Pretend You’re Actually Alive (2000–08), the artist’s best-known work and his most subversive to date, was made in collaboration with his aging ex-ballerina mother over a period of eight years. In the images, she offers herself with disarming explicitness to her son’s camera and to the unknown public of the resulting images. She appears in the most compromising poses, engaging in the most private actions, posing and performing for the camera au naturele, occasionally with a sex partner. The result is unsettling, as gripping as it is disconcerting. And there is little else like them in the history of photography.
Despite the blatant imagery, there is often more to these photographs than what we are immediately shocked to see. Certain details give an inexplicable gravity to the even more inexplicable strangeness of the photographs. Their titles, moreover, are significant: the denominator, “Mom, ” that appears so often in them makes the pictured Tina Peterson both universal and particular. She is the photographer’s mother, yes, but “Mom” is also a stand-in for the category of motherhood in itself.
They are accompanied by a paper trail of the mother and son’s odd shared life as seen through journal-like notes, hand-scribbled documents, carefully saved magazine pages, old photographs, and other ephemera, which contextualize and complicate the in-your-face explicitness of some of the images.
And, alongside the apparently crude photographs are other images in the series: Mom ethereal in the living room in soft afternoon light with a wrist brace; a family snapshot of mother and son as she helps him adjust his tie for a high school dance; hospital images of Ledare’s dying grandmother; his new wife, innocently, buoyantly striding down stairs in white on their wedding day. It is precisely in the ambivalence created by bringing these tender and strangely touching images into contact with the others that the contradictory force of Ledare’s project reveals is complexity.