Disturbing, Erotic, Domestic: Jo Ann Callis’ Photos Capture a Strange World


Disturbing, Erotic, Domestic: Jo Ann Callis’ Photos Capture a Strange World

Woman with Blond Hair, 1977© Jo Ann Callis, Courtesy of ROSEGALLERY

As a new exhibition of her work opens at ROSEGALLERY, the 78-year-old artist addresses gender, beauty and power


Looking back over her five-decade career, photographer Jo Ann Callis would say nothing much has changed. “My interests have always been the same,” she says, speaking from Culver City, Los Angeles where she has lived and worked since 1980. “I’m always trying to find new ways to express the same ideas.”

In Now and Then, her second retrospective show at ROSEGALLERY, Callis demonstrates the varied textures and expressions she has given to these interests since 1970 when, as a young mother of two, she enrolled at UCLA and began taking photographs. Her focus is the domestic, psychodramas of the home and human relationships. Avowedly non-political – “it’s just not in my nature to be that way” – nonetheless her photographs of women, children, interiors, cream cakes, naked backs and hand-bound ankles prompt the same questions about gender, beauty, power and subjugation that were being asked by feminists on the global stage.



Callis’ first solo show took place at the infamous, if shortlived, Woman’s Building in downtown LA, and her richly coloured images exploring the violent, the strange and the erotic elements of family life feel riven with rage and gender protest, but Callis rejects this easy interpretation. “All of my work is about me. My stuff, my insecurities. I’m never representing anyone else, ever. I don’t know how people do that.” 

Rather than taking retrospective credit for political sagacity she never felt, at 78 Callis is excited by her images being transformed both by new printing technology and by being seen through new eyes. We asked the photographer about revisiting the past and why no artist should be embarrassed to be emotional.


On feminism and the role it plays in her work…
“I think sometimes you are not aware of how things are affecting you directly. Sometimes you are, and you read something, see something, hear something, and a light goes on and you begin to open up a new thought process. But generally you just absorb what’s going on around you, what’s part of the culture. Whether you’re aware that’s what you’re doing or not, we all live in the time we’re living in and are affected by what’s going on around us. But I was too busy to be politically active, it’s just not in my nature to be that way, so I didn’t make work to be about feminism per se. I was expressing myself – I had just started working in this new medium and I was figuring out how I could say something that was personal to me.

“I had my first show at the Woman’s Building, but kind of by accident. An artist friend was scheduled to have a show there, but she wasn’t ready so asked if I wanted to take her spot. It all came together at the same time, but it wasn’t a conscious decision to make work about feminism. In my mind it wasn’t an issue in my work, it was just coming from me and I’m a product of my time.”




On emotion in art…
“It’s hard to say what time will do. We all have a moment when we’re alive and people are interested. But I think people are more accepting of things now, whereas for a period, at least with the people I was with, it was really looked down upon to be emotional, to have the artist’s voice come through. Styles come and go, and when conceptuality came in, emotion became abhorrent to people. The art world is more open now, not so dogmatic. We can see there are so many parts of the brain to use, and all of us have feelings as well as theories – art should be big enough to take in everyone’s interest.”




On looking back…
“I don’t think my work has really changed over time. Actually I would say over my lifetime – even since I was a teenager – my interests have always been the same. They have just come out in different ways, found different ways of expressing themselves.”




On what other people see…
“I find the things other people bring to my work fascinating. Some of it I recognise, even if it wasn’t literally on my mind while I made the photographs. I was home with children so domesticity was my territory. Home, metaphorically and emotionally, it means so much and it always has, growing up as well as an artist. I like exploring the feeling of home, the discomfort and tension that is there, which in turn lays bare a whole gamut of things.

“It never feels like I’m representing anyone else, ever. I don’t know how people do that. I’m just trying to find new ways to express the same ideas.”