Behind the Photos
My series was inspired by the question: What makes a woman an idol, an object of fascination and worship? My starting point was Mary, the woman widely accepted as the mother of Jesus, whose image is probably the most ubiquitous in the western world. We see so many religious depictions of Mary, but what would we see if Mary were portrayed simply as a woman?
I concentrated on realistically rendered statues in southern Spain, photographing Mary alone, without any of the trappings of religion. I quickly realized that these lifelike sculptures, all created by men, reflected a highly biased conception of an “ideal” woman. Many of the faces of Mary looked remarkably similar to the gorgeous movie stars from the golden age of Hollywood. That the male fantasy of the archetypal woman is seemingly unchanged over the course of many centuries amazed me, and yet somehow was not surprising. From the Bible to Princess Diana, from movies, popular songs, tabloids, celebrity magazines, and K Pop, the timeless message to women—if you are pure, sexy, beautiful, vulnerable, pale-skinned, and perfect, the world will worship you.
And yet. The message is more complex than that.
There is the myth of the “good” woman, and the myth of the “bad” woman.
And, in the modern world, we often elevate the women we worship to dizzying, impossible heights, only to destroy them.
I decided to create pairings, juxtaposing very realistic portraits of Mary with artifacts of popular culture that reflect intricate and often contradictory messages about women. Sometimes I use movie posters from the “Bad Girl” genre, depicting beautiful movie stars whose characters have somehow lost their innocence, fallen from grace, and are now “bad to the bone”. The copy lines are telling: “Just Say It, I’m No Good” or “Half Angel, Half Devil, She Made Him Half A Man”. I also explored the way women who are elevated to the status of idol--so much so that the whole world knows them only by their first names like Marilyn, or Diana, or Whitney—are ultimately destroyed by the brutal stresses and demands that status commands. I collected covers from original newspapers, like the poignant LA Times from 1962 announcing the death of Marilyn Monroe at age 36. Her photo, at the center of the paper, is as enticing as the portrait of Mary next to her, surrounded by jewels and gazing hypnotically at the viewer. You can’t take your eyes off either of them.
The tennis champion, Billy Jean King, recently wrote: “Women are taught to be perfect. We aren’t of course, so why are we held to that standard”? My project doesn’t answer that question, but perhaps it will provoke thoughts: About what it means to be a woman who is idealized and worshipped; Why women try against impossible odds to live up to someone else’s vision of perfection; And, most of all, why we elevate the women we most admire to unattainable heights, and then demean or destroy them when it cannot be sustained.
This is my first digital project. All the photographs in my series were taken using a medium format Hasselblad X1D-50c camera, always on a tripod. I created these works as a digital project instead of using the traditional negative film that I prefer out of necessity: I was shooting in churches, where they would not let me put up a backdrop behind the statues to block out the religious settings so I decided to isolate Mary from the artifacts of religious ritual using Photoshop; Additionally I was shooting in a wide variety of locations, all with wildly different lighting conditions. Understandably none of the churches would allow me to set up elaborate lighting so I needed to use a digital camera, which would enable me to accommodate a range of lighting situations in a way that negative film would not. I never altered the faces or expressions, but merely removed extraneous details.
All the posters and newspapers are copied from vintage originals, spanning in years from the 1930’s until the end of the 20th century. I found most of the newspapers on ebay, but the posters came from collectors and specialty stores from a variety of countries around the world.