Laura Heyman‘s photographs from ‘The Photographer’s Wife’ are not what they state themselves to be. Rather they are born out of a singular idea that refutes our assumptions about the role of women in the history of art and specifically in photographic portraiture.
From the title to the picture Heyman plays on our prejudice, she lulls us into a false sense of security, leads us to believe we are looking at a series of intimate portraits of the photographers wife, a woman caught in domestic settings, in hotels, on the move. A lover, a muse, gazing into her husbands lens. But we’re not. What we see is a fiction. A stereotype, a familiar trope that is ubiquitous, entrenched in contemporary culture, has blinded us to another way of looking.
What we’re actually looking at is a series of self portraits. Heyman is both the photographer and the wife. She is both the fictional subject and the fictional artist. Thus what we see is a fictional relationship that only exists in the status quo of our imagination. This simple conceit is a powerful statement about the role of women in photography in particular the pictures taken by photographers of their wives and lovers as she puts it herself:
I appropriate the male gaze and examine the history of images made by male artists of their wives and lovers. More specifically, I reference well-known portraits of Edith Gowin, Eleanor Callahan, and Maria Friedlander, while playing with various photographic conventions, such as travel and sensual imagery.
It is a challenging supposition and challenges our expectations of the relationship between artist and model. Moreover, in these pictures the model is not alluring, sexual, flirtatious, enigmatic rather she is frustrated, tired, bored, hankering for something better. It is an irony within a fiction. The fictitious model of our story cannot perform her duties as a supplicant instead she betrays her role through her eyes, her posture, her desire to be elsewhere.
It’s an incredible series of pictures. It works on so many levels; personal, political, social and cultural. It forces us to re-examine the way we look, how we see things, how we transpose our societal attitudes onto an image. One might say that Heyman is intent on re-appropriating the propaganda of the male view of women and creating a new image that leaves us space to reflect on our gender biased assumptions. Here’s what she has to say about her work:
The Photographer’s Wife presents a female subject gazing intimately at the camera, suggesting that the artist is making images of his lover. As I embody both roles at once, this creates a fictionalized photographer as well as a fictionalized subject. The model/subject’s job is always performative—she must be able to portray both a true and idealized self. In the case of these photographs, however, the problem is slightly more complicated. As the model/subject, I must convey not only this multiple subjectivity, but also reflect back to the viewer an imagined photographer husband.