The Surreal Photographic Narratives of Jenny Fine

Jenny Fine,  Flat Granny  (2010), performance still, Dresden, Germany, 20 x 20 pigment print

Jenny Fine, Flat Granny (2010), performance still, Dresden, Germany, 20 x 20 pigment print

by Lisa Volpe

The photographer and the storyteller are practitioners of the same craft. Each aims to compose an indivisible environment, thick with message and meaning. Both draw upon the private world of the mind and project unique thoughts, beliefs, and visions out onto the world. Though both photographs and stories have a definable frame—a start and an end—both crafts permeate these boundaries and exert an influence outside of their defined space and time. This ability to fuse the interior mental space with exterior reality made both storytelling and photography potent weapons in the surrealist arsenal. Jenny Fine’s photographic work is as rooted in storytelling as it is sui generis surrealism. These paired practices find their natural and effective union in Fine’s art.

To call Jenny Fine’s art ‘surreal,’ is to invoke a very basic, foundational definition of the term: as a point of collision. It is not a surrealism of sex or oddity, but rather of family mythology, possibility, and creativity. This surrealist framework and its deep relationship to both the photographic medium and storytelling is best articulated by writer and critic Susan Sontag.  

In her essay “Melancholy Objects” Sontag notes, “Photography is the only [fine] art that is natively surreal.” [1] In Sontag’s straightforward assessment of surrealism and photography, she decenters the idosyncratic baggage associated with the surrealist agenda (Freudian theory, sexual repression, torturous dreams, etc.). She instead returns to the most basic of the movement’s aims—a collision of opposites—as articulated by writer and surrealist spokesman Andre Breton:

Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions. Now, search as one may one will never find any other motivating force in the activities of the Surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point.[2]

In this passage, Breton emphasizes surrealism as a point of collision between dichotomies. Sontag finds the fixed point that Breton theorizes in photography, regardless of its subject or aesthetic. Photography is, after all a medium of odd collisions. The word ‘photograph’ may at once encompass many things: an object, an image, or the act of photographing. Semiotically, it is an icon and an index, and in Marxist configurations it is a commodity. Photography simultaneously records and creates, merges time between capture and viewing, and forms a legible image of the universal and the quotidian. “Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise,” Sontag emphasizes[3].

Jenny Fine,  Saddest Day

Jenny Fine, Saddest Day

For Sontag, stories also embody the surrealist tendency to fix points and to collapse dichotomies.  The critic notes that a storyteller, “both creates…a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world.”[4] Like a photograph, which produces both an iconic image of the world and a completely new object unto itself, the storyteller both reflects and creates worlds in their stories. Building on this framework, Sontag notes that the purpose of a story is to demonstrate, “a point of magical convergence…a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.”[5] Thus, within Sontag’s framework, storytelling also conforms to Breton’s definition of surrealism—as a point of collision between dichotomies.

The twin powers that Sontag praises for their “magical convergence”—photography and storytelling—are powers confidently wielded by artist Jenny Fine. Recreating stories and utilizing images from the past to bridge the gap between history, reality, and the present in her work, Fine declares, “I want to create a space for the viewer to stand inside that collision.”[6]

The collisions of past and present, real and imagined, are constants in Fine’s work. The eleven photographs in Fine’s series, “The Saddest Day” demonstrate the artist’s deft interweaving of these dichotomies. In the photographs, the porcine-masked actors—members of Fine’s family—each play a distinct role. Their position in front of the camera feels familiar and natural, in part because they are reenacting a well-rehearsed family narrative. As the artist explains:

When my father was little my grandparents raised pigs.  On the coldest day of the year the hogs were slaughtered and their bodies were dragged to the roof of the house to freeze. One year the hogs took sick and the entire herd had to be slaughtered on the same day. This day was known as The Saddest Day.[7]

In these images, Fine collapses the past and present and creatively interweaves the mythical territory of family history and the reality of the present. Fine continues:

These photographs document the moments following our return to the farm after our first visit to the emergency room, two weeks before my grandmother died. The Saddest Day explores my family’s collective experience of loss leading up to the death of the family matriarch: my grandmother.[8]

Thus, the concept of the photographs collapses past memories with present experience, death and life, playful recreation and sad realization. In the topsy-turvy world of Fine’s photographs, it is not the masked family members, but Fine’s grandmother that is likened to the ill pigs, being lead inevitably toward her demise. Signs of desolation and demise haunt the images, contrasted with the cheery poses of the masked actors and the ruffled innocence of Granny’s costume.  In one photo, the masked family members pull Fine’s unwilling grandmother across an empty field. In another, she stands before the remnants of a dilapidated house. “Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction,” notes Sontag.[9] 

Jenny Fine,  Saddest Day

Jenny Fine, Saddest Day

As theorist Siegfried Kracauer would note, this convergence combines two different orders of knowledge: memory and photography. Yet, “it is only the photograph that endows…details with duration.”[10] In other words, while memories or family stories may fade with time, the photograph endures. Fine’s photographs freeze time, preserve details, and ward off the specter of death. In one particular photograph in the series, Fine’s grandmother is seated on a thin folding chair in the middle of the family’s tilled fields. A large bushel basket is raised up to her mouth. The slender string tied to the end leads off the left side of the picture frame. Like a participant in an over-grown version of the children’s game telephone, Granny seems to be communicating a message. Yet, her position and the line of the string suggest that she is sending it into an unknown place and unknown time. In this single image, the linearity of time is called into question. Granny, now deceased, is still speaking to the viewer today.

Fine’s grandmother, Sarah Fine, was a great storyteller. Her stories inevitably involved family histories interwoven with local tales. In the South, after all, the weight of history hangs as heavy as the summer humidity. It shapes towns, determines crops, and is rehearsed again and again through storytelling. Fine declares herself a proud part of this legacy and her storytelling abilities, revealed in her artwork, are a tribute to this lineage. Her grandmother’s history was ripe with possible tales. Sarah Fine was a college professor, an amateur photographer, and the 1968 woman of the year in her small town of Enterprise, Alabama. As a talented storyteller, Fine has made the most of this distinct setting.

Enterprise, in the southeastern corner of the state, bears it’s own unique convergence of art and history: the town monument. Established in 1881 after the Emancipation Proclamation, Enterprise was a town inhabited by mostly cotton sharecroppers. In 1915, the town faced a crisis when the Mexican boll weevil arrived and 60 percent of the town’s crops were destroyed. Faced with bankruptcy, farmers turned to planting peanuts and by 1917, the town produced and harvested more peanuts than any other area in the nation. In gratitude for the pest that catalyzed the change in crops, residents erected the boll weevil Monument in the center of downtown--a lily-white, Greco-Roman maiden holding the dark, spindly form of the boll weevil high above her head. One can easily imagine it as an ancestor of Salvador Dali’s Retrospective Bust of a Woman (1933), in which a white female bust is crowned by a metal inkwell while a dark swarm of ants circles her head. Like the ants of Dali’s Bust, Enterprise residents circle the monument for special events.

When Fine’s grandmother was named the town’s “Woman of the Year,” she paraded around the boll weevil monument. Fine relished the stories of this proud family moment, imagining the scene in what the artist describes as “the theater of my mind.”[11] In her performance A Procession in My Mind (2014), Fine brings this personal theater to public life. Procession takes place in front of a hand-painted panoramic backdrop of Fine’s father’s farm, and includes a stack of cotton bolls, a spindly black boll weevil, and Fine’s own father. Combining evocative music and live performance into a dream-like tableau vivant, the work succeeds in creating a collision of past and present, private and public, reality and performance. The star, of course, is Fine’s grandmother, played by an actress in a life-size photographic cutout that Fine has lovingly named “Flat Granny.”

A Procession in My Mind is the latest performance with Fine's "Flat Granny." The cutout of Fine’s grandmother emerged four years after the family matriarch passed away.  One of the sources of inspiration for “Flat Granny” was the national emergence of “Flat Daddies.” These life-size photographic cutouts depict someone absent from home. Military families use these surrogates when their loved one is deployed. Flat Daddies attend soccer games and dance recitals, are posed in family portraits, and sit at the kitchen table. A classmate in Fine’s graduate school brought a New York Times article about “Flat Daddy” to class. “I was so struck by this contemporary relationship to the photograph and how it was a throw back to the sentiment towards the early photograph,” Fine notes.[12]  Certainly, this confluence of past and present embodied in photography caught the artist’s eye.

Fine is a student of nineteenth-century photography. In these early processes, the artist perceives “a mingling of time”[13]—both the extended time it takes to create the image and the time since its creation. In other words, Fine appreciates the collision of past and present in nineteenth-century photos. The artist created a series of ambrotypes in 2008, testing her own skills in the wet collodion process. Notably, the subject matter of the series seems tied to a physical sense of touch, with images of hands and details of textures. The wet collodion process is a physically demanding one, and in it Fine sought to bring out “the fingerprint, or handprint of the artist…the tactile presence.”[14] It was this tactile presence that Fine recognized as the link between “Flat Daddy” and nineteenth-century photographs. Nineteenth-century images of beloved family members and friends were often treated as metonyms for the sitter, “a present stand-in for a person who wasn’t there.”[15] They provided a tactile presence that—in the photograph’s embodiment of both past and present, reality and image—spoke to the omnipresence of their loved one.

Jenny Fine,  A Procession in My Mind  (2014), installation view

Jenny Fine, A Procession in My Mind (2014), installation view

Researching the “Flat Daddy” phenomenon, Fine notes, “I began to realize that this was a contemporary form that could facilitate not only some of the personal goals in my work, but also would speak so strongly to the history, role and physicality of the photograph, as well as, speak so directly to presence, loss and the human condition.”[16] Fine utilizes her camera to express her familial relationships, yet also yearns to capture the collision theorized by the surrealists. In her work—from her collodion work, to the Saddest Day series, to her work with “Flat Granny”—Fine aims to create these points of collision.

In the dream-like worlds of Fine’s creation, “Flat Granny” stands as the ultimate sign of her sui generis surrealism because it represents a collision not only of several essential dichotomies (past/present; real/imagined; life/death), but also of Fine’s crafts of photography and storytelling. When she was a student, Fine often utilized her grandmother as a model. “She was a willing participant and she would pass the time by telling me stories about her past,” the artist notes.[17]  In this way, Fine’s family histories and her personal practice of photography are forever linked in the photographic image of her grandmother. The figure represents the magical convergence present in both storytelling and photography; it references the collision of time, space, life and death. “Flat Granny” has transcended the confines that limit both photography and storytelling by moving beyond the photographic frame and beyond staid chapters from Fine family history.

The photographer and the storyteller are practitioners of the same surreal craft and Jenny Fine is a master of both. In her reenacted stories, photographic images, and performances past and present collide, the here and there meet in a single location, and death is both present and overthrown within the frame of the artwork.

[1] The essay “Melancholy Objects,” is included in the text On Photography, a reworking of Sontag’s essays on photography published throughout the 1970s. The essay first appeared with the title “Shooting America,” on April 18, 1974 in The New York Review of Books. See Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 52.

[2] Andre Breton (trans. Richard Seaver and Helen Lane), Manifestos of Surrealism, (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan, 1969), 123

[3] Sontag, On Photography, 52.

[4] Susan Sontag, “Pay Attention to the Word,” The Guardian March 17, 2007.,,329748149-99930,00.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jenny Fine, interview with author, August 10, 2016.

[7] “The Saddest Day,” accessed August 10, 2016

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sontag, On Photography, 70.

[10] Siegfried Kracauer (Trans. Thomas Levin), “Photography,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), 424.

[11] Fine, interview.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.