The Narcissists Back to Conversations & Essays

essay by Susan Bright

The oft-cited remark by Richard Avedon that a successful portrait is a moment between sitter and photographer is directly challenged by the work of Elizabeth Heyert. Avedon’s assertion may hold for more traditional approaches to the genre where careful power balances are negotiated and a variety of strategies for performance and pose played out, but this is not what interests Heyert. She has a perspicacious understanding of the inherent complexities of portraiture and as such uses a synoptic approach, which sidesteps any kind of relationship between photographer and sitter. The Narcissists is the final part of a tendentious trilogy that aims to capture the primal emotion of a person when they are totally self aware and self-conscious. Situated in a room surrounded by a two-way mirror and stark black walls, the sitters were left alone for fifteen minutes to do as they wished. What Heyert witnessed was not a beautiful moment of intimacy as she had suspected but a shockingly lonely and alienating moment of self-absorption that quickly turned serious and melancholy.

The word narcissism and the original story from Greek mythology have entered the everyday language and are often misused to label the vain or the overtly stylish. Freud took the term (in its extreme) to describe a personality disorder, but Heyert uses it to directly refer back to the handsome Greek youth who was doomed to only gaze upon himself. It is a desperate story and a tragic one where the young man could never feel love outside of his own image. Humans and humanity function on interaction. With that stripped out the world is a lonely place. The prospect of a cold empty gaze as your only chance to love is limited, frightening and desperate.

What is interesting is the sitters did not come close to the mirror to really inspect their bodies and faces as one might suspect. Instead, they keep their distance from the mirror and are reticent. Nobody took the opportunity to shock Heyert or play out fantasies in ways that you may think a two-way mirror might engender. Many stripped, but not for the pleasure of the hidden photographer and the naked results seem far from empowering. Very few of the resulting images show the person happy with the experience. The portraits that resonate the most are those that acutely pinpoint the subtle gestures of tension below the facade and security of a costume.  Laura, the beauty queen stands poised and professional, but a subconscious pulling of her finger shows the strain. The resplendent Kobe, magnificent in his red bondage rope reveals his tension in a clenched fist and Elaine fools nobody with her empty posturing.  Already older than Marilyn Monroe at the time of her death her glittery dress, which has seen better days, is held together at one shoulder by a safety pin and does little to conceal the fact she is ill at ease, her laconic posing full of melancholia. Her anxiety is palpable.

This series completes a trilogy of portraits that includes The Sleepers and The Travelers.  All three series treat the subjects with respect and dignity and through the circumstances of the photographic approach allows them to be utterly themselves without the intervention or disruption of the photographer. Her portraits success is not due to the relationship between photographer and sitter as Avedon prescribed but relies instead on the sitter and the viewer to work out their own delicate connection like intimate strangers.