Courtesy Dani Lessnau

Art & Architecture

The Artist Who Turned Her Vagina Into a Camera

Photographers are understood to be keepers of a point of view, of framing and reframing life to see the artist's chosen perspective. The male gaze has largely dominated the creative sphere, which has a lot to do with why women in everything from fashion magazines to major motion pictures have been represented as objects, in unreal and often unacceptable manners--that is, until now.

Now female photographers and artists are working to bend the gaze from male to female, refocusing the societal narrative of women. Women are commanding the reigns in all realms of art to grow and reform human forms of expression (film, design, television, prose, visual art, etc.) in unexpected ways. Artist Dani Lessnau is but one example of the reborn female gaze, using her innate gift to capture the world in an unprecendented way. So what does a woman have that a man never will? A vagina.
 

Titled extimité, Lessnau uses her body to take photos via pinhole cameras she made that were inserted into herself. Besides the drama of the concept, the work's results peer into the most intimate moments of relationships, of the body as a public and private item, of something that is watched and watching, nipping at the edges of a person. Lessnau, 32, is not only advancing the female gaze, but allowing the female body to take the lead, blurring the distinction between artist and art.

The process of making these images involved the artist creating pinhole cameras and trying and retrying to take images while the camera was inside her, balancing her own breath while managing–and “looking” at–the space around her. “Photography has a capacity to reveal and conceal space and I wanted to push at the boundaries of this concept,” the Brooklyn artist tells Playboy. Lessnau notes the trial and error nature of this process and that, initially, a session of eight exposures would only yield one resonating image. The process wasn’t always successful (“Each camera is valid for one exposure, per time.”) but this is what happens when you turn the body into a camera: an entirely new way of approaching film presents itself.
 

“Because of the nature of the way I’m putting the film [in] and placing it into the camera, there’s not a top or bottom,” Lessnau says. “I have no idea what side is where or the shape that exists in any capacity. There’s a lot of chance.” The resulting images of the men she captured are less about what one sees and more about dynamics. “It wasn’t about framing them,” she says. “It isn’t solely an image of a man in a frame. I was striving, for a moment, to encapsulate what lives in flux in the space between us. There is as much of me in the frame as there is of them.”

The work is not only an exercise in photographic experimentation but also in vulnerability, both as a process and as a product. The act of revealing the work to the public has been a learning experience for Lessnau and, given the surge of online press, extimité has revealed “a Russian doll of encounters” as they invite viewers to dive deeper into her work and, therefore, herself. The results can be tricky, enabling deep feminist conversations but also objectification, proving the duality of digital dialogue.

Lessnau hopes that the coverage of her work invites people to see the works in person, to see the 15” by 18” and 11” by 14” editions for themselves. “When you have [the work] in front of you, it seems very small,” Lessnau says. “I want people to walk up to them to see the intersections and textures. The edge of the films, the black, is very crisp and sharp. You can see the imperfections on the surface which reference the body. The images recede and are blurry and more ambiguous. That becomes much more apparent when you are present with the work.”

“That intimacy feeds into the whole concept,” Lessnau says. “It was a conscious choice.” Lessnau considers extimité to be an open ended project that she will likely continue in the future. For now, the artist is exploring other mediums and is using this moment to narrow in on other subjects important in her practice. But she’s not rushing into a new project and, like the process of making these photographs, is very patient in making.

“I embrace time, in my work,” Lessnau says with a laugh. “In order to speak about what’s coming next, I have to give it time.”

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