The theme of life and death appears repeatedly through the depiction of flowers, as they change from full bloom to wilted decay. One of the last images portrays a basket with faded flowers, a pile of rotten fruit, and bottles with filthy water and dead plants, its surprisingly attractive color and texture resembling a shrine offering or (with some imagination) an explosion of a galaxy. Sex, life, and death seem to come full circle.
The large format of the book and its soft cover make it physically easy to flip through, provoking a stream of loose associations. Printed on thick paper with a light cast of magenta, the layout is rather simple, and with just few exceptions, all images are the same size surrounded with small borders. As a result, the book has a satisfying balance between its format, design, layout, paper choice, and printing.
In The Devil May Care, Aaron McElroy places us at the tipping point between curious interest and uncomfortable intrusion, and it’s this undercurrent of anxiety that is in the end so compelling. It’s as if he deliberately wants to make us quietly uneasy, offering no easy answers or resolutions to take the edge off.