Monday, 23 May 2022

Who is the mystery woman on The Tattooed Lady?

Photo by Simon Liddiard

Yesterday was the seventh birthday of my art work The Tattooed Lady! She made her debut on the 22nd May 2015 as part of the launch exhibition at HOME Manchester and since then has appeared at other art events dispensing temporary tattoos (you can find out more about her on this blog). As a birthday treat I thought I'd explore the history of the mysterious woman whose photo I used as inspiration for the painted section of my penny arcade machine and share her dark and forgotten story. She was an enigma to me until recently, but her story is unforgettable.

So get comfortable, take a deep breath, and read on as we explore the tumultuous history of a tragic showgirl star...

A tale of love and regret:

As one of the stars at the Ziegfeld Follies, Imogene was riding a wave of notoriety and fame. She had become one of it's most popular showgirls, sparkling and shimmying every night in her Erte costume and her effervescent personality could be felt far beyond the stage.

 

The columnist Mark Hellinger had once quipped, "Only two people in America would bring every reporter in New York to the docks to see them off. One is the President. The other is Imogene "Bubbles" Wilson." Frequently spotted around town in the best restaurants and night clubs, she had earned a reputation as a party girl and how the press adored her! 'Bubbles rhymes with troubles' yelled the headlines!

It was 1922, and Imogene was a jazz baby living as a fashionable and daring young thing. Yet she had arrived in New York under very different circumstances just a few years earlier. 

A small and thin child with few belongings, Imogene had made the long journey from Kentucky to the Big Apple to live with her older sister Mabel. She had chosen to leave behind the foster home that her father had put her in after her mother had died, and in doing so had changed the course of her life. 

Aren't you going to dance? by Arthur William Brown

By 13 Imogene was already a beautiful girl and began to work as a model for magazine illustrator Arthur William Brown. Word must have got around about her good looks as Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr soon came calling and put her in his musical revue. He dubbed her 'Bubbles' due to her irrepressible nature and gave her a featured role in the show catapulting her into stardom.


By 1924 everyone's favourite showgirl was to begin a highly publicised affair with fellow Vaudeville act Frank Tinney. A popular black face performer, Frank was successful, older and very married. He must have made quite a glowing impression on the teen but shared a condescending attitude with others stating, “Sure I have a wife, a mortgage and an appendix, but why should I bring these things up and spoil a pleasant evening?”
 
 
Unfortunately for Imogene, Frank was also a heavy drinker and over the length of their relationship she would often turn up for work with bruises where he had hit her. Things reached a head when Frank found her alone in her apartment with a newspaper reporter and assuming the worst beat her so badly that she afterwards attempted suicide.


Later the newspapers reached a frenzy when 'Bubbles' Wilson appeared in court to press charges against Frank Tinney. She showed her bruised belly where he had kicked her and claimed he practiced his boxing on her lithe frame. Even Imogen's maid testified that Frank was a heavy drinker and was often violent. She herself claimed he had 'chastised' her and caused injury.

Despite all this, a grand jury refused to indict Tinney on assault charges and he went on to tell the press that Imogene had fabricated the whole thing as a publicity stunt. Already known as a free spirit and party girl, it wasn't a far stretch for the 1920's general public to also paint her as a deviant and liar. 

 
Ziegfeld was not impressed by Imogene's 'cheap' behaviour and fired her, feeling that her reputation would be bad for the show and the morale of his performers. This was in spite of the fact that his own personal doctor had inspected her injuries himself and declared “this girl looks as though she had been struck by an automobile.”
 
Even with her bruises and losses, Imogene was still infactuated with Tinney and in a move to get his attention that only cemented her delinquent image, she threw a 'suicide party' and swallowed heaps of sugar pills in front of her guests. After an ambulance was called and news of this hit the papers, Tinney beat her once more.
 
 
It seemed nothing could deter Imogene from her addiction to this toxic relationship. After Tinney announced he was leaving for an stint on the English vaudeville circuit the two reconciled and she boarded the ship to see him off before his departure. She told the waiting reporters that Tinney was, 'the only thing in my life. I know it, you know it, so why should I beat around the bush?'. She cried as the ship sailed away.

The next month she too was sailing, heading to Europe to appear in a French revue. It was not long however until she hopped across the Channel back to Tinney. He had begun to drink again and shortly after their reunion Imogene was once more black and blue. In early 1925 they finally split up for good when Imogene was tempted away to star in German films. When later asked about her affair with Frank she claimed she had only been 14 when it started, and it had been, 'a nonsensical mixture of fights and laughs, and half and half'.
 

On a side note; When Frank Tinney returned to New York his reputation had been tainted and his reception was less than glowing. Many of his friends abandoned him, his career floundered and his wife having divorced him wanted nothing more to do with him. Soon ill health and debts overtook his career and he faded from the limelight.
 

Back in Germany, it was a different tale. Imogene was now known as 'Imogene Robertson', and making a genuine go of things. For the next two years she starred in several films and received good revues earning her around $1500 a week. This led producers in Hollywood to take interest and offer her American projects, but she turned them all down. In Europe, while her life was still chaotic, she was at least free of her dubious past.
 
 
However, when Joseph Schenck of United Artists offered her a lucrative contract to return to the USA and work for him, she finally relented. The press took a huge delight in retelling her scandalous history prompting some women's groups to protest against her making films in America, while well known prude William H Hayes also expressed his dislike of her return. As a way to distance 'Bubbles' links with her past United Artists relaunched her career under a new screen name, Mary Nolan.

Under United Artists Mary starred in a just two films before moving to Universal Pictures. Here she played opposite such Hollywood elite as Lon Chaney and Lionel Barrymore and made such an impression on movie goers that she became a sought after starlet making $3000 a week. By 1929 she was once more riding high and had earned a lead role in the drama 'Shanghai Lady' playing a former prostitute and opium addict embarking on a respectable love affair only for her sordid life to catch up with her.
 
 
In reality it seems Mary likewise couldn't contain her still in-suppressible nature and she fell in love once more. This time the object of her affection was none other than legendary 'Fixer' and all round shady character, the executive and producer Eddie Mannix. If his status as the man who covered up Hollywood's crimes and disgraces by nefarious means wasn't enough, he was also, like Tinney before him, very married.
 

Mannix used his connections to push Mary's career and got her work with MGM on the film 'Desert Nights', while rumours flew that he also forced the star to undergo an abortion. Not long afterwards he abruptly ended their relationship. 
 
Mary, never one to handle a break up well, threatened to tell his wife about their affair which sent Mannix into a rage beating her into unconsciousness and hospitalising her for six months where she underwent 15 operations to repair the damage he had inflicted to her abdomen. It was during her recovery that Mary was prescribed morphine for pain relief and it was rumoured she became addicted to the drug. The next year while being treated for severe sunburn, nurses gossiped of finding needle marks up her arms.
 
 
In 1930 while making the movie 'What Men Want', Mary got into an argument with the film's director when she complained that she was the only cast member not to receive a close up. She was first banned from the set then fired altogether. After threatening to file a lawsuit against them, Universal bought her contract and possibly encouraged the hearsay about her temperamental behaviour and alleged drug use around Hollywood cutting her chances of ever getting work with another major studio.
 
 
From here on Mary worked on bit parts and supporting roles in low budget films for Poverty Row studios and in another attempt at love she married a stock broker named Wallace T McCreary. One week before their nuptials he lost $3 million on bad investments. With his remaining money the couple opened a dress shop, 'The Mary Nolan Gown and Hat Shop' but it went out of business within months. The couple were sued by creditors and ex employees seeking their wages. When giving a statement on proceedings, Mary said, 'They hound me because they remember a naughty Imogene Wilson. Don't they know that the side of me... vanished?' The next year Mary filed for bankruptcy and divorced McCreary, she was 24 years old.

Over time Mary's name was seen in the papers again when in 1935 she made an ill judged decision to file a lawsuit against her former lover Eddie Mannix for the physical abuse that had contributed to her career's downfall. She asked for $500,000 in damages. Predictably Mannix, an old hand at manipulating events to turn his way, stated that the claims were made in an attempt to resurrect her flagging film work. He further went on to discredit her and ruin her reputation by leaking negative stories about her sex life and many abortions, and he even sent a private eye to her home to threaten her with arrest for possessing morphine.
 

Now, shunned by Hollywood and making a shaky living back on the vaudeville circuit, Mary's life was punctuated by an arrest for an unpaid dress bill and several stays in hospitals for an attempted overdose and  'severe nervous strain'. Eventually upon her release she changed her name to Mary Wilson and got a job managing a bungalow court.
 
In 1948, Mary decided to write her memoirs  titled, 'Yesterday's Girl', with the help of the writer John Preston, but she they remained unfinished. Suffering from malnutrition and residing in a small Hollywood apartment she was found dead at 42 from an overdose, the cause of which was never decided.
 
 
In her short life Mary blazed a trail across the entertainment industry burning brightly and very fast. It seemed that even with her talent energy and beauty, she was drawn to terrible relationships with awful men which took hold of her and kept her in a state of self destruction. With little to no support or understanding from the machine that had fed off her fame, she was left as an outsider and remembered as a dream that once was. Despite all this she is known to have said, 'I've had a beautiful life. I've tumbled into the most beautiful life in the world. I'd never change it'.
 

Thursday, 5 May 2022

This is not OK

So, it happened. After gossip and Chinese whispers abound in the Marilyn online community, the rumours turned out to be true. Kim Kardashian had indeed turned up to the Met Gala wearing Marilyn Monroe's actual Happy Birthday dress.

Instagram and Twitter, the papers and news channels were, and still are at the time of writing, all abuzz. The IT girl of contemporary popular culture has forever indelibly linked herself to one of the world's most famous female icons and indirectly set a dangerous precedent for the treatment and preservation of historic artifacts hereafter.

It seems that with enough money, anything can be bought and one has to wonder just how many noughts were added to the number offered to make Ripley's Believe It Or Not, the current owners of the dress, even contemplate such a move. 

In one fell swoop they have allowed not just the fabric of the dress but the fabric of it's history to be changed forever. Kardashian might have told the press that she had been worried about fitting into it because it couldn't be altered, but the moment it touched her body it was changed. It might always be the dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to JFK but it is now also a 'costume' that was hired out to a reality TV star so she could borrow it's original owner's legacy for a photo op.

One of the many debates online has been that other items of Marilyn's wardrobe have been worn by different people over the years but not caused the same stir, and indeed this is true. Suzie Kennedy one of the most successful of the Monroe look-a-likes has modeled items worn by Marilyn including personal belongings and film costumes.

Suzie Kennedy in the Some Like it Hot dress

Even in her own lifetime, outfits associated with Marilyn were commandeered by other stars for public events. The famous gold lame gown by William Travilla, for instance, which we are so used to seeing on Marilyn was also worn by Jayne Mansfield, Betty Grable, Jean Craine and Marilyn Maxwell.





Yet there is a major difference in the case of the Happy Birthday dress being worn by another woman. While all the other garments associated with Marilyn are still special and unique, they are nowhere near as culturally significant as the gown she chose to wear to sing to the President. A gown that has direct provenance to Marilyn as the woman who commissioned it and up to now, last wore it. It is globally recognised and represents a moment in American history that elevates it to national treasure status.


The dress last worn in 1962 is made from a delicate fabric, no longer produced, called 'Souffle' and it is hand sewn with thousands of crystals. Ripley's have stated that the gown was not spoiled during the Met Gala event, yet Kevin Jones the curator of the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising says different,

'Whenever you move, something is giving way, even if you can't see it. Under a microscope it would show all these little splits. And over time that would be a big problem'

Conservators have also cried out at the video of Kardashian trying on the dress at Ripley's where it is literally pushed and dragged up her legs, the handler brushing his gloved hands over the crystals in rapid motions to lever the fabric over a body that it wasn't meant to fit.


Marilyn commissioned the Jean Louis design specifically asking for a dress 'that only Marilyn Monroe could wear'. It was constructed using layers of sheer fabric coloured to match her skin tone. Each panel was placed and fitted to Monroe's body to give her the appearance of being nude but for the sparkling crystals. Despite rumours that she had to be sewn into it, the dress really was skin tight and resulted in the zip tearing the fabric moments before Marilyn went on stage to perform. A last minute fix saw a seamstress sewing up the tear while Marilyn wore the dress, forever embedding the legend that she was stitched into it into popular culture. The tear however does illustrate how delicate the fabric was even when the dress was new. 
 
In museum conditions the 60 year old dress is displayed on a muslin dress form in a temperature controlled case with low lighting to preserve it's fragile state. Seeing Kardashian forcing her own shape into the gown is wince inducing, and despite her claims to have shed 16 pounds in three weeks thanks to a crash diet and sauna suits in order to get it to fit (this is a whole other concerning issue that should not have been promoted to her impressionable fans) there was no way the slender garment would fasten over her huge backside, a feature almost as big as her ego. The museum helpfully used an already existing tie to keep the dress in place where the zipper could not be done up
 
Note the gap large across the bottom where the dress cannot be closed

This pretty much sums up Kardashian for me. She turned up on the red carpet literally clothed in another woman's glory. She might have been wearing the most expensive dress ever sold (Ripley's paid 4.8 Million dollars for it), but her ass was still hanging out the back of it. She could hide it with a fur stole all she wanted, but there is no amount of money that could buy her the class or talent of Marilyn Monroe.


Now the dress has had Kardashian's body oil and sweat pressed into it, it's been wondered by many Marilyn fans whether it will still hold the same value. It had been, up until this week, a direct link to Marilyn herself. It was her dress, and whether literally or figuratively it held her DNA, for this reason it should have been sacred. Yet Kardashian's massive sense of entitlement gave her free reign to do as she liked and we have lost a link to the past.

Worse still is that there was a perfect replica (made to fit) that was worn for the actual gala, meaning that the real dress, paraded on the red carpet, need never to have been worn at all. It takes an extremely selfish and ignorant person to do what Kardashian chose to do.

In her last interview, Marilyn asked the reporter just before he left not to make her into a joke. It was important to her that people saw her for the actress she was and the actress she aspired to be. Marilyn had worked hard all her life. She was ambitious and ground breaking. She had so much potential left in her, who knows what she may have achieved. It sickens me to see her legacy being tried on for personal gain and general entertainment. 

Despite her claims to the contrary, Kardashian does not respect the dress or what it stands for, she does not respect or care for Marilyn Monroe, she only cares for her own self aggrandizement. All those who condone her actions, including Ripley's Believe It Or Not and even the Marilyn Monroe Estate are more interested in the financial gain the publicity will bring them. 

It is up to those who really do value history and Marilyn's place in it to continue championing her and remembering who she was and what she did. For me there is only one Marilyn Monroe, a multi faceted fascinating woman who can never be imitated or replaced though some may try.

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

International Women's Day: Hidden women at Manchester Art Gallery

Lately I've been spending one dinner break per week visiting Manchester Art Gallery. As someone who works in the city centre, I must say it is a tonic to step away from the traffic and hubbub and be able to stare some of my favourite art works in the face. I feel a thrill to see the brush strokes, signatures and dates that the artists inscribed sometimes centuries ago. It helps me to stay connected to the things that make me tick.

I find that having a limited amount of time per visit makes me look all the more intently at any art work that catches my attention and I have been pleasantly surprised to discover some interesting paintings by women artists that I'd never seen before. Here are some of my recent discoveries, well worth the visit if you wish to go searching for them, like an historic version of hide and seek!

Lady (Laura) Alma Tadema - Sweet Industry 1904

Snuggled in amongst the smaller paintings that line the stairwell of the the gallery's main entrance hall, this image jumped out at me. If I'm honest, a lot (but certainly not all) of the paintings on the stairwell are pretty ropey. Grandiose and poorly executed, many of these small paintings, I feel, are there to fill space rather than because they are of great artistic merit. Yet this unassuming piece really stands out. Bright and clear and perfect it has the tactile quality of a Faberge egg, jewel like and dainty.

This quiet painting draws the viewer into the intimate scene. It doesn't try to make a big statement but still impresses with it's technical ability and well thought out composition. I particularly like the slightly blurred cushion in the foreground and found myself staring intently at it and it's purpose in the composition. It's a very accomplished piece.

Lady Alma Tadema was the wife of her more famous and successful artist husband Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. His works also have that effortless crystal like sheen that made his lounging ladies of ancient Greece seem so near and appealing. (A side note, one of Tadema's contemporaries John William Godward whose work was very similar also lines the stairwell). Yet Lady Tadema, specialised in domestic scenes set in the 16th Century akin to the themes of Vemeer, who she admired.

Elizabeth Southerden Thompson Butler - Balaclava 1876

This large canvas hangs near a door of one of the Victorian galleries in the original part of the building. I've walked past it so many times and never really looked at it until recently. War, has never held much fascination for me, but the film like quality of this painting caught my eye one lunch time. I spent a long time taking in each figure as the narrative unfolded. These men were the survivors of the doomed Charge of the Light Brigade, the famed attack against Russian Forces that, thanks to a miscommunication in command, sent them into head on fire and inevitable decimation.

All the figures were painted from models as Butler was never near the battle to witness it for herself, but she used the first hand accounts of soldiers who had survived to get across the action and emotion in the scene. The central figure staring with a shell shocked expression out at the viewer was posed by an actor who had actually fought at Balaclava. 

It's admirable that the artist chose to focus on the mental state of the men rather than a sense of misplaced glory. We see injured and dead soldiers and terrified horses, blood and distress. It only occurs to me now how on point this painting is regarding recent news. Although from another era and fought for another reason, it highlights how devastaing conflict is, and how wasteful.

Bulter concentrated on military paintings througout her career and became extremely successful in her field. She tapped into a sense of national patriotism but stated, '‘I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism’.

Annie Swynnerton - Illusions 1902

Lastly, this strange yet evocative painting stood out to me. Painted by Annie Swynnerton whose work I have seen before when Manchester Art Gallery held an exhibition showcasing her career back in 2018, I had yet to notice this piece hanging in a corner of the same gallery as Balaclava.

It's an odd image, a little girl with strikingly blue eyes wearing a suit of armour in a woods. What can it mean, especially with the title Illusions? Things become a little clearer when we delve into Swynnerton's life.

A staunch advocate of women's rights, the artist was a founding member of Manchester's Society of Women Painters  and aligned herself with the Suffragette movement. In 1922 she was the first elected female member of the Royal Academy of Arts (shockingly late in the scheme of things) and became known internationally for her inventive and bold painting style.

The armour worn by the little girl in 'Illusions' could well represent strength when put into the political framing of women's rights, but I can't help feeling it is also a symbol of protection too. For this little girl, the world was still going to be a difficult place for a woman to gain a sense of freedom or equality. Like many women today, she will have to face challenges while trying to acheive her ambitions in a male focused society. Perhaps the armour worn so comfortably here represents the beginning of a growing confidence brought on by the continuing efforts of women's movements and the small shifts in the right direction that have paved the way for future generations.

Saturday, 29 January 2022

Reframed: Marilyn Monroe

'Marilyn Monroe is a mirror for people's ideas about sexuality and women's power', states the new four part CNN documentary series 'Reframed: Marilyn Monroe'. 

After watching, I felt this has never been more true. In an age where women's agency and freedoms are talked about and hashtagged in the news and social media there was a strong and evident agenda to reflect Marilyn as a trail blazer and feminist in this retelling.

The programme succeeded in ditching the usual tragic trappings most documentaries focus on when speaking about Marilyn the icon. Gone were the familiar 'beautiful young and dead' undertones to be replaced by representations of a hard working determined artist and star.

It was thrilling to see Marilyn make decisions and achieve against the odds. Wonderful to hear how she became a pioneer in a male led film industry, leaving Hollywood to set up her own production company, learn her craft and take chances.


To further this feeling of empowerment, the programme consisted of only women talking about her career, giving insights, or in Dame Joan Collins case, recollections, of the star. By taking men out of the picture this became a safe space where agency was given back to a woman whose image was established for the consumption of men.

Yet, even in this, Marilyn was given influence, as Bonnie Greer stated;

'We as women are constantly constructed, we construct ourselves, we collude in it, and you have to as a woman negotiate this, even if it's unconscious, every second of your life. Marilyn knew the machinery of womanhood very early'

It seems strange that a documentary so dedicated to lifting Marilyn Monroe up should then make some glaring mistakes that, if taken for fact, give a false impression of her. For instance, Marilyn's marriage to Joe DiMaggio was touted as a publicity stunt which is difficult to believe as they were both incredibly famous successful people at that point in their lives. Both parties met and fell in love years before their marriage and it's hard to see Marilyn being that callous or shallow where love and security were concerned.

Another bone of contention came when a rumoured love affair between a young Marilyn and her photographer Andre De Dienes was stated as truth. Over the years many men who knew her on a professional or even passing manner have claimed to have slept with her, and this for me is just another of those bragging stories that without evidence can only be met with skepticism.


But, mostly this was a new Marilyn for a new generation. 'Reframed' chose to show her story through the lens of a modern woman helping her to rise above the sexism and stereotypes of her time. While this did present new angles on events in her life giving much earned praise to her achievements and ambitions, the documentary was so fixated on getting the idea of a strong female across that it chose to leave out key points of her story that couldn't be rewritten as a personal triumph or breakthrough.

Crucial moments involving both husband's, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, were downplayed or left out altogether. When events led to Marilyn's traumatic stay at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic (where she had been locked in a padded cell by order of her psychiatrist), the documentary only stated that she got out, failing to mention that if she hadn't got a message to DiMaggio,  by then her ex,  he wouldn't have fought for her release as he had.

Likewise, the emotional difficulties that came from her marriage to Miller were only skimmed across never giving the deeper extent of her heartbreak and dismay that led to professional loss and ultimately their divorce.

Though flawed in places, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, made a genuine effort to shake off many of the preconceptions and stereotypes associated with the star and reminded us that living in the midst of all the attention, myth (some self created) and stardom was a real person with real ambitions and struggles just like any other woman. 

Her struggles took place in an era when women's options were small, and expectations were high, yet somehow she managed to elevate beyond anything we could ever imagine and has become more than a person. Even today, 60 years beyond, Marilyn is an ever evolving idea of womanhood and a true reflection of our desires, efforts and successes as we progress through the ages.

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Lockdown Leading Ladies: With Darren Nixon

In March I did a small collaboration with artist Darren Nixon based on the recent photo and video work I've been doing. Darren's work is a sublime mix of colour, shape and composition that uses painting as a springboard for investigation. He says, 'Although painting is the language at the root of what I do, I am interested in how it mingles with film, photography, sculpture, animation, sound, music and movement'.

For this work Darren was intrigued by the images and footage I'd been shooting about lockdown anxiety inspired by vintage Hollywood and wanted to see what would happen when they were handled in different ways by another person.

Usually Darren's paintings would be the starting point of his collaborations with other creatives, but here it was my work, which I think was very unusual for both of us.

It's fair to say that Darren and I have completely different ways of working and thinking; whereas I am fascinated by the figurative and narrative he is interested in shape and construct and trying to create an understanding of the whole. All imagery in this post is the result of mixing Darren's and my own ideas.

To begin our collaboration I sent him what I would call 'the stuff I decided not to use' from my own work; Video clips that I didn't like and couldn't make work and images from shoots that didn't hit the mark. I had no clue what he would make of them or what he could do with them, seeing no value in them myself.

The first thing he sent back to me was a video clip, 'Gemma 1-1'. I was confronted by a zoomed in version of my reflection but layered several times and filtered with colour. 

I had earlier made a tentative start at playing with mirrors and filming myself but had found the process difficult and the result unsatisfying. Here however the video had a new feel and somehow looked more complete and he totally understood my aim to create a feeling of discomfort and unease while keeping an aesthetic of glamour.

 

What I really liked was that he had given the imagery the same treatment he would one of his paintings. Framing, cropping and putting holes in it almost as if it was a piece of board to be moved, shaped or painted as was seen fit. I would never have done this.

I then asked if he could do some literal mirrored effects on the same video and again I really liked how he turned the work into something else. Having me glance sideways fervently at myself at different speeds was so simple yet effective.


I suggested filming into a mirror again for Darren to try some more ideas out. I'd recently watched more mirror themed 1940's films (Dark Mirror and Corridor of Mirrors) and was very inspired to try and capture something about isolation and anxiety using my reflection (see my last post to find out more about this shoot)

It was important to me to set the feel of the imagery by referencing the era, so I spent a whole morning setting my hair with a 1940's curling pattern. I was really pleased with the result and it helped me to frame myself within the mirror from different angles. Even when I wasn't sure what to do, the style did a lot of the speaking for me telling it's own story.
 
Interestingly, that is what also stood out to Darren. Of the shots I took of just the back of my head he said, 'The way the light plays on the waves of hair almost acts out its own drama...
There is something sexual but also full of anxiety and maybe dread in that image'
 

 
In line with this, a whole section of video where just my hair was reflected into the mirror was slowed down to almost stillness. An infinitesimal movement as I barely moved my head to one side. I really liked this and it inspired other slow subtle movements in other videos I've since tried out (see last post)

Layering of clips or side by sides (as with the film still here and above) were also a really good way of seeing my work in a new way and giving it a new and unexpected narrative. I like how a simple grouping of similar clips when put together can create something that looks almost planned and as Darren put it,  'communicate with each other in small quiet ways'
 



For me, this quick collaboration was a way to explore the possibilities of making video artwork. I am so new to it and still finding my way around the technology. I've made a wobbly start at playing with Premiere thanks to Darren taking the time to walk me through the basics and in time I'd like to play some more and try to make some complete videos (currently I have no access to using Premiere properly)
 
It's also taught me some of what will and won't work when it comes to certain effects and how to think about what I want to get across through a moving image. Seeing my work through someone else's eyes was exciting. It reminded me that one idea is potentially the opening to a hall of mirrors that bounces around more ideas in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Camp and theatrics are important to me, whereas Darren likes what the smallness of a movement can tell us. Somewhere in the middle through this project we have found a way to communicate both. What I also like is that Darren's work is often, although I'm not sure if it's his intention, very attractive and decorative, and this complemented my own aesthetic.

Since editing moving image isn't currently an option I've been applying the feelings some of this collaborative work has given me to photos, experimenting with layering and reflecting images to create new and evocative moments and I'm enjoying trying this out.

For Darren this project was an interesting opportunity to work with someone else's footage. 'Normally if I am working with my own stuff I have to invest all of the footage with anything it is going to have. But {Gemma's work} arrived so full of richness and ideas...all I had to do was watch the stuff {she} sent and listen to what it told me'. This made decision making so much easier and made Darren think about how to make his own voice clearer in the things he films for his own practice.
 
'Our work is so obviously hugely different to each others so it was really nice to just work with a completely different visual, There are so many themes and moods in {Gemma's} work that I would not even be able to think about touching so it was really interesting to think about those ideas and how to play with them'.
 
To see more about Darren's work from my past posts take a look HERE and check out his Instagram to find out the latest about his practice.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Lockdown Leading Ladies: Mirrors

Something I've noticed while watching the films of the Forties is that mirrors are often used as devices to show the leading ladies inner thoughts, turmoil and unease. In films such as Gaslight we see the character of the wife driven to near madness by her manipulative husband reflected in her music box, her slip into despair shown upside down and distorted. In Possessed, Joan Crawford's portrayal of the hallucinating Louise is shown as several images in the same shot, reflected in her dressing table mirror, and Rita Hayworth is shown in a multitude of false and real mirrored images in a hall of mirrors revealing her duplicitous nature in The Lady from Shanghai.

I began to play with mirrors and reflections in my own work as I figure out my feelings of lockdown/ Covid anxiety and unease using classic movies as inspiration. The first thing I realised was that shooting with mirrors is really difficult when you don't have much room or designated space. Trying to get the reflection I wanted in the mirror and the camera isn't easy. A lot of the time I got unwanted furniture, fridges, cat food bowls, and even the camera itself either shown in the mirror or behind it, so setting up took some time. Here's an early try out where having sections of the room in the mirror really limited what I could shoot, especially as I was holding the mirror at the same time. I do like how there is an unspoken story in this image though.

Eventually I hung the mirror on a plain wall where the reflection was plain too and this made taking the images much easier, though as it was on a landing, I didn't have much space to move. I played with having myself and the reflection in shot and just my refection which in this set up worked much better.

This really created an otherworldly feeling of being trapped or separate from the real world. Not knowing what to do in the mirror, a lot of the time I just stood still and looked straight ahead. Or as in this case turned my back on it completely, adding another layer of separation from the viewer. There's a mysterious element to not seeing a person's face that leaves you feeling unresolved. I also like how my 1940's set hair looks quite sculptural and is what really 'makes' this image.


Lighting was also tricky because, using the limited sources I have at home, I was trying to light myself but then looking into the mirror the reflected me could look lit in a totally different way. That's when I started to experiment with a smaller handheld mirror. This way I could move about to get the best light, but it also gave the images a new feeling. I tried a few videos using both mirrors trying out simple movements and looking into the mirror and at the viewer through the mirror.



On a different day I played with the handheld mirror, moving it around my face while being filmed and photographed from the front. I was able to have set lighting this way and I really liked how the reflections and light changed as I moved the mirror. I moved very slowly and then slowed the video down even more to play with anticipation of seeing the face change in the mirror. I'm not sure if this worked but I enjoyed the aesthetic and creating this piece.



Behind the glamour there is always a lot of faffing and retaking shots. I like that in a way, these images in themselves are a manipulated version of reality existing in an alternative world, a reflection of my mind during the pandemic.

Monday, 22 March 2021

Lockdown Leading Ladies

 
 
It started back in January when I watched the 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard. It's a film I've enjoyed before, but this time something about watching the character of Norma Desmond descend into madness all the time looking magnificent, while I, like the rest of the world struggled through a pandemic, really struck a chord with me. Her stunning expressive face and glamourous deterioration was so awe inspiring that the next free afternoon I had I was grabbed by the impulse to channel Norma and take some photos of myself.

I enjoyed the experience and the resulting pictures so much that the next week I watched another classic movie with a strong female lead, the 1947 hit 'Possessed' starring Joan Crawford. This film has Joan slowly losing her grip on reality through her obsession with a playboy architect who doesn't reciprocate her feelings. The film culminates in a 'did she, didn't she' murder, as hallucinations mix with the real world.

I've always loved the films of old Hollywood for their glamour and melodrama, but watching them now, particularly in 2021 during lockdown 3.0 my attention has been grabbed by how the female stars portrayed women on the edge, losing their minds with impossible glamour and endurance. While watching old movies has always given me comfort, these suffering powerful ladies are also giving me strength to face the current challenges around me and my god, I love them for it! This was the first time since lockdown started last year that I felt compelled to create something entirely for the joy of it.

I've since been playing around with the visual styling and language of these old movies to try and convey some of the various feelings of paranoia, isolation, threat and fear that Covid has installed in many of us over the past year, leaving many like me, stuck in a world of uncertainty and stagnation. There's a satisfying fit between the aesthetics of Film Noir and melodrama and these times of Covid; A constant feeling of threat, danger and psychological angst.

I began by channeling the stars of the films I have watched, not trying to look exactly like them, but to gently reference them through make up and styling, and try to pick up some of the pitch of their performances in my poses and lighting. I also have really enjoyed using black and white photography to create that otherworldly feel of old films that are so evocative and alluring, whilst completely of their own time.

As I started to explore ideas I tended to allude to general styles of the old Hollywood era instead of the actual stars. I also began to play with projecting images onto myself to layer narrative. I have never used myself as material in my own work, except for the odd painted self portrait (see the banner to this blog for instance), so photographing myself was and still is strange to me. It feels very immediate and open to use my own image this way.

 
 
I also began to experiment with video, just short trials to see how things looked like here where I projected Corona Virus cells over my face, purposely staying still like a paused film as the pandemic washed over me. It made me also think about how stuck in a moment we all are during this world event.


I watched the British 1940 film Gaslight which sees a wife begin to believe shes losing her senses through the mental manipulation of her husband, It's a fantastic film and gives a strong sense of outside influence invading ones mind. On the back of this I made a short clip about Hands, Face, Space and the unease and paranoia that was being felt as we went about our daily lives, using some of the film's soundtrack to perform to (sound on).


 
I am not overthinking any of my process, just making sure I enjoy making it and seeing what comes out. It's important to me now more than ever that I don't stress over the outcome, which is ironic when I am using the stress and anxiety myself and many others have experienced over the past year due to Covid as part of my inspiration.

In short I am enjoying using so many of the things I already love, like dressing up, (I'm trying out original 1940's and 50's setting patterns to set my hair into authentic waves and curls, which is an added boon as we can't visit hairdressers at the moment), glamour and camp, history and story telling to make work that is literally getting me through.The preparation is as much fun as the actual making of the work, though setting up my phone to exactly the right angel to avoid getting unwanted items in the shot can be stressy, especially when photographing mirrors (more of that to come in future posts!).
 
I'm not a technical person, so I like the simplicity of just grabbing my phone to experiment, clicking and creating an idea and a mood. It's all work in progress, but yes, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close up...