THE SLEEPERS, Conversation with Elizabeth Heyert
How did this series begin?
I had a recurring idea that it would be intriguing to photograph people sleeping. At first it was my friends in their T-shirts with pillow corners sticking into their eyes. Then I realized that clothes were a distraction, that I wanted to try people naked and began finding models. Some were friends, some were strangers.
I would stand on a balcony inside my apartment about twenty feet above the subjects with a Deardorff 4x5 view camera. I put a soft foam pallet down on the floor below with a soft black theatrical cloth over it. I put material over the window so that some light came through and illuminated the bodies. I asked my subjects to do whatever they had to do to sleep. Then I’d stand up on the balcony and watch them for hours. I’d crank the heat up so it would be as warm as possible, plus I had heaters pointed at them, and, of course, heat rises. So I’d be up on the balcony drenched in sweat, having to hold still, getting sleepy myself, mopping the sweat out of my eyes. I’d have to be very quiet, not move, and then something would happen and I’d have to act fast.
It was very anxiety producing, because they’d make something so beautiful and I wouldn’t know how long it would last. For instance, the little man and the big woman: he put his legs around her waist and his arms around her neck, like a child. I had one sheet of film left. They stayed that way for forty-five minutes, but I didn’t want to wake them up until they’d changed into a less vulnerable position. It was also a stressful process because it was so intimate. It was very lonely—I was like a little kid looking through the balcony at something I shouldn’t see, especially the couples. I’m an only child, so I really felt like an outsider next to the couples’ intimacy.
Then, I just put the sleepers in a box. I didn’t want to show them, I couldn’t say why. I felt like a voyeur, as if I had photographed something that you really shouldn’t see because it was so naked in every sense. But now I realize that it was too easy. I had done a document. People were interested in the fleshy details: this is what a fat person looks like completely exposed. It was easy for the viewer and not easy for the subject. They were fairly literal photographs that showed this abstract emotion, but the abstract emotion got lost in the body shapes.
Just about the time that I finished this first version of THE SLEEPERS, my father died, and four months later, my mother died. They’d been married for 65 years. I was shattered. In between the time my father and my mother died, I couldn’t take one photograph or do any work. But within two weeks of my mother’s death, I started doing just these heads of women sleeping. Same thing: up on the balcony, long lens, very close up. And I don’t know why this occurred to me, but I decided that I wanted to project these images of the heads, large, onto stone walls and then photograph the projected image. I went to Tuscany and projected the women’s heads onto stone barn walls, but there were hinges on their faces, it was ugly, and there were lights everywhere. Also, it was very public. But I discovered that the stone had meaning. It had a passionate life, like old people’s skin. The timelessness of the stone echoed the emotion of the figures but obliterated their specificity, took it away from the personal.
Both the stone and the figures seem perishable, historical, mortal—but at the same time immortal, epic.
I think that the know-ledge of mortality was in my subconscious mind the whole time, though to be perfectly honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought I was looking for beautiful damage. I thought I was done with THE SLEEPERS project. I thought it was just fascinating what would happen with these big heads. I was happy to be inside these peaceful women’s faces: projected, they were eight feet high. I think I wanted to photograph a kind of death mask, though I didn’t say that to myself.
At the same time, it was proving hard to find places without lights in Tuscany. A friend suggested I try Sicily, so I went there. As I finished the series of women’s heads, my assistant in Sicily, John Paonessa, said, I’ve always wanted to show you this ghost town. In 1968 there was a massive earthquake in Sicily. One town called Poggioreale had collapsed during the earthquake, and nobody could go back. John took me on a day drive. We got permission to walk through the town, which had all these endless, beautiful walls. In the schoolroom, there were still notebooks open. There were shoes. There were pots on stoves. After twenty minutes of walking through it, I sat down and cried.
That’s when I decided I would project the sleepering figures there. I got permission from the Mayor’s office, but the people we really had to deal with were the shepherds. They walked their sheep—500 sheep—twice a night through the ruins. Since we wanted to shoot at night, we’d set up during the day, knowing that at 5:30 pm a huge herd of sheep would come. Work stopped. And if we’d been in the ruins, the sheep could tell by our scent and they’d go in to see what we had done.
As darkness came, Poggioreale was a very, very frightening place to be. There were animal bones, rusted cars in garages that hadn’t been pulled out since 1968. The grasses were so high that eventually we got a sickle. It wasn’t peaceful; it was distressing. I felt like I was doing something intrusive, waking up a spirit that was there. And it was there. These people had lived in Poggioreale for centuries and fled it within moments. The first five times I projected the Sleepers, I couldn’t take the pictures.
We had to be up very high to photograph the projected images. Every night we had to assemble this six-foot tower out of metal baker’s shelves for the projector to sit on. If the tower was too high, it would sway. We weighted it down with cement slabs from the ruins. John—a gentle, sensitive man who became like a brother—had to climb through the rubble, over these huge holes, with an enormous ladder. It was pitch darkness, so we’d turn the car headlights on. He’d climb up onto the ladder, jump up and down to make sure it wouldn’t collapse. When he felt it was safe, I’d get on the ladder. Then we had to get the projected image focused. He’d get on another enormous ladder by the tower, moving the projector focus. To power the projector, we had to have a generator, which made an incredible racket. It was like working on a battlefield. I’d be shouting from my ladder, “A little more, a little more...” The other problem was Sicilian weather. It might be beautiful all day, but become so cold and damp by night that my camera—I was using a Deardorff 8x10 view camera—would be filled with water from the condensation. Water filled the bellows. I had to bring a hair dryer to warm up the lens.
We’d spend ten hours setting up the shot and then, since I couldn’t bear to see the image, I’d Polaroid just a section. I’d check the exposure, take notes. We would get to the point where everything was right and then: total silence. I’d be on my ladder. John would click the timer, I’d click the cable release, and we’d expose three sheets of film for anywhere from one to three minutes each.
After that it was an hour to take it all down, and two hours to drive back to Palermo, if the police hadn’t set up roadblocks.
What was it like seeing THE SLEEPERS on the walls?
It was deeply moving to me when it was right. It was about shelter, a way to protect these figures. They belonged somewhere where their nakedness was essential. I felt as if I was looking for a place for their emotion. The image would go up on the stone wall and it would be so beautiful: I had done the right thing, I had found the place, they were safe. What was frustrating was that I would get the image there and then not be sure I could make the picture. Projected, each Sleeper was anywhere from one story to thirty feet up in the air. The wind might blow and pull the projector out of focus. There was a feeling of tenuousness, of something that could get away.
One of the other locations we tried in Sicily was a village that had been deserted in WWII. We were there at night. The village smelled terrible, and had some severely damaged walls. There was a building that had been a chapel; inside, it was just an empty room with bloodstains. There were cows and wild dogs wandering around. We’d just started to take things out of the van and I heard this strange noise, like someone really making love. I said to John, Do you hear that noise? and though he usually never raised his voice, he started to scream, Get in the car! We zoomed out of there with a huge wild pig on our heels. I had been looking for these peaceful homes, but I had made a mistake. It was evil. We shouldn’t have been there.
I never felt, from the beginning of THE SLEEPERS, that it had much to do with me. Their emotion guided me. Their emotion created the harmony between the wall and the figures. I could have failed them. Sometimes I did; I was limited by technical circumstances. Sometimes I’d project them up so high I couldn’t actually do the shot, but they looked magnificent.
The transformations you’ve created in this series don’t seem like modern ones.
They seem ancient, like something out of Ovid. Are these photographs, in a way, of transformations? I think so. The first layer of transformation was when people were asleep. I have a troubled relationship to sleep; I have nightmares. I was always amazed at and envious of how people slept; their world seemed better than mine. Even the ones in torment slept. And in their sleep, people changed, sometimes radically.
The second layer of transformation happened when I placed the sleepers where they were meant to be. Aviva, for instance, the large woman who’s pointing: in the first series, she appeared to feel lightweight as she slept. That outstretched gesture was about lightness. But on the wall she became a force. Her shape, and that gesture, became part of her power. Or the two guys lying on their faces. As the naked Sleepers, they were cute, bald, very muscled, but the image had a kind of Rockettes quality. I didn’t think to project them until my last trip, which was to Tuscany. I had a different assistant then, a fresco painter named Maurizio Bentivegna, and when the image went up he said Metafisico!, because it had transformed into this almost psychotic image of a split self, one self next to another.
Did you ever feel that you were making a mythic descent?
No. If anything, it was the opposite: an ascent. I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in heaven, but in the two transformations that I witnessed, the figures went into this glorious place that was so free, so personal, so divorced from the mundane or horrific. Then, projected, it was the same: they were up high, dancing, liberated. During the aids crisis, I lost so many people. I lost people in the World Trade Center. Since I’m an atheist, I struggle with that: where did they go? The people at Poggioreale, where did they go? And the people in the village with the wild pig?
How did you know when you were at the end?
I knew. I knew. I did the last big shoot in Tuscany in August, 2001. I was photographing in shorts at midnight, it was warm, it was safe, it was a dream shoot. Aviva was the last one, the hardest one, but I found a place for her in Sinalunga, a town outside of Siena, on a beautiful 17th century wall.
How did it feel when you came to the end of the project?
I was bereft. The sense of loss was enormous. But I knew it was over, like the end of an affair. I couldn’t go back. Sometimes people ask me to photograph them asleep, but I couldn’t take pictures of people asleep for any amount of money.
The series also made me realize something troubling: if people can seem so extraordinarily different when they’re asleep, then we’re always seeing a facade, even with our lovers. It was almost necessary to put up another facade, to create another skin, so that the people looking could see the emotion and not the superficial stuff. It’s a strange thing.
It’s somehow as if we can see the sleepers better on the wall.
Absolutely. We need something, as viewers, to create ascent in us.