Up till about three years ago, I would have struggled to explain my aesthetic, mainly because I was still learning the rudiments of the photography (and frankly, still am). As any fledgling photographer will tell you, most of the work comes from editing, not in the shoots themselves, which are enjoyably breezy by comparison. Most of my early work was chance operations with low light and long exposures while moving the camera, or conversely, fixing the camera before an active background. I was not at all interested in any “objective truth” in these early days, but instead was focused on a subjective layering of moving images (it’s the animator in me). This culminated in a rather impressionistic series of photos taken in France and the UK in 2004. Most of my photos were abstract canvasses, which nettled my friends and family to no end. “Your photos are too blurry,” my mother would carp. “And why are they so dark?” Clearly, these were artifacts of eschewing flashes altogether and operating without a tripod (compounded by the bulb setting with a relatively low ISO) and why I often reverted to infared during night shoots. All in all, I had little to show for my first year of photographing, aside from a handful of “light paintings“.
I dabbled in the area of simulacra in art school, utilizing a female mannequin for a performance art installation, replete with music, strobe lights, a giant fan, and sails attached to her armless torso. During the summers, when I was working at a tube and lid factory in Southampton, Massachusetts, I would collect abstract “sculptures” formed from the excess plastic that had oozed from the injection blow-mold units and hardened overnight. I took a box of them with me back to KCAI and began photographing them in various outfits and scenarios. Then the seed began to germinate after a visit to a prominent ceramist’s home on July 4th of 2004 in Kansas City. Her crypt-like studio, with its vast spaces punctuated by eerily lit dioramas, figurines, and perfectly preserved animals, inspired my first official photo essay on the subject. A mere five months later on a cold Christmas night in Seattle, I took a series of pictures that would solidify my new obsession. In this instance, it was a well-heeled set of Nordstrom mannequins that caught my eye. Since I was not in the habit of using a tripod, I learned at that moment how to find alternate means of stabilizing the camera (as I still avoided using a flash). Pressing the camera directly against the glass, I snapped about a dozen shots that would inspire me to undertake a six-year quest, doggedly seeking out clothing stores, mannequin and doll factories, puppet museums, garage sales, and curiosity/costume shops across America, Europe, and Asia.
Soon after my epiphany, I catalogued my grandmother-in-law’s creepy doll collection in glorious infared, as well as my mother-in-law’s collection of outrageous animal kitsch and the morgue-like Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art. Since I was keen on minimizing reflections, to further suspend the viewer’s disbelief, I often took off at night with my camera in hand, running to every corner of the city that valued simulacra. Over the next four years, I studied the windows at Champion Party Supply in lower Queen Anne, Red Light vintage clothing on Capitol Hill, and any number of seasonal windows at the high-end malls (Nordstrom’s spring and winter collections being of particular interest). When you photograph the same mannequins through every season over a period of years, you begin to feel like Tom Hanks talking to his Wilson ball; that is, you can’t help naming them and even thinking of them as having a secret inner life. It’s this magical thinking that pulls me into the process of photographing them in the first place: somewhere in the mix, I have to temporarily invest the inanimate objects with sentience, like Pygmalion to Galatea. In many cases, it’s critical to get the line of sight correct so the subjects seem aware of the viewer’s presence; but it is a far more complex task to find that right angle that suggests wistful cogitation without the attendant flavor of voyeurism.
Over the course of this peculiar trajectory, I have been kicked out of stores or simply had irate proprietors wag their fingers at me. That’s because the clearest shots are in the actual display, where there is no glass barrier. However, much is to be said about them being unapproachable if not untouchable, like a saint’s holy remains contained in a reliquary. A window adds this dimension, and in the case of “beautiful” figures allows one to engage in a lucid, albeit detached type of cathexis; yet here it is sometimes important to amplify the figure’s vanity as a counterweight. In the case of “ugly” figures, I have my work cut out for me: with no libidinal subtext, it’s more about revealing a tincture of the sublime. And this can only occur if one can ferret out an element of grace, perhaps even suffering, in the subject matter. The tools at one’s disposal are clear: composition, lighting, the angle, etc. But I tend to look for the telling details of mutability: damage, tears, chipped paint, layers of dust. In short, a palimpsest of staggered identities that have traveled through time in the same frame, like Cezanne’s landscapes that show signs of winter and spring on the same canvas. Sometimes this layering can be augmented by reflections in glass or packaging, though this poses different challenges altogether, for now one must consider the interposition of the outside world on the subject. So in many ways, even though I am no longer making abstract canvases through layers of exposures as I did when I first started playing with the camera, I am still applying the basic principles of time, mutability, and transparency.
Unfortunately, effigies are loaded with context, particularly in regards to consumerism. I see this as just another transparent layer to remove. A cursory review of any culture’s dolls, figurines, mannequins, and so forth will reveal its social mores and core values, as well as its overall economic well being. I would imagine mannequins in North Korea and Cuba, for instance, are used and re-used, much as they would be in any insular society. So not only are they recycling many of the same out-dated effigies, they are also possibly using them as polemics: dispassionate yet noble and designed to not excite the senses. This is not to suggest that simulacra are a road map to a culture’s identity, or even its soul…perhaps it’s more like a weather vane. Regardless, my interest is not in making political arguments or constructing personal narratives from scratch. Like a photojournalist, I am seeking some measure of truth in the trouvaille (lucky find). For me to go into a shoot with a pre-conceived narrative would be tantamount to ransacking the reliquary. So one of my rules is as steadfast as Christ’s admonition of Mary: I must not touch the subject. I am more interested in the person or entity that made the effigy, dressed it, and then lit its environs. One could make the argument, then, that this type of photography cedes some of the creativity to the arranger/creator, and a smaller percentage apportioned to the culture.