When Jo Ann Callis returns to her hometown Wednesday to give a FotoFocus lecture at the Cincinnati Art Museum, it will be as a Los Angeles photographer getting renewed attention for some groundbreaking erotic work done in the 1970s and then forgotten.
In 2014, the Aperture Foundation published the book Jo Ann Callis: Other Rooms, which featured photographs of the nude body as well as sexually charged situations that were part of her Early Black and White and Early Color series.
Those include a color photograph in which a hand holds a small flashlight to a bare thigh as a red slip is pulled up — the viewer looks down on the scene and does not see the model’s face. In “Untitled (Tied Up),” a woman in a studio faces a luscious cream-colored satin backdrop as Callis shoots her nude body from behind — lines across her back and buttocks reveal the markings of tight binding. And in “Untitled (Hand and Honey),” a hand covers spilled, spread-out honey like it’s slipping into a mitten.
Callis was 36 when she did these photos in 1976, but she’d only been photographing for a few years. She had wanted to be an artist since taking art classes at Walnut Hills High School and studying art at Ohio State University. As Jo Ann Levin, she had been raised in Avondale and Amberley — her father owned a Covington furniture store and her mother was a teacher.
But real life intervened. She married at age 20 and, with her husband and young son, soon moved to Southern California where her husband had a medical internship. In 1973, she took a photography class at the University of California, Los Angeles with Robert Heinecken, who had founded the program, and he championed her potential. As a budding photographer, she found herself drawn to making work that had a sense of play and communicated a sense of tactility.
“I was always interested in how things feel,” she says from Los Angeles. “That one (‘Hand and Honey’) was about how beautiful — and wasteful, of course — it was to spill out some honey, see where it goes and put your hand in it. You can imagine how it smells — it has a very sweet smell. And you can feel putting your whole hand in this thick, sweet pile of honey.”
As for “Tied Up,” she explains that it is a play on a classic pose. “With the tying, I was just thinking how it changes the shape of the body with the flesh bulging,” she says. “It’s a beautiful pattern, but also a playful act — what would that feel like to have that pressing in on your flesh?”
This sounds very innocent now. But at the time, in the early days of feminism when everything that hinted of how men stereotyped women was being criticized, she found her subject matter questioned.
And she had also begun teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, a very cutting-edge art school. She worried this work didn’t fit its style. Divorced and with two children, she needed that job. “So I decided to keep quiet, keep my head low, teach what I teach, and go on,” she says. “I was showing work, but not that particular work so much. Because I thought, ‘This is a really bad thing,’ — I got embarrassed about it.”
And, indeed, she has had a successful career. She still teaches at CalArts and has a long list of one-person shows (including at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1983 and Cleveland Museum of Art in 1994) and group exhibitions (including at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2005). There was a 2009 retrospective of her work at The Getty Museum, heralding her “fabricated photographs.”
But a new round of greater appreciation began in 2014, when Santa Monica’s Rose Gallery showed work from the two early series in a show called Honey, and also released portfolios of the prints. The book also came out, and Callis netted coverage in The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.
“People seem to enjoy them even now,” she says of the Early Color photographs. “It’s not about the sexual thing, though you could think that. I thought of them as metaphors for states of mind. They’re like sensual playing. Nothing heavy or scary.”
Callis’ presentation, with Rose Shoshana of Rose Gallery, is free and begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]