by Erica Schwigershausen
In the late '70s and early '80s, the Southern Californian photographer Jo Ann Callis made a name for herself as a pioneer of fabricated photography. Though less well known than some of her successors (Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Gregory Crewdson), Callis was one of the first photographers to work extensively with constructed sets, arranging models and tactile objects in ambiguous, often unsettling tableaux. In 1981, her work was included in the Whitney Biennial, and has since been widely exhibited at MoMA, MoCA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Getty.
As suggested by her focus on the domestic sphere — she’s best known for her dreamlike interiors and uncanny still lifes — Callis’s trajectory as a photographer is a bit unusual. Born in Ohio in 1940, she was married with two children by the time she was 23. It wasn’t until her early 30s that she completed her undergraduate degree UCLA, where, under the instruction of the legendary photographer Robert Heinecken, she first learned to use a camera.
She continued to study under Heinecken for next three years, who encouraged her to work with sets and props to create staged scenes. “I was trying to get out of my marriage and get a divorce, and the time was such that everyone was trying all kinds of experimentation,” Callis told the Cut. “I wanted to set things up, I wanted to make a world of my own.” Under Heinecken’s influence, Callis spent much of her time in grad school working on what she now calls her "fetish project." The resulting photos — an evocative collection of anonymous models in semi-erotic poses — are her most sexually explicit imagery, and the subject of her latest book, Other Rooms, out this month from Aperture.
The photos, taken between 1974 and 1977, are some of Callis’s earliest work — which she’s largely kept a secret until now. “I put them away for a very long time,” she explained. “I started working at CalArts in 1976, which was a very conceptually oriented school, so I thought these pictures didn’t fit what they might be looking for — and I really needed the teaching job.” Even more recently, in 2009, when reviewing her oeuvre for a retrospective at the Getty, Callis kept the photos under wrap. “I remember Judith Keller asking me, Are there any other pictures we haven’t seen? And I said, No, that’s it,” Callis recalled. “I just pretended they didn’t exist, because even at that time I just didn’t think this was appropriate to show at the Getty—and I didn’t think they would be interested in it.”
Recently, at the suggestion of collectors, Callis brought the early photos to Rose Shoshana, the founder of Santa Monica's Rose Gallery, where they are now on view. Callis spoke with the Cut about motherhood, anxiety, and why she kept these photos secret for so long.
What was it about these photographs that made you feel like they shouldn’t be seen?
Well, at first I thought it was because they were too “hot.” Or they were too emotional — they weren’t cool like a lot of the conceptual work. They were very formal, aesthetic — all the things that weren’t in vogue at the time. So, that was initially why. But mostly I was just interested in other things. I went on using some of the same ideas: like tactility, how something feels, and how you can represent a thought in a photograph just using a straight negative — not putting it out of focus on purpose, just seeing what kinds of metaphors I could create. But I think it was the sexuality in them, and I just lost my nerve.
You’ve said that you never wanted your work to be overtly sexual. Why not?
Well, these pictures are the most obvious forays into that subject matter. But that theme — either sexuality, or sensuality — is used throughout my work. Even with objects, I’m looking at them in a way that I’m caressing them with my eyes — that’s how it felt, anyway. But it’s hard to put that out publicly. Now I feel a little bit less vulnerable to criticism or what people will think. I still care, but not nearly as much, since I’m just older. ...