This charming, playful family photograph of American Surrealist Dorothea Tanning with her two nieces Mimi and Martha Johnson, taken at the home she shared with her husband Max Ernst in Seillans, France, features wallpaper, the only thing that happened in her childhood home in Galesburg, Illnois, prominently.
In several of her works, noticeably Children’s Games and the final masterpiece of Surrealism, Room 202, Poppy Hotel, the wallpaper conveys a sense of menace bordering on horror. In her concentration on claustrophobic domestic spaces Tanning anticipated a whole wave of female artists, noticeably the photography of Francesca Woodman.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Francesca Woodman’s astounding photographs that she produced between the ages of 13 to 22 is that it forms such a cohesive body of work. There is no juvenilia (in the sense of immature work that shows future potential), no false starts or dramatic u-turns. It appears that as soon as she took her first self-portrait at 13 that she had her own unique vision which she followed for the next nine years, never wavering and never deviating from once.
Growing up in an artistic household, both her parents are artists, the precocious Francesca had a thorough grasp of Dada and Surrealism by the age of 11. Francesca acknowledged the influence of Surrealism on her work, particularly Man Ray’s portraits of Meret Oppenheim and Andre Breton’s seminal Surrealist novel Nadja which was accompanied by photographs by J. A Boiffard. One of her early photographs features herself dressed up as Alice In Wonderland, the influence of which upon the Surrealists cannot be over-estimated. Also evident is the influence of the Gothic novel. Francesca favoured slow shutter speeds and long exposures which resulted in a blurry, ghostly images inhabiting the ominous, decrepit buildings where she set her photographs.
The above photograph was taken during her student year in Rome. A stunningly stage-managed yet otherworldly self-portrait, her posture hanging from the door lintel suggests both an ascending angel and a crucifixion. This is not the only question this magnificently enigmatic photograph raises; every object in the room seems to hold a coded significance.
Tragically Francesca, suffering from depression which was exacerbated by a broken relationship and the lack of recognition that her work had received, committed suicide by jumping from a New York loft window at the age of 22.
After much consideration,
I have come to the conclusion,
That you are not
Who you say you are.
You have always been here,
Not a visitor seeking shelter
From the winter’s storm,
This is your residence
Right here, with Hell
Just around the bend
In the depth-less sunless valley,
With Heaven just a vague rumour,
A distant, insincere promise:
This gimcrack structure,
Aging and weathered
In urgent need of repair
With its endless corridors
And cracked silvered mirrors
A dull pastiche of infinity,
Home to dismal phantoms,
Downwardly mobile angels,
Degraded coarse Demiurges,
Is your eternal abode
Where you wearily survey
With a monstrous apathy,
The chaos of creation,
The loop da loops of time,
This maze of memories.
Despite the fact that Surrealism was involved in literature, illustration, painting, film, architecture, philosophy and politics, the area where it achieved its greatest impact and subsequent influence is undoubtedly the field of photography (see Dreams of Desire 2, 3, 21, Angel and many others for examples of Surrealist and Surrealist inspired photography).
This influence can be seen in the nudes of the French photographer Lucian Clergue, who at the age of 21 in 1955 struck up a friendship with Picasso that was to last until the great modern master’s death in 1973. Clergue’s nude photographs often feature the zebra effect which creates a distancing coolness and abstraction to the exposed flesh. The model (or models) are defined by the interplay of light and shadow. In other studies the model is placed in natural surroundings where the body merges into the landscape in the manner of Magritte.
Nádia Maria is a contemporary photographer currently residing in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Her work has been featured in National Geographic and Paris Vogue. After featuring her stunning ethereal portraits in my previous posts Heavenly Bodies and Transformations I contacted Nadia who kindly agreed to an informal interview. Further information about this exciting young talent can be found at her website http://www.nadiamaria.com.
Many thanks to my friend Jason Lock, himself a professional photographer, for his invaluable assistance and suggestions in relation to this interview.
AS: Your website gives the indication that you are professional trained, but by obscuring the informative text and concentrating on the creative element it suggests that inspiration is more important to you than technical acumen. Is this the case for yourself?
NM: Training has its importance, or rather, construction has its importance. However when I want to give concrete expression to an image that has suggested itself to my Self I have to, it a sense, deconstruct my training. Only then can the image be set free.
AS: Do you think that studying the creative arts is important for inspiring/aspiring photographers?
NM:I think everything you study, question, observe, believe you know, is important and collaborates with the image.
AS: Where would you say the major influences come from for you photography?
NM: Art, literature, meditation.
AS: Which artists and writers have provided you with inspiration?
NM: It depends a lot upon the moment. I’m always discovering new things, but I have some favourites: Rilke, Fernando Pessoa, Sylvia Plath, Alejandra Pizarnik, Borges, Murilo Mendes, Khalil Gibran, Hilda Hilst, Manoel de Barros, to name a few … I find that one thing leads to another, a piece of music will lead me to myths that leads me to philosophy. There is a whole universe of inter-connected inspiration out there.
AS: In your own field what photographers you admire?
NM: There are so many, but for their complete bodies of work it would be Sally Mann, Masao Yamamoto, Francesca Woodman.
AS: Of the photographers you mentioned I would be most familiar with Francesca Woodman (I have written an article called Angel about her), whose work leaves me with a sense of awe. When did you discover her work and is she a conscious influence?
NM:I discovered Woodman while I was at school. I have always enjoyed long expositions, and when I studied photography I used to make the exercises all “wrong”. I had an open shutter craze and one of my teachers said that I should take a look at her photographs; that I would identify with them. I felt an affinity, but in a different way than my friend thought I would. I definitely admire her work but she isn’t a conscious influence. Woodman reflects the world that she saw and I reflect mine. Sometimes artists worlds cross but they are private reflections of particular kinds of self-knowledge.
AS: Where does that particular kind of inspiration come from in your work?
NM:From reflection, internal dialogues, dreams, the void…
AS: Do you create a narrative before creating the images – or – is it the case that you create images first then work a narrative around the picture?
NM:Usually there is a narrative before the image, but sometimes the images give me a narrative, however it is always a leap into the abyss.
AS: Do you use any analogue process in your work or are you totally digital?
NM: I use both.
AS: How does your use of analogue influence your work?
NM: I have a greater affinity with analogue as it what I started with, but it is becoming harder to work with today here in Sao Paulo, Brazil. My photographic thinking is built on analogue so even when I am using digital I keep what I can from the analogue process.
AS: When using digital, are you imagining the final image before actually capturing the image?
NM: Yes I usually see it in my mind beforehand, however sometimes there is an element of chance where the unconscious manifests itself.
AS: There is a major up take in photography due to the digital world and the access to smart phone technology. People consider themselves ever more creative and explore the world of Instagram etc – do you think that this hinders or promotes the conceptional/experimental genre of photography?
NM:Well, everything has its positive and its negative side, don’t you think?
AS: I do certainly agree that everything has a positive and negative side. What are the positives and negatives with the ever increasing popularity of social media on the arts?
NM: The most striking positive I think is the increased visibility and reach a work can have, and all instantaneously. A few years ago that wasn’t possible. The negative side, and unfortunately I have experienced this myself, is the devaluation of creativity, a lack of sensibility, a levelling effect.
AS: Where do you see your future as a photographer?
NM: Who knows where this will lead me. Maybe the photograph will cease to exist as it now. Maybe I will no longer feel the need to be a photographer.
AS: And finally (and this is an old chestnut) what advice would you give for future generation of image makers?
NM: Whenever I am asked I always quote Jung: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” That about sums it all up.