+September 22, 2020
Saturated with bright colours and full of loaded visual metaphors, Elizabeth Renstrom’s (@elizabethrenstrom) fine art photography is a refreshingly fun and humorous take on complex topics encompassing feminism, capitalism and identity structures. Often such topics are addressed in sombre and serious tones, but Renstrom’s work treads a different path to advocate for change - by uniting mediums and making these topics accessible and engaging for all, Renstrom re-vamps outdated notions of femininity and the advertising industry as a whole.
Carnal Knowledge is a prime example of how Renstrom is working to actively re-frame and re-centre ideas of pleasure, self and sex. In conjunction with sex educator, writer and artist Zoe Ligon, Carnal Knowledge places the focus on self-pleasure and seeks to revamp sex education in a fun and engaging way. Using the out-dated but sadly well known visual language of sex education books, Renstrom creates familiar yet bright, colourful and engaging works loaded with metaphor and symbolism to educate. Bringing together practical tips and tricks that you wouldn’t find in every sixth grade sex ed textbook or presentation, Renstrom and Ligon break down barriers and address notions of pleasure, self-pleasure and sex which are so often left unaddressed or silenced.
Sex education should, in theory and practice, be engaging and exciting and Renstrom makes it so - using Ligon’s text she springboards into stunning visual metaphors which are fun, alluring and engaging. Starting with just 7 helpful tips, which are often left unaddressed in any formal education, the project has now expanded into it’s own book with over 50 pages of advice and delightful imagery.
I’ve always treated the medium of photography as a way to capture a bunch of different mediums in a single frame to document an idea. Whether that’s sculpture, painting, and set work—oftentimes it will take me more time to craft the world in the photo than the actual act of snapping the shutter.
The set design of Carnal Knowledge allures audiences and makes sexual education an intriguing and delightful experience. Gone are the days of anatomical drawings and graphs, Carnal Knowledge oozes delight and promotes pleasure.
The brightly lit scenes enhance the pleasure of the images even more - although Renstrom often selects bright and flat lighting to expose every subject evenly, it becomes a delight in itself. Wax candles glimmer against a shimmery background whilst declaring “there is no such thing as normal.” Perfume bottles become sensual under a warm, red light and a delicate flower drips with lube. There’s an intricate language to be harnessed through light, and Renstrom does so to both educate and create fun and exciting imagery. Each image is specially crafted to become a visual metaphor for and emphasis of it’s accompanying text - one image declares “use porn as your muse” whilst displaying a series of nude magazines in the format of a cheesy inspirational poster to literally depict inspiration and transform porn into inspirational content.
Poking fun at out-dated posters, structures and industries is central to Renstrom’s work - as a female creative she gets an intimate sense of how much of the advertising industry is influenced and shaped by out-dated men and their out-dated views, specifically on topics concerning and affecting women. Carnal Knowledge actively works against incorrect industry ideals and re-frames sex and pleasure from a female perspective, re-authoring and re-claiming such important topics which have been misrepresented or misused for too long.
So much commercial and ad photography is guided by men who are desperately trying to sell something to an audience they know nothing about—I like to think I’m a maniacal ad exec making my own ads showing how ridiculous consumerism is.
Originally a 7 part commission from Topic Stories, Carnal Knowledge has now expanded into it’s own book - Carnal Knowledge: Sex Education You Didn't Get in School. Scheduled for release on September 22nd, Carnal Knowledge is dedicated to re-focusing sexual education to notions of pleasure in a fun, bright and accessible way.
Elizabeth Renstrom is a Brooklyn-based photographer, editor and curator. As a photographer, she uses humor as a tool to investigate themes of feminism, the way we use images, and how we craft our identities in relation to capitalism. Her style is often defined by its saturation and prop driven arrangements in both editorial commissions and her own projects. She has shot extensively for clients like The New Yorker, Refinery 29, TIME, Instagram, and Vice among others. No matter what, she isn’t afraid to make photography weird consistently across commercial or fine art. As an editor and curator Elizabeth has worked in the photo departments of Marie Claire, TIME, Vice, and most recently The New Yorker where as Senior Photo editor she commissions original photography for the weekly magazine. She has tried to use her editor position to champion and mentor young creatives just stepping into the field.