Joyce Baronio: Regaining Paradise Lost

On looking once more at the photographs that brought Joyce Baronio overnight fame in 1980, I can’t help but reflect on how attitudes to sex, sexuality and the unclothed human form have changed since then.

The images in her book 42nd Street Studio, made during a four year tenancy of a tiny upstairs room off Manhattan’s answer to Kings Cross, have all the poignance of an era of lost innocence.

Appearances deceive however, and there is far more here than meets the eye. The ’70s was the age of the sex and drugs party that would never end, the price of admission to be paid only after a lengthy incubation period. AIDS was waiting in the wings.

In persuading workers in the sex entertainment industry to briefly vacate their dark subterranean chambers for her sun-lit space above the streets, Baronio was digging deep for symbols. Her mistresses of bondage and disciples of discipline became vivid metaphors for the disparity between individuals’ real lives and the roles they act out in society.

The project was also a voyage of self-discovery, but not one without costs. When recalling it, Baronio quotes Nietzsche: “If you’re going to explore the dark side of humanity, you’d better have a strong rope to pull yourself out.”

Although in its totality 42nd Street Studio was a dark allegory of American civilisation, many of its images are touching revelations of fragility, delicacy and optimism. They are as complex as any human being. But after deep immersion in the street’s artificial world, Baronio’s psyche was in desperate need of recuperation.

Baronio’s next project was set in the world of Nature, not Man. She explains: “I felt I needed a cleansing of some kind to bring me away from 42nd Street and 8th Avenue. I had to find something positive to think about. The new work is to do with imagination and creating a fictional space.”

Wetlands is also about the rigours of lugging an unwieldy 8’x10′ sheet film camera and tripod around the marshlands of Long Island. All of its photographs have been created with an instrument the rear of which resembles a TV set, armed with controls allowing her to shift the shape of space and the forms within it.

Baronio believes that Wetlands’ peaceable contemplation of humans being in nature would not be as plausible with any other approach. As in her earlier project, the way bodies are situated in their surroundings is key to the photographs’ content.

She allows her mostly female subjects to revel naked amongst the mud and fluids and bristly grasses of the marsh, viewed from a distance rather than jamming them up close against a white wall strewn with prison bar-like shadows as she did in 42nd Street.

In Wetlands, Baronio’s sitters are seen with a respect for a privacy the women of the street lost long ago, along with any hopes for the earthly paradise the women of the marshes are about to reclaim.

© Copyright Karin Gottschalk 2002, 2017. All rights reserved.