Winnipeg photographer Dayna Danger's latest exhibition at Urban Shaman, Big'Uns, definitely makes an impact. That said, she might need to adjust her aim.
In terms of style and content, the series of large-scale, full-length nude portraits are explicit in every sense of the word. Shot in vivid detail with high-fashion production values, they're forthright, frank in their sexuality, and we couldn't print any of them uncensored. Just because images hold little back, however, doesn't mean their message is always clear.
In her statement, Danger notes that her subjects ("women identified, trans, trans* and non-binary individuals") "often lack power over their own sexuality," and the work means to help right that imbalance. The women she photographs span a wide range of ages, ethnicities, body types and gender presentations, but the portraits follow the same formula. Disrobed, greased-up and brightly lit, the models pose in front of flesh-tone studio backdrops, each brandishing an imposing pair of animal horns between her legs.
It's true that gesturing suggestively with moose antlers might not be everybody's idea of "empowerment" (I'd particularly like the moose's take on the matter). Still, Danger's models include performers, artists, activists and academics, among others; while participating in the series undoubtedly meant something different for each of them, there's no reason to assume their experiences were anything but affirming. (One portrait was pulled from the show after the opening at the model's request). It's both important and discouragingly rare to see diverse bodies celebrated, and Danger does so with unmistakable enthusiasm.
Danger's work consistently mimics the look of commercial photography and fashion advertising, a style she put to particularly effective use in a group show last year, incisively parodying Terry Richardson's controversial 2007 ad campaign for Tom Ford. In the original image (a close-cropped, hairless crotch shot) a faceless, naked model grips a bottle of cologne. In her pitch-perfect remake, Danger restaged the scene herself with a bottle of dish detergent. Similar in style and content but lacking the same satirical focus, Big'Uns can come across like a smuttier, punk-rock Dove campaign or a remarkably diverse (but still characteristically porny) fashion spread in an edgy lifestyle magazines. It's not subversive exactly, but it a modest improvement to the status quo.
To explain the horns, Danger cites a paper by a group of social theorists examining the "blurred sexual boundaries in the discourse of sport hunting," but this raises a few troublesome questions about her approach. She notes that pairs of antlers and pairs of breasts are both called "racks" in some circles, but the antlers are still a potent, specific symbol of male sexuality and aggression. The photographs seem to conflate empowerment and masculinity in a way that seems at odds with Danger's stated goals for the work. Similarly, by repurposing the sport hunter's "trophy shot," as a metaphor for sexual autonomy, Danger seems to revel in rather than reject the mentality of violence that ultimately "links hunting with sex and women with animals."
While my misgivings are real (and I have others), I hope most people take the work in the spirit intended -- as a celebration, an affirmation, and a breezy "f you" to those who could use one. Big'Uns closes July 19.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator.