Dreamscapes: The Photographic Art of Jenny Okun
by Garrett White
Jenny Okun’s journey to Lecce began in 1997, when architect Alberto Pranzo brought curator Anna Cirignola and fellow architect Toti Semerano to Okun’s Los Angeles studio. At the time, Okun was known for her stunning photographic interpretations of modern and contemporary architecture—precise, layered abstractions achieved by advancing the film in the camera by hand to create multiple overlapping exposures. The result, a kind of Cubist deconstruction and reconstruction of form, made Okun’s work beloved among architects worldwide. “Okun’s photographs,” Frank Gehry has said, “go right to the soul of architecture.”
Impressed by what he saw in her studio, Pranzo suggested to architect Enrico Ampolo, president of the Architects Association of the Province of Lecce at the time, that Okun be included in the program for “Festa dell’Architettura 1998.” Ampolo subsequently invited Okun to exhibit her photographs, curated by Cirignola, at the Lecce Academy of Fine Arts for that occasion in November 1998. In 1999, Cirignola invited Okun to exhibit her work in Milan, Padua, and Assisi, and brought her to Lecce for a second time.
Drawn to the dramatic light reflected in Lecce’s famous limestone, and to the Baroque architectural treasures scattered throughout the Salento, Okun created a series of photographs on that first visit in 1998, applying her signature technique mainly to the city’s sumptuous churches. In 2000, Pranzo produced “Beyond Barocco” a series of events that included the exhibition of a selection of those photographs at the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles. More than a decade later, in December 2011, Okun returned to Lecce to create a second series for the Museo Storico della Città di Lecce’s inaugural exhibition and permanent collection.
The ornateness and complexity of Baroque styles presented a new set of challenges for a photographer accustomed to interpreting spare modernist geometries or the dynamic lines of Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava. “In the first series,” Okun says, “I was thinking about how Baroque architecture forces your eye to move around to see it. I want your eye to travel continuously in my photographs, but I didn’t want my pictures to be as complicated as the architecture. I was somewhat apprehensive about the Baroque, which is already layered, and I wanted to avoid too much repetition.” In Lecce Chiesa di Sant’Irene, from 1999, Okun used a deep blue sky as negative space, allowing only a few discrete surfaces of the building to predominate. In Lecce Chiesa di San Matteo, she reduced the church’s facade to a vertical cascade of architectural fragments, creating a new form that de-emphasizes the veil of design over the Baroque structure. By contrast, Lecce Pillars 1 and 2, also from the 1999 series, offered little resistance: “That was just as easy as photographing modern architecture,” Okun recalls. “The lines are clean and neat and absolutely beautiful.”
“Looking at architecture,” Okun has written, “is like listening to music. Both are dramatic forms that reveal multiple, repeating themes. Above all, both require time. Just as a symphony cannot be experienced in a few seconds, it is impossible to see a whole building all at once. When I photograph a building, I feel as if I am conducting with my camera as I explore the architect's themes in time and space. The layering of harmonious overlapping shapes creates new and playful variations on the theme of the original architecture.”
The photographs from 1999 were all made in the camera. In the last decade, however, Okun—a pioneering digital printer of her own work in the 1990s—moved from traditional film to digital photography. A comparison of the Lecce photographs from 1999 and 2011 reveals a startling expansion of her artistic vision, made possible in part by digital photographic technology. Okun now combines her on-location photography from around the world with masterly digital manipulation in Photoshop to create unique images at once familiar and otherworldly.
Okun was an accomplished painter by the time she reached high school. She received a degree in experimental media from London’s Slade School of Art, and has always pursued a multidisciplinary approach to her art that includes photography, drawing, video, and, more recently, film projections for the stage. She was initially attracted to architecture as a photographic subject because she could control line in the camera. Yet despite her virtuosity, one limitation of the mechanical multiple-exposure technique she perfected was that it required isolating only the strongest graphic elements in the subject at hand. It was an intuitive process that offered little control and left much—if often to great effect—to chance.
Okun’s recent work displays an apparently similar layering technique, but the end result is an organic image intended to be viewed as a seamless whole, in its jubilant entirety, however uncanny or disorienting it may seem at first glance. The freedom and control offered by Photoshop not only brings a greater depth of feeling to Okun’s work; they also allow her to approach any subject that compels her attention. Here now are buildings, yes, but also landscapes and gardens, sculptures and nudes, plants and animals that evoke, in the words of photography curator Karen Sinsheimer, “not only these realities in themselves but Okun’s subjective memory of experiencing them.”
In the 1999 Lecce Duomo Bell Tower, Okun was primarily concerned with architectural detail. In Lecce Duomo Bell Tower 2, from 2011, an entirely different aesthetic is in play. In the former, her goal was to simplify the building by paring it down to its edges; in the latter, she wanted the image to feel like the sound of bells. And indeed, the overlapping towers in the center of the frame seem to be moving like the bells inside. “With the old technique,” Okun says, “only the strongest details showed through. When I went back to photograph in Lecce the second time, I could take single shots, along with many images of details that interested me, and really think about the buildings and how to knit them back together and make something new out of them. So, I wasn’t afraid of the Baroque anymore. In fact, I’ve completely embraced it.”
Architect Thom Mayne’s comments some years ago about Okun’s architecture images remain relevant for the new work. “As in David Hockney’s Polaroid collages,” Mayne wrote, “Okun’s fragmented photos seek to bring the viewer closer to the physiological act of seeing—to create an experience akin to the phenomenon of sight itself. The human eye is incessantly darting, focusing and immediately refocusing as it changes its perspectival position. As in Hockney’s work, there is a layering, not only of fragments, but also of time. . . . In stark contrast to the representation of architecture provided by normative photographic techniques, Okun’s work captures the space that can normally be understood only through movement.”
The formal considerations that previously anchored Okun’s work—planes, lines, color, hard contrasts of shadow and light—have given way to more private narratives that often have the fluidity of dreams. Graphic balance is still evident, for example, in the gorgeous Lecce Museo Storico Courtyard, but its painterly effects privilege emotion over composition. Her initial task was simple: “There’s a tree in the museum courtyard that I thought was really beautiful. I had never successfully combined buildings with trees, so I thought I would give it a go.” The tribute to her prodigious imagination is that however beautiful the real courtyard, the real tree, she created a new reality that—like the alluring but impossible doorways in Lecce Night Streets—we can only enter through art or in dreams.
In Lecce Museo Storico Ceiling, Okun’s formal preoccupations are again present, but the overall effect, accomplished in part by a subtle darkening of the midtones in Photoshop, is meditative, prayerlike—apt emotions in an unapologetically beautiful image. The space exists—you might be standing there as you read this introduction—but the photograph asks us to re-imagine it, to feel as Okun did when she saw it. As she told architecture critic and historian Michael Webb, “I start intuitively, looking for pieces that go together. I construct the final picture in my head, setting up overlapping images and establishing a rhythm from one shot to the next. The goal is to capture the excitement I felt when I was there.”
Okun’s 2011 Lecce Roman Theatre provides another opportunity to compare the photograph to its subject, the ruins of a Roman theatre adjacent to the Museo Storico and visible from its windows. Here Okun explores the circle, a subject she had not approached before, linearity having been the hallmark of her earlier photographs and drawings. The steps aren’t where they should be, of course, but the image is meant to convey how Okun felt about the space. Memories, like dreams, are not linear.
A similar playfulness with reality can be seen in Lecce Duomo Ceiling, a photograph that echoes Okun’s nude series, in which patterns are projected onto the human form. For this image, Okun repeated the lacelike patterns on the church’s ceiling as if they had grown organically across every surface. “I was interested in how the patterns and the structure blend and meld together,” she says. “The patterns are on some of the ceilings, but I just put them on everything. I tried to make it more Baroque!”
Garrett White is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the founder of Five Ties Publishing, Inc., and has edited and produced numerous books on photography and fine art, including Variations: The Architecture Photographs of Jenny Okun (2008), and Dreamscapes: The Photographic Art of Jenny Okun (2012). He is a former director of publications at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.