Photographer Profile - Dina Goldstein: "Satire is important because someone has to comment on things"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday November 8, 2016

Fine-art photographer Dina Goldstein  calls herself a “pop surrealist” and a satirist of modern culture. So when she looks around at the world and its abundance of folly, dissembling,  incongruity and irrationality, she might well think, “It’s great time to be alive.”

On the other hand, satire isn’t for everyone.

Goldstein, who is based in Vancouver, Canada, has taken aim at everything from Disney films to mass religion in her work over the past decade. “I make it simple when I describe what I do — I say that I’m looking at iconic characters that are built up in society’s collective subconscious though literature or culture,” she says. 

Her series “Fallen Princesses,” which she began in 2007, reimagined Disney princesses stranded in a real world of crushed dreams. Her 2012 project “In the Dollhouse” is a visual narrative about Barbie and Ken that ends with Ken coming out as gay and Barbie cutting off her hair — a scene, Goldstein notes, inspired by Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair,” made after Kahlo divorced her unfaithful husband Diego Rivera. 

Goldstein's 2014 series “Gods of Suburbia” asked whether deities from the world’s major religions could make a go of it in the modern world. She photographed Jesus and his disciples — transformed into a street gang — having a last supper in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, an area where drug use is common. Satan is pictured as a tow-truck driver.

She was going to follow that work up with a series critiquing modern American culture. But the more she thought about the idea, the less fun it sounded. Even satirists have their limits.

“The ‘Gods of Suburbia’ project took two years to do and was pretty heavy as far as subject matter — it took a lot out of me,” Goldstein says. “And in the middle of all that my father died. It was a harsh time in my life.”

Instead she went to work on a series called “Modern Girl,” which was inspired by iconic Shanghai advertising posters  of the 1920s and 1930s. The posters, produced during a period that saw a commercial and culture boom in China, reflected a new emancipation for women while also using sex to sell products. 

“I grew up in Vancouver looking at these posters and I was always intrigued by them,” says Goldstein. For her new series she recreated the posters using live models selling products of her own invention, including “Fresh Air from Canada.”

The series is a departure from Goldstein’s fateful visual narratives about dolls and gods, but, she says, it takes up themes similar to those in all her work — materialism, the commoditization of women, the influence of advertising and the subversion of cultural icons. “It’s still a critique; that’s what I do,” she says.

The work goes on view at the Galerie Virginie Planquart  in Paris on Nov 10, coinciding with the Paris Photo art fair. 

“My work has always been well received there,” Goldstein says. “The French have a long tradition of satire in their art and literature, and they get it.”

The Dangers of Satire

That’s the thing about satire: Either you get it or you don’t.

“Satire,” said the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, “is a lesson. Parody is a game.” Some people may not like the lesson, while others misunderstand it. The Broadway writer and producer George S. Kaufman famously observed that satire “is what closes on Saturday night.” 

But the dangers of satire can go beyond empty theater seats, as Parisians found out when the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked in 2015 by terrorists who objected to its cartoon depiction of Muhammad.

“Satire is important because someone has to comment on things,” says Goldstein. Photography, however, isn’t really a medium for satire. Humor in photos is usually observational and confined to surprising juxtapositions and candid moments that reflect on human nature. Satire is generally left to writers and illustrators. “They can create any image they want with pen and paper,” says Goldstein.

She creates what she wants with elaborate productions involving set designers, stylists, costumes and models. Goldstein started the “Modern Girl” series by trying to imagine the bizarre products that her made-up posters would advertise. “But I couldn't get it,” she says. It was only after she cast her models and started shooting portraits of them (with a Hasselblad H3D medium-format camera) that everything clicked.

“As I designed the posters, the ideas for the products poured out of me,” she says. Her enticing advertisements push items like “Love Pops,” “Idea Chews” and virtual-realty goggles that store your memories. “That’s when it got fun, because advertising has become this crazy tool that has infiltrated everyone’s lives,” Goldstein says.

To critique that influence, she makes use of the seductive visual language and infectious storytelling of advertising, skills she learned shooting for magazines and commercial clients for two decades. Goldstein actually started her photography career as a photojournalist working for a newspaper in Israel, where her family lived before immigrating to Canada, but she found it wasn’t the right job for her. “It was very lonely and the opposite of my personality,” she says. “I love to be with my family and friends and have them around me, and here I was in hotels rooms meeting people I didn’t know. So I came back to Canada and started shooting for magazines and advertising clients, which was perfect for me.”

That changed in 2007. “The industry was changing because of the internet and I realized the only way I was going to survive was to do something nobody else was doing,” Goldstein says. “Also, I was changing personally because I’d become a mother.”

The Trouble with Gods

Coming to Vancouver from Israel in her late childhood, Goldstein grew up largely unfamiliar with the Disney version of fairytales. So she was dismayed when her oldest daughter became infatuated with Disney princesses. “I didn’t know where it was coming from,” she says. She turned her dismay into her first fine-art project. At her website, Goldstein writes that her “Fallen Princesses” series examines “the ‘happily-ever-after’ motif we are spoon-fed.”

“I think Disney has gotten the point about princesses and changed the story lines of their films a lot,” she says. “The recent Disney movies have themes of sisterly love and self-dependence — the girls aren’t victims waiting for a man to come and save them.”

Goldstein’s instincts as a cultural outsider — as well as her daughters’ behavior — also sparked her “Dollhouse” series. “I was just following their lead and letting things inspire me, and I imagined these dolls that were imprisoned in this marriage together,” she says. 

It was a trip to India as part of an Arte Laguna residency that prompted her “Gods of Suburbia” project.

“I was amazed by the extent that gods and depictions of gods were part of people’s lives there,” she says. “That fascinated me and I began thinking about how people create religious imagery that becomes part of the collective subconscious.”

If satire in general is dicey, satire about religion is asking for it. “There was some hate mail, but no one issued a fatwa on me,” Goldstein says.

Some people just don’t get it. Jonathan Swift, who once modestly proposed eating the children of poor people in Ireland as a public service, said that satire “is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” 

It’s delicate work. But as Goldstein says, somebody’s got to do it.