The Narcissists Back to Conversations & Essays

In Conversation: Elizabeth Heyert and Stacey D'Erasmo

How did this project begin?
     After I finished The Sleepers, a series of portraits in which the subjects were fully asleep, I knew I wanted to do the reverse—people at the moment of being completely aware of themselves.  The people in The Sleepers weren't relating to anybody, they were letting out this very interior part of themselves, very naturally. When looking in the mirror, something of the same thing happens. We become who we want to become, even for that moment when no one can see. It's not even letting your guard down as much as it is letting something out—like a tune going through your head that suddenly becomes visible. I wanted to get at that. So I got Aviva, who had been in The Sleepers, set up a mirror, and plunked her in front of it, no lights. I stood to the side or in back, but it wasn't working. I was getting a fake emotion because I was there and part of it and she was always blurry because of the long exposure time. I thought that my problem was that I couldn't do it properly because it was just one person who was very aware of me and my camera, so I got a group of five men, two who had been in The Sleepers and three of their friends. I used a very long, horizontal mirror and stood to the side again. They were naked. It looked gimmicky, but when I cropped in really tight so that I saw their faces, it became interesting. Still, I thought it wasn't going to work, so I put it aside. I went to work on The Travelers, where I made portraits of the dead as I might do with the living, beautifully dressed against a black background with the traditional lighting of a formal photograph.

Why and when did you go back?
     I went back to it just as I was finishing The Travelers. I began to think about good and bad narcissism.  The latter is like that line from Stendhal: "She looks at herself instead of looking at you and so doesn't know you." That's very frightening to me. In some ways, I longed to get this private, intimate, tender view because the other side of narcissism is so harsh. I started to think about how I could shoot through a one-way mirror. I got a little 4x4 piece of glass and shot a coffee cup through it with the Hasselblad. That's how I started. For about six months, I kept trying to get it to work technically and failing, partly because I was shooting through thick, tinted glass and the exposure time was so long. No one could hold still that long. There were so many other problems that it pushed the limit of what I knew about optics.
     After a lot of experimentation, I figured out how to do it. I created a box around the lens so that no light came between the lens and the mirror. I set up lights and, although I used an 8X10 Deardorff, I got around the long exposure time by having people stand farther back, which gave me more flexibility in the depth of field.  That opened up other new possibilities as well. Originally, I had conceived of it as just heads, as if people were looking in the bathroom mirror. But when the subjects were standing further back, they could wear whatever they wanted, they could change, they could transform themselves. The next problem was that when I was behind the mirror wall, and I put the film holder in the camera, I couldn't see anything. I had to devise a peephole. It was upsetting. It made me feel like I was doing something I shouldn't be.

Could the subjects hear it when you took the picture?
     No, I used a cable release.

Could they see the peephole?
     If they had really looked, they could have, but once people started looking at themselves in the mirror, they were transfixed. Every time, when I came around in front of the glass and said "It's over," they'd be startled that someone else was there.

How long did the project take?
     Over two years, from January 2006-May 2008. I used a maximum of 18 sheets of film on each photo session. Though there are 24 triptychs total, I probably shot twice as many, because there were a number of them that didn't work. I spent six months choosing the combinations for the triptychs after I was done shooting.

What did "not working" mean in this project?
     The failed photos seemed false, staged, as if the viewer were being directed to feel a certain way. Sometimes people who looked in the mirror weren't going to let anything out. Or, for instance, with a clown I photographed, he was letting something out, but the clown makeup and the nose were getting in the way.

Why triptychs?
     I felt that if I chose just one shot from 18 sheets of film, it would be me making an editorial comment, whereas if I showed a range it would be like uncovering a secret. At first I thought of doing maybe six per subject, but the shifts tended to be extremely subtle and so many images became overwhelming. Three images seemed enough to distill what I saw over 15 minutes. I didn't want to tell a story, I wanted to give an emotional impression. With three, you learn, and then you learn again, and then you learn again.

How did you find your subjects?
     It started with the idea of pure narcissism—the young in love with their own beauty, former models, little beauty queens, beautiful boys, hustlers—but as it developed, it didn't go that way at all. I began looking for certain kinds of people and situations. I wanted to do a bride a few days before her wedding, in her wedding dress. I wanted to do twins. I wanted to do a little girl at her first communion to see how different it would be from the bride. I wanted to do a young beauty contestant. I wanted a Marilyn Monroe impersonator—what would it be like to see yourself as if you were arguably the most glamorous person in the world? A soldier. In The New York Times, I'd read about a man whose business was helping men who wanted to dress like women. He takes them out on the town as women, to get them comfortable with themselves. I wanted to have a man dressed as a woman looking at himself.
     Sometimes, I'd meet somebody and they'd seem interesting to me: the handyman in my building, a make up artist I once worked with. In two cases, I photographed very good friends and found that I didn't know the person in the photographs. It was shocking. I felt as if I shouldn't know that person—it didn't come up in all the years we knew each other, it wasn't for me.

But didn't they want to show you that person?
     Yes. Or, is that true? They were so alone with the mirror. It was a hard two years for me, for that reason. This wasn't a hurtful narcissism, but as with The Sleepers and The Travelers, I was a complete outsider. The subjects wanted to see themselves. I don't think they were thinking about the picture I was taking. If you're looking into your own eyes and you're crying, you're seeing something quite personal. It's one of the reasons I felt so bad being at the peephole. I often thought, "This is what it's like to be a mirror. This is what the mirror sees."

What happened to the subjects as they looked at themselves?
     I told them it was completely about them, they could wear anything, do anything. I shifted the control to them. Even though I was choosing when to shoot, I had no voice in what was happening in the moment. Sometimes when it first started, people would still be aware of me and start to talk. I wouldn't respond. Then, like the people in The Sleepers, they went into their own worlds. Many people just walked off, changed into something else and seemed happier when they came back. I was shocked when the soldier pointed at himself—what was he doing? The beauty queen was so animated until she went in front of the mirror and then she showed so little emotion that she almost seemed angry. I was worried that I'd created something false so I shot it again and it was the same. I found it very troubling. And then there was Kobi with the rope. I knew him well. He'd brought some clothes, but he also brought this piece of rope. It turned out to be very beautiful, but I hadn't known that he did that.
     After a session with The Sleepers, I often just sat on the bed and talked to my subjects. I didn't do that with these people. I was surprised. They didn't stay to talk. They'd just put on their things and go.

Did you feel that you were invisible?
     On some levels, that's what I've always been comfortable doing in these three projects—I've been invisible.  When I was shooting these pictures, I felt like I didn't exist emotionally, because in those moments I didn't. I was watching the positive side of narcissism, but my reactions were as if I were experiencing the chill of being with a narcissist. I also felt shame looking through the peephole, choosing the moments for the world to see, even though I didn't have an agenda. I just wanted to get to what was true about the person. Usually, you look at a portrait on the surface, then move into the intimacy. Here, it's the reverse—these seem intimate, the people are letting their guard down, they're naked emotionally and sometimes physically, but they aren't looking at the viewer. They're looking at themselves.

Was this project more troubling to you than the other two?
     Yes, interestingly enough. When I was shooting the dead in The Travelers, I wasn't afraid at all. I felt love, I felt tenderness. This was frightening while I was shooting. It's one thing as a photographer to be an outsider. It's another to realize that as a person you don't exist to somebody. It's terribly easy to feel that you're emotionally not known. It's like one of those nightmares where you try to scream and no one can hear you. Narcissism is part of what makes us human, it's essential, and it can also go very, very wrong.

Do you think it's significant that this is the first of these projects you've done in which the subjects' eyes are open?
     I do. It's probably one of the reasons that it was so frightening. When people's eyes are closed because they're sleeping or dead, that's one thing. It's another when their eyes are open and they're not looking at you.

Was there a difference between what you saw and what the camera saw?
    I never saw exactly what the camera saw or what the mirror saw. I was always doing the equivalent of watching from the sidelines. My camera was the mirror. I was not. I was on the edge, behind a wall, looking through a peephole. So I was always surprised. Seeing the film was always very exciting.

The photos reveal things emotionally, but they also reveal a tentativeness of self, a place where it seems that the self is being invented and could dissolve at any minute.
     Right. There are only certain people who approach a mirror boldly. For most of us, it's very tentative: you look at yourself in the mirror, you shift, you see how far you want to go. You shift again. We never know exactly who we are at any given moment. When I look at these, I realize that I know virtually nothing about the inner lives of other people. Maybe this is why, for the viewer, the photos seem to be like Rorschachs. Some that I find emotional, others find amusing; some find tragedy where I don't see that; some people have a hard time looking at the twins; the range of reactions to the beauty queen and the bride run the gamut.

There are subjects who recur in The Sleepers and The Narcissists—Aviva, Nina, Kobi, Mark—what's different or the same about them here?
     When you're not conscious, as in The Sleepers, you're very, very free; the people in The Narcissists, by contrast, were private, but they weren't emotionally free within themselves. Aviva is a perfect example. In The Sleepers, she looks like a mythical goddess: soaring, huge, graceful, celestial, wonderful. But in the mirror she's so vulnerable, childlike. You see the life on her face, the complicated, of-this-earth emotions. Kobi actually seems to convey some of the same emotions in both projects; asleep, he looked like a wanderer, gentle; there's a lot of that gentleness in the way he looks at himself as well. Mark is different. He was part of a couple in The Sleepers; here, it's Mark entirely as himself. Nina—I don't know what to say. When I saw the photos of her in The Sleepers, I thought that there was a lot of pain there, but also beauty. However, those photos weren't about the woman and these are so much about the woman. The sleeping set her free. The mirror was much more about reality, the reality of the life she's had, of being a middle-aged woman. When you're sleeping, you're alone with yourself, but you're not confronted with it.

Being with yourself is effortless in sleep.
    Exactly. There's something freeing about not knowing that you're being scrutinized. But scrutinizing yourself: there's something brutal about that.

This project wasn't as physically difficult as the other two, but it seems as if it was more difficult emotionally. What's the difference?
     When a project is physically arduous, I just have to figure out how to make it better, get an assistant, take an Advil—it's a solvable problem. To straddle the coffins when I was shooting The Travelers, for instance, I got a special tripod. With this project, the optics were technically very difficult, the most difficult I've ever encountered, but I could solve that. It was more taxing emotionally to be an outsider, to feel like I didn't matter. I know that I brought all my baggage and life experience to The Narcissists. I can say that I was an outsider, but I know that I chose when to press the shutter, which moments to record. It occurred to me while I was doing it that if I were shooting digitally I could make a thousand shots in fifteen minutes, but then I'd still be back at my computer and I'd be choosing. I suppose it's a myth I've created for myself that it's just about the subject and the mirror, or the subject asleep. It was me making the decisions. In the minutes just before and after shooting, I'd feel dread.

Would you say that The Narcissists, overall, has a theme?
     Pain. Is that exactly the right word? I keep thinking about something my father once said to me in a dark moment, that John Donne was wrong and we are all of us islands. The Narcissists is about that, but not entirely in the negative way my father was talking about it. It's just the way it is, beautiful but difficult. We can never really know one another but why should we really?

With The Sleepers and The Travelers, when you came to the end, you had very specific feelings, there was a kind of catharsis. What about this time, coming to the end of The Narcissists?
     I felt, I've had enough. I've been invisible too long. I had seen such a range of intimate things that I felt as if I couldn't take any more, that I knew enough. For now.

Sleep, death, the fleeting moment of self-regard—what do these states have in common? What is photography's relationship to these states?
     The theme that runs through all three projects is the idea of approaching a world that we are not able to enter. Photography seemingly records reality. I'm using photography to do something it's not supposed to do, to record something that isn't on the surface. It's a myth that the camera doesn't lie—there's no way to record reality in a situation like this. On so many levels, we don't know what's false and what's true. But whereas with The Sleepers you're invited in, with The Narcissists you're not truly invited in; their world doesn't admit you and no one is making eye contact with you. You know, the subjects I felt least lonely photographing were the dead. They weren't having an emotional moment that excluded me.
     I've always thought that as the photographer I was an outsider, but I realize now that it's the viewer, too.

In all three projects, and in the trilogy as a whole, you've created portraits of communities of souls. What effect has that had on you?
     The work has made me understand how layered, how nuanced we all are. Characteristics like religion or region don't have much resonance for me, but these states do. We all go to sleep and something happens to us. We all have these moments of self-scrutiny, self-deception, of creating who we are over and over again. It explains to me why we can do so much, but also why we can so easily be damaged.

If we were to think of this trilogy as a portrait of the artist, what would we see?
     We would see the outsider. It's as simple as that. That's who took these pictures. They're all facets of the same question: how do you get inside emotionally while remaining outside and able to see?

Why do you think the number three—the number of the trilogy, the triptych—is so powerful?
    Perhaps it's the number of the outsider—when you have two points of view, you see them in direct contrast to each other, but when you add a third it becomes much more complicated. My use of three may be my way of keeping the viewer out a bit. You might look at The Sleepers and think, Oh, she's interested in sleep; or at The Travelers and think, Oh, she's interested in death, but when you add The Narcissists, you see that it's about the quintessence of being human. Within this project itself, you might look at one photo in a certain triptych and think, Oh, it's this; you look at a second and think, Oh, or it's this; but with the third, you realize, Oh, we could go on and on.

Has your thinking about the portrait changed over the last ten years of doing this trilogy?
     I've become so aware of what's honest and what isn't. It's easy to manipulate, and the viewer is often happy to be manipulated. When it isn't honest, it doesn't even seem like a portrait—you fulfill an assignment, you get the job done, it looks good. In photographs, I can make a person look ugly or freakish or smart, depending on which moment I choose. This was the most dangerous part of doing The Travelers. It would have been so easy to make them freakish. We all want to be scared of death. But it wouldn't have been emotionally honest. The difference between making a record and making a successful portrait may be ambiguity, when people don't know what they're supposed to be feeling. Think, for example, of the Mona Lisa. Or the paintings of Vermeer. You don't know exactly what the painter is thinking or what the subject is thinking, and you don't know what you're supposed to be thinking, either.

I don't know quite how to articulate this, but there's something so modern about this trilogy.
    I agree. We're not simple, and even our complexities aren't obvious to the naked eye. We're vulnerable yet powerful. There's something awful about all the emotional freedom we have. Or maybe I meant awesome. In The Sleepers, there's something very modern about the nudity, the kinds of couples; in The Narcissists the people are the key players in their own drama. That's as modern as you can get; in between is The Travelers, the 20th century, a community that doesn't exist anymore. The Narcissists are certainly of this moment. They're citizens of a world that is so big and wonderful and also so fragile. We're looking at ourselves in the mirror and thinking who knows what.<>