Photographer Coke Wisdom O’Neal likes to explore “non-traditional forms of portraiture,” wherein “the subjects are secondary to the concepts represented,” as he describes.His ongoing photo-series “Blue Nude” explores the idea of a human being boxed in, both literally and figuratively.
Over the past five years, O’Neal has become known for his monumental plywood boxes, where people are invited to climb in and be photographed. In this new series, the box and its participants—a now diminutive and transparent container with nude inhabitants—have changed significantly. What was once a project about space, identity, and identification has become a venture exploring anonymity, constraint, and escape.
In both photographic series, O’Neal uses the sculptural box as a framing device. In the past, the subjects were given the space and freedom to comfortably explore the structure, and were encouraged to include autobiographical props or to stage a scene. In this iteration, O’Neal’s cruelly small box is lidded, rejecting the notion of movement or even much choice in bodily orientation. The interior often becomes laden with perspiration and steam—the aftereffects of a body contorted in a small, confined space. Instead of looking for signifiers of individuality in the subject’s expression, clothing, props, and posture, these photos leave the viewer searching for tiny signs of identity in a tattoo, ring, or the shape of foot.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Houdini became famous for escaping from handcuffs, milk cans, water chambers, and straightjackets. “Magic,” raw physicality, and the symbolism he created as an exemplar of the American dream—escaping to America and then escaping repeatedly before a crowd—led to his popularity. O’Neal toys with similar themes of escape and containment in these photographs, however, his subjects are never seen freeing themselves. In most cases, they must physically manipulate their bodies to fit, pushing against the Plexiglas from within. They are forever entombed in a static, yet performative, state.