Category Archives: Photography

Dollface

So, I’m sitting at work trying to avoid the multitude of final assignments things I could be doing, naturally, and trying to shift in vain to a comfortable position on the terrible metal stools which provide our only source of seating other than the floor here. You just have to expect ass numbness when working a shift especially a seven hour one like I am working tonight.

At any rate, enough about my desensitized rear…

So I was perusing a few sites looking for interesting diversions when I stumbled upon the work of Polish photographer Ilona Szwarc. Szwarc recently produced a series of photographs of American Girls with their American Girl dolls. For those of you who don’t know what American Girl dolls are, they are 18″ dolls with plastic limbs and heads and soft cloth bodies made to resemble and for the nine to eleven-year-old set. There are a series of dolls who portray girls from different time periods in American history and are accompanied by series of books which tell their stories set within a greater American historical context. There are also dolls called “My American Girl” who are made to represent American girls of today (in fact that’s what they were called when I was playing with them in the early to mid 1990s). These dolls come dressed in modern clothing and a variety of extra contemporary outfits and accessories may be purchased for them. The American Girl dolls are not cheap, but many girls in this country have played with them since their introduction in 1986, myself included. The dolls are marketed as a healthier, more positive alternative doll to many of the others on the market today (ahem, Barbie), and are designed to empower girls.

Szwarc was fascinated by this trend in America. She does not see the dolls as positive. She instead sees them as symbols of conformity that reinforce traditional gender roles. She provides this explanation on her website:

“The American Girl Product defines and categorizes American girls- future American women- and that fact raises important questions about who gets represented and how. The branding behind the doll perpetuates domesticity and traditional gender roles. I examine how culture and society conditions gender and how it invents childhood. Gender becomes a performance that is mirrored in the performance of my subjects for the camera”

Wow, that is a lot to read into a bunch of dolls. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is spot on. I will weigh in with my opinion, though. I grew up playing with American Girl dolls. In my closet, long packed away in a plastic tub, lay three as well as a multitude of outfits and accessories acquired from the American Girl catalogs I used to pour over, by my mother and father’s crafty hands, or from random places I happened to visit. Every year for most of my childhood my grandmother bought me clothes from the catalogs accompanied usually by a matching set for my dolls. I read each issue of American Girl Magazine from cover to cover.I spent hours playing out stories in Mexican ruled Santa Fe, on the home front in Illinois during WWII, and, my favorite, in the streets of Williamsburg, Virginia, on the cusp of the American Revolution. I was drawn to the dolls through a love of history. I read the books for all of the dolls, not just my own, and fostered a love for historical fiction. I spent hours imagining what I would do if I lived in such and such a time with a life like those of the girls in the books. I never took much interest in the create-a-look-alike modern dolls. They had no stories. They didn’t escape mean slaveholders, immigrate from far away countries, or write letters to fathers away at war. They were boring to me.

In many ways I probably have American Girl dolls, as trite as it sounds, to thank for exciting my historical imagination and putting me on the academic and career paths I am on now. So I find it hard to accept Szwarc’s ideas about them entirely. For me, and granted I haven’t played with one of these dolls for many years, the historical dolls are a separate entity from the “My American Girl Dolls.” When I skimmed through that part of the catalog, though, I saw representations of girls doing things I did (hiking, playing with pets, having sleepovers, painting, etc.) and things I did not do (skiing/snowboarding, dancing, playing sports, kayaking, etc.). For fun, I took a look at this section of the website, which was an odd experience just looking at the brand online, and found that nothing much besides the fashions has changed in this respect. There are maybe a few more fashion outfits unassociated with activities now, but for the most part they still imitate activities that both girls and boys in America engage in every day. I don’t exactly, or maybe I just can’t from my nostalgic vantage point, how they condition traditional gender roles. I can see where they reinforce the consumer culture of the U.S., with their ever changing array of products to buy to keep the dolls up to date. Not many of my friends growing up had the dolls, though. It wasn’t really a status symbol then as she seems to suggest it is now. I can’t speak to that as I am not in the world of girl anymore.

I can’t be critical of these dolls. To me, they will always be a symbol of my childhood from which I became the educated feminist freethinker that I am today. Those dolls represented play, imagination, and love and still do in my mind. They will always be a better alternative to the Barbie dolls I also played with as a child but would never let my own hypothetical daughters play with in some distant future or the Bratz dolls who came after my childhood, but are equally disturbing. I think those are more worthy, not to beat a dead horse, subjects for attacks involving the perpetuation of outmoded gender roles, or the cause of negative body image, or the sexual objectification of women. When I compare American Girls to this, I’m way more inclined to give them a break.

All this aside, I still find Szwarc’s images of these girls and their dolls hauntingly beautiful. Them way she poses many of them so captures the idealized view of girlhood, but their vacant stares, which mimic those of their dolls, leave a sense of emptiness. It’s almost as if these girls have been so desensitized by the constant “more more more!” of American consumer culture, that they can’t enjoy the fun marketed to them with the dolls. Some of the images eerily make the girls look much older than they actually are as if, through the lens, Szwarc has captured a fleeting glimpse of the woman the girl will one day become…and it isn’t exactly a happy one.

This would be an example of my previous statement.

I think this is my favorite out of the series.

Maybe I’m truly discovering that I am from a different time. Maybe the demographic has changed and the girlhood I experienced is much removed from those experienced today. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that I love these images for their aesthetic qualities, which can all be found on her website here. I encourage you to all have a look and decide what you think about their context for yourselves.

And on one final note related to dolls:

One of my cousins posted this picture on Facebook earlier:

First of all let me begin by saying how strongly I support St. Jude’s and the work they do, and I love anything that gives them more money to continue. However, I am torn on this product. Is she supposed to show support for the horrors the children at St. Jude are experiencing. If she is, why don’t they have her in pajamas hooked to bags and machines, going through chemo, really reflecting the experience of cancer. Why is this only represented with a bald head? Why is she in an awful evening gown instead. Why is it Barbie and not one of her younger doll sisters? Perhaps I am too jaded about Barbie to recognize that the good of this outweighs the bogusness. Maybe Barbie, with her ridiculous proportions and unrealistic beauty can teach young girls suffering with cancer or other terminal diseases that they too are still beautiful regardless of their illnesses. I don’t know about this one either, but I thought it was an interesting artifact of our age. It could be worse, it could be a Bratz doll.

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Spring Break

Hello again, everyone! Hey, did you hear that 500 new fairytales were recently released from an archive in Germany? That’s pretty exciting for every lover of the fantastical like me. I just wonder how long it will take for Disney to ruin them ha ha ha.

But anyway, enough of that side note. Spring break is in full swing. I am, as tradition holds, watching Netflix while avoiding the mountain of school work that needs attending to. I’m back home in Tennessee for the week trying to enjoy a little r&r and ma famille. The weather is divine as well, sunny and cool, just as early March should be. We’ve had two fires in the fireplace since I got in Sunday night, and I get to shuffle around the house in sweaters and thick socks. It’s lovely.

It’s actually been a rather eventful past few days. Mom and Dad came down to pick me up in Gainesville on Saturday having dodged then braved storms all the way from Nashville to south Georgia. That night they officially met the lad for the first time. I don’t exactly have a great track record for picking guys that pass muster. I could not have asked for a more different and exponentially better outcome this Saturday past. Both parties enjoyed each other immensely, and we all had a lovely dinner. It was quite adorable because both sides asked the next day what the other thought of them. I was happy to give satisfactory reports all around.

As much as I hate to admit emotional weakness and general gooey-eyedness, I am miss the lad a lot. It’s our first significant amount of time apart since we started up. I’m starting to wonder how we’re going to make it through three months when I leave for Nashville come May. Oh yeah, I’ll be living in Nashville over the summer completing an internship at the Tennessee State Museum working with some photography collections and getting to work on some of the programs done across the state. I’m looking forward to it very much. Although I will be very busy and close to my friends and family again, I will miss Ryan greatly. But what’s that Rochefoucauld quotation, “Absence diminishes small loves and increases great ones, as the wind blows out the candle and fans the bonfire.” I’m banking on that being the case.

Enough of that business, though. I got to spend the entire day yesterday in the studio. I was also on fire. Out of seven plates, only one turned out slightly less than what I wanted. That never happens. I will freely admit I have expended five or six plates just to get one shot perfectly. I have a senior picture shoot with a local student Thursday so I hope the winning streak lasts.

Well, I think I have probably wasted enough time, and I should get onto my Ethics homework. I will leave you with two more things, though. Last Friday Ryan and I spent time listening to and sharing music with each other. The fact that we can do this is very important to me. We both share a love for La Blogothèque‘s Take Away Shows and, because we’re freakishly cute, we both think the Beirut ones are the best. So, as a last bit of gooey-eyedness here they are because they remind me of the lad (and they’re just amazing if you’ve never watched them). Enjoy.

(Okay, no more lovesick puppy nonsense again for a very long while).

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This is totally normal family bonding in my house.

Dad and I spent the last few days working with our skeleton friend who has appeared in a series of wet plates from the Studio as well. This is the first time all break I’ve really had enough light and time to mess around with the cameras. It was nice to work with Dad on these. We had a lot of fun, and I think we ended up with some cool shots. Irving enjoyed being studio cat again too.

Here are the two keepers from yesterday:

I love how I live in a house where this is commonplace.

These were the second day’s efforts:

It’s always nice to spend the day doing what I love with those I love.

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I have a favor to ask…

I just entered the Exposure 2011 photography competition yesterday with some of my wet plate work. If you like the work I do and want to help me win a grant to keep doing it, a trip to NYC and Paris, and major exposure, then please go to my portfolio here and vote for me by liking it. Then please share it with your friends. Thanks for the support, everyone!

(P.S. I’m pretty sure you can vote daily, so keep coming back!)

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Wet plate, Monsters, and Gators

Friday, for first time in months, I took my cameras out into the field. I am working on a project with a sculpture MFA student here. She creates these fantastical creatures, monsters to some, the “friendly unknown” to her. I am shooting some of her creations in wet plate to hopefully add to a growing exhibition idea involving hoaxes, faux taxidermic specimens, and a lot of imagination (details will come as they develop). Check out her work here.  Jen and I really get along well artistically and as friends. I really loved working with her Friday and look forward to much more of it in the future.

This whole concept of the “friendly unknown,” as she calls it is, really fascinating and beautiful. It’s meant to push people to expand their minds and be brave about what they don’t know. Jen believes it is arrogant to think that we are completely alone in the universe, that there are no such things as Big Foots (Feet?) or Nessies, and even that there isn’t some greater being guiding it all. We just don’t know, so it’s silly to shut down and say that “there is no such thing,” when there is no way to know. It’s much more fun to be open and pleasantly surprised than close-minded and embarrassed by previous assertions of absolutism. As Jen pointed out, all those people who said the world was flat hundreds of years ago, still look pretty dumb today. I like her philosophy.

We shot on the prairie in Micanopy on one of the observation decks. Jen got down in the brush (which is probably not allowed but there were no signs saying not to), and we had a blast despite heavy cloud cover and crazy winds. The weather, while not ideal for traditional pretty, pristine plates, sort of suited my approach to this project perfectly. I was tasked with documenting an inanimate object, which is meant to look like a living, wild creature in a wild environment as if he belonged there. The plates needed to be slightly out of focus, grainy, gritty, and slightly rushed, as if someone was actually trying to quickly document the rare sighting before the creature lumbered off. They were pictures of proof, I suppose. The nature of Jen’s concept, though, also made me thing of her creature as a gentle giant character, something perhaps fearsome or unnerving at first, but gentle and sweet beyond the odd exterior.

From these concepts I looked to these bits of inspiration when photographing the monster:

The Barbapapa children’s book series by Annette Tison (especially Barbapapa’s Ark).

Did anyone else read these lovely books as a child?

Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are:

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss:

Despite the fact that this book, and all of his other books for that matter, scared the bejesus out of me as a child.

And finally the Patterson-Gimlin hoax film:

The plates we made are far from what would be considered a “good plate” in the wet plate world. They are dark, overexposed, blurred, and have spots and specks, but that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted them to appear as if they were produced in haste, as if trying to capture the creature before it wondered on its way. I think they turned out really well. Here are some:

Being two gals not from the land of gators, we had no clue that they would hang out in areas without water (silly us). After we were done with the shoot, and Jen was finished tramping around in the tall grass, we found this guy in a storm drain by the parking area:

He would have had to crawl in via the prairie. There was no other way for him to enter the drain.

Yeah, I’m glad we didn’t run into him out on the prairie.

Yesterday we had the pleasure of doing an engagement shoot for one of my friends and fellow museum studies student, Courtney, and here fiancé Brad. The weather was kinder and less windy and the location (their neighbors’ backyard) was perfect for this sort of session.

Here are the best shots:

I feel satisfied for the next few weeks, but I can’t wait until I get to go home for the holidays and play with my cameras again.

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Updates from the Studio

Sadly, I wish I could say these were updates of my work. Unfortunately, I am wet plate free until December. My apartment complex has some tricky, persnickety rules about hazardous chemicals, and the photography department at school is having ventilation issues. No one‘s developing anything there at the moment.

While I am working digitally here in the Sunshine State, however, the Studio’s still up and running in Tennessee. M&D have been playing around in the darkroom quite a bit, and have produced some interesting stuff. I thought I would share their work.

I present The Bones Collection:

They also tried using mica for the first time. I think it turned out pretty well.

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Egads! I love this!

So, among many of my secret fantasies, I dream of having one of those really quirky, cutting edge, hip, etc. etc. street fashion blogs. I suppose I could, although, I haven’t really lived in a city that was conducive to that. Dickson (that’s the town where I spent most of my formative years, by the way) was not what one would deem a hub for metro fashions, I was never in Nashville often enough, Rochester was usually too cold, and well, Gainesville, as of now, seems a bit too warm. From what I can tell thus far, everyone walks around in the least amount of clothing they can get away with while looking like wilted flowers. So, I have to live vicariously through other street fashion bloggers in nifty places like NYC, San Fran, London, Austin, etc. etc. I came across a new favorite today via Bust. It’s called The Rebel Waltz. Don’t miss her latest post from the Jazz Age Lawn Party. Oh how I love linen suits, suspenders, and cloches!

(I also really want to appear on that blog myself, though, I don’t know if my style is nifty enough. Eh, one can dream!)

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