Honey. It is one of the most evocative words we have. It's a food, a scent, and a term of endearment. Its production is one of the most magical of nature's processes. It's a metaphor and a symbol, a color, a sweetness, and a frequent element in homemade cures. One thing it typically is not: a raw material of visual art, like paint or clay. But in fact, its irresistible physicality is heavy, dense, sticky, and fluid; and its seductive aesthetic properties of luminosity, transparence, refraction, and motion make for compelling sculptural and photographic optics -- especially when it comes into contact with the human body.
In "Preservation," acclaimed portrait photographer Blake Little executed a simple premise and a singular technique in which his mostly unclothed subjects are covered in gallons of honey while being photographed in the studio. It's unwieldy, and evidence of that carries through into the pictures, in the faces and bodies of the models, and in the dramatic configurations of the honey itself -- all serving to highlight this unique creative process further. Though the most profoundly transformative magic of "Preservation" resides in the book's finished portfolio of images, it is still impossible for the viewer to avoid an empathetic moment deconstructing how it was done at every turn.
"Preservation" yields iconic art-historical memes and references to classicism and antiquity which were not necessarily intentional, but which were immediately apparent to the artist once it was underway. Smooth, monochrome surfaces, impossibly perfect skin, stylized, not necessarily idealized, anatomical structures, like marble or bronze or the fraught emotions still legible in the poses of the dead of Pompeii. There are more contemporary fine-art references too -- Jenny Saville with her paintings of undulating fleshiness; Andres Serrano with his submersions in fluid and alabaster corpses; Francis Bacon with his evocative distortions and surreal anatomical abstractions; Bill Viola in say Ascension, or Emergence -- the hyper-slow immersions in rippling water. One imagines slowed breathing, the bracing effect of the start of the pour, the moment when the body finds its place and the body's movements freeze, while the honey just keeps coming down.
Little worked with Craig's List actors. His ad just indicated "art project" and no further details were given until they arrived to his studio. He says 80 percent of the people stayed once they heard the plan. Over the course of 15 ten-hour days between 2012 and 2014, he saw dozens of people and thwarted a swarm of rogue robber bees. The little baby named Riot, the exuberant tattooed couple, the obese lady, the dog, the elderly, the young and innocent, the nubile and statuesque -- the goal, well met, was to depict as wide a range of humanity as possible. "I wanted interesting, unique people, not just pretty people," says Little. Plus as a practical matter he needed exaggerated features that could stand up to the honey itself, sculpturally.
Character in portraiture is conventionally revealed in the eyes and facial expression of a subject. That in this case it was instead their bodies that took on this function was for the artist both the charm and the challenge. "I can get into people's heads to elicit a true portrait," says Little, "but the honey is exceptionally physical. For one thing, it requires everyone to pose with their eyes closed." It softens the individuality of their faces but remains transparent enough to read their features, to recognize the individual. It makes each sitter more similar to the others, and yet at the same time the reactions reveal the wide range of diverse personalities one might expect -- except in their bodies instead of their faces. As for the honey itself, some folks succumb to it, revel in it, luxuriate. Some remain stoic and appear relaxed. Some find the playfulness and humor in the situation, and many seem to have something to prove, perhaps to themselves. And of course, some folks just simply freak out. Each enacts the sticky-sweet, emotional, performative drama of the process in unique and telling ways -- and that's why despite its subversions, "Preservation" succeeds so powerfully as a body of portraiture.
All photos by Blake Little.