Book Review: The Model
Book Review: The Model by Torbjørn Rødland
By Ilana Jael
Released this November by Mack Books, this latest work from renowned Norwegian-born and Los Angeles based photographer Torbjørn Rødland is perhaps his most intriguing yet. Rødland’s photographic style has been variously described as “unsettling” and “perverse”, and a good deal of his earlier works veered obviously towards the unconventional, portraying moments as uncanny as octopus tendrils encircling a human hand, a woman crying “golden tears” of honey, or a penis labeled in sharpie with the letters “WWJD”.
However, in “The Model”, the offbeat and piercing sensibility that defines Rødland’s approach instead lurks beneath the surface, more readily present in book’s implied narrative than in obvious visual quirks. Its titular subject is Malgosia Bela, a prominent Polish model and actress who has been gracing runways and periodicals since the late nineties. We first encounter her twice removed, in several evocative shots of images of Bela displayed in magazines and on billboards. Such meta-photographic images appear throughout the work, many featuring brand names as recognizable and high powered as Vogue or BCBG and laying the groundwork for the book’s central exploration.
In Rødland’s original pictures of Bela, she is absent the heavy makeup that characterizes many of her print appearances, plainer but no less striking. We find the model casually eating, drinking or smoking, loitering outside a photo studio, lingering in urban and mountainous landscapes alike. We see her confidently posing for the camera or vulnerable with her hair in a towel. Then, she is standing in a parking lot, with her eyes closed and mouth wide in an intimate expression that seems meant to evoke the moment of orgasm. In many of these photos, Bela’s face is noticeably obscured, turned away from the camera or covered over by sunglasses. Often too, Rødland focuses on mere parts of Bela’s body, only showing her hand as it clutches a glass of wine or scrubs at a window, her hair as it blows gracefully over flowers.
In another recurring thread of Rødland’s collection, Bela poses with various art objects; sculptures, paintings, instruments, even a mechanistic plaything that appears to be some kind of “model” robot. In one particularly resonant moment, Bela holds a golden statue mask over half of her face, one of her eyes visible only through its peephole. In another standout, she appears imprisoned, peering out from between dark railings as if looking at us through the bars of a cage. Such crystalline clear, obviously expressive, and expertly orchestrated images highlight Rødland’s unique vision and careful craftsmanship. But the very precision evident even in his seemingly genuine images of Bela speaks to the rift between the idea of a “model” as something to visually represent or harness into a commodity and the actual person the camera seeks to capture.
Though we encounter her time and time again, when Bela is portrayed only through Rødland’s ensnaring lens, her inner life remains poignantly unknowable. Even when her own words appear in the form of a text message, presumably sent from her to Rødland, she remains the perfect subject, asking him only what time she should appear and what she should bring. She remains to him and to us something no different from the billboards and magazines glimpsed at the book’s beginning; a mere object. A handful of images in which Bela does not appear serves to further emphasize the connection between Bela and the lifeless items and landscapes likewise imprisoned by Rødland’s lens.
The word “objectification” usually has a negative connotation in modern discourse, calling to mind most readily the accusations leveled at individuals and institutions that appear to treat others only as sexual or economic “objects” rather than full human beings in possession of desires and agency, heart and soul. But it can also describe, quite impartially, the process by which something abstract is given physical expression, translated into a form that can be experienced by others. While the former process is reprehensible, the latter is essential to making art.
But the difference between these twin proceedings can often seem too close for comfort, too close even to call. Is the artistic Rødland really any different than the commercial photographers that mechanistically capture Bela’s gorgeous image in order to sell a product or publication, or only a seemingly higher-brow extension of their exploitative, possessive grasp on her and perhaps on the female form writ large? If The Model prompts readers to consider such weighty questions in a world that so often keeps them buried, it’s a worthy experiment indeed.