THE NARCISSISTS, Conversation with Elizabeth Heyert
How did this project begin?
After I finished THE SLEEPERS, a series of portraits in which the subjects were deeply unconscious, I knew I wanted to explore 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 an 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.
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 an analog 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 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, like a voyeur or a Peeping Tom.
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. 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.
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, teen 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 shoot a bride a few days before her wedding, in her wedding dress. I wanted to shoot twins. I wanted to shoot a little girl at her first communion to see how different it would be from the bride. I wanted 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? Or, a soldier?
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.
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 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 young 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 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.
Did you feel that you were invisible?
I’ve always been comfortable being invisible in my role as a photographer, being on the outside looking in. But, when I was shooting these pictures, I felt like I didn’t exist emotionally at all, 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 toxic narcissist. I felt shame looking through the peephole, choosing private moments for the world to see. Usually, you look at a portrait on the surface, then try to discern what is true about the person portrayed. Here, it’s the reverse—I was shooting portraits of people with their protective barriers down, they’re naked emotionally but they aren’t looking at the viewer. They’re looking at themselves.
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.
Would you say that THE NARCISSISTS, overall, has a theme?
My father once said to me in a dark moment, that John Donne was wrong and, in truth, each and every one of us is an island. 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. We can never really know one another but why should we really?