The view from inside the photograph

niagara

My husband, daughter and I were among the many subjects who posed for Regular 8, a new series of photographs by Sara Angelucci, shown as part of Contact 2009 at Wynick/Tuck Gallery here in Toronto. What a thrill it was to be part of this process, since for us it was recreational: we were playing dress-up and wandering around in beautiful locations, and also having a good old-fashioned family outing.

The series pays homage to the home movies of the 1950s, when middle-class families took to capturing their memories in motion, on 8-mm film. These staged scenes, though, are frozen moments replicating the end of the filmstrip, which in those days was punched with a Kodak number to identify the film. The numbers were made up of dots that show white and luminous on the resulting image. As Sara writes, they point to many things: “stories and people who are long forgotten; the invention of the image of the happy family within the staging of films; a time and technology which have passed; and transcended cultural values.”

As a frequent model for these shoots, I saw the photographs, in a sense, from the inside, and was struck by the way dressing up in the clothes of another era affected me and the people around me. I carried myself differently in these outfits. I felt more delicate, more refined, also strangely precarious – as if I was holding myself together, less like June Cleaver than Kim Novak in Vertigo. Someone with something to hide.

The image above shows four of us at Niagara Falls, and you would never guess, looking at it, that there were hundreds of people around us, dressed in modern clothing, and gawking at us as we held on to our fancy hats and traipsed along in pinching shoes (largely supplied, by the way, by the quintessential vintage shop Cabaret, whose owners Tao and Elizabeth helped Sara style her shoots). A teenage girl kept smiling at us, and finally worked up the nerve to ask, “Excuse me, are you from England?” I laughed and answered, “No, we’re from the 1950s.”

What does it mean to be from another time? For me it really felt like that. There at the edge of the Falls, we were from the 1950s – we were just visiting, as if by time capsule. We had somehow come and been deposited here, in a small, contained bubble, separate from the rest. The curls of the wrought iron behind us, the sound of the Falls, the fine mist cooling our skin – so many people have these images of Niagara Falls in their family albums. In fact, my husband looked just like his father that day, suited in the hot sun, shoes polished, face whisker-free. He absent-mindedly jingled the change in his pocket, something he never does. There’s an idealism to these photographs, cut through with sadness. These are lost moments, which the camera can’t wholly recapture – but the failure to capture is also what makes them so riveting.

Another one of the participants, artist Suzy Lake, recalled that the dress she wore evoked memories. “Sara picked out only one dress for me to try on. I loved it.… And then during the shoot, the dress reminded me more and more of my mother. My hair was curled like hers, so brushing it out began to trigger more of an identification. Looking at my hand with red nail polish holding the wine glass was both her hand and mine. I was quite young then [in the 1950s], so it was spooky how much I remembered, that wasn’t remembered through photographs.”

skating

The act of being in the photograph is different than looking at the photograph. I remember the day we went skating – there must have been eight or ten of us there that time. Sara had to find a rink without boards and plexi-glass, so the location would look authentic. She was meticulous in choosing not just our dress but the surroundings. We gathered at her house beforehand, and got in costume. And then going out into the day, in downtown Toronto, that bubble formed around us again. I recall being surprised by that – it’s always seemed to me that here you can wear anything and not look terribly out of place, but that isn’t actually true. En masse, we looked different. We went in the early morning, hoping there wouldn’t be too many skaters, but we needn’t have worried, because people gave us space. It was as if with our arrival a boundary formed down the centre of the rink, and our half belonged to another era. It was a sunny, gorgeous, late-winter morning. I remember a woman standing at that imaginary border, watching us. She shook her head and said, “You all look so beautiful.” She must have been witnessing that same sorrowful kind of beauty that emanates from the finished images of Regular 8.

swimmer

Anne Fauteux, who appears in several of the series’ photographs, recalls getting ready for each shoot, and going out into the streets in character. “It was just like I was out of another time, another reality. Of course, I couldn’t refrain from catching my reflection in the windows, and was so thrilled to see the anachronism with the environment and the other passersby.”

Playing with clothing this way reminded many of us of the power of dress-up. I think of my childhood mornings in front of the legendary Mr. Dressup, and how he could pull whatever was required from his Tickle Trunk – each item the right size, the right style for that particular day, which meant the trunk had to be bottomless. It had magical qualities, but so did Ernie Coombs, in his bow tie and spectacles, a man deservedly adored by generations of Canadian children. His show was simple, with songs, stories, and crafts, but the trunk played a key role; the clothing it contained allowed new worlds to open within the television screen, and so within our own living rooms.

“I used to be a costume designer and a seamstress,” says Anne, “so playing with clothing for characters brought me back in my old shoes – and someone else’s.” It took her further back too, to a time when she would dress up as a different character every morning for school and her fellow students would wonder if she’d be a Russian doll, a genie, or a cowgirl that day. Sara’s project returned her to that state of mind and emotion. And you can see in the images how she loves it, beaming for the camera in flowered bathing cap and lipstick. But this is an honest staging too, as much as it is Anne posing, because we instinctively perform for the camera and for posterity, wanting to be held in time for others to see us just the way we see ourselves.

oakville

My husband, Jeff Winch, is also a photographer, and more comfortable behind than in front of the camera. “An interesting thing happens to me when I’m the subject: I become aware of my skin and muscle and, basically, my entire body. I rarely feel that way. I start to think, ‘Am I standing the right way?’ ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ‘What should I be doing?’”

From his own experience, he knows that the person behind the camera has brought many elements into the frame in search of a perfect image. Sometimes they struggle to get the “moment” on film, and sometimes it comes effortlessly. An actor/participant can help or hinder this process – it’s a delicate relationship. “So I’d watch Sara,” Jeff says, “to see if I could read the shoot’s progress in her face. Does she seem happy and focused? That means it’s probably going well – or does she seem a bit stuck, not sure what to do to reach that moment. If so should I offer to pick up my daughter and point at something in the garden or should I just do it? Maybe I should throw a rock in the lake and if she likes it she’ll ask me to throw another – or take my hat off and scratch my head.”

Catherine Sicot, another participant in one of the group shots, recalls how “natural performers come forward in these situations – people take on personas and throw something out that leads the dance,” and for a while they all go on, knowing Sara is likely getting great material, and then little by little those moments fall away. “You could feel when there was nothing special or interesting happening, and then someone would try something, and it would start again.”

The questions whirl on the subject’s side of the lens – but that’s just the way it works in home movies too, and snapshot photography. As subjects we are participating, picturing ourselves through the lens. Our awkwardness, our self-doubt, our affectations are vital parts of the process.

Sara says the series developed from her love for both photography and film in their vernacular form – in that sense, this work fits well with her other projects, which mine the family archives, but as Catherine Sicot points out, there is an interesting difference here: with this new, staged series, “Sara is working backward. Not using archival images, but creating fake archives – also a fake medium. We see it as if it’s a portion of film, with the frames above and below showing, but these are photographs pretending to be film. And then they are also pretending to be damaged [stamped]. So the work is quite complex on many levels.”

In Sara’s words, each stilled narrative is “a moment on its way to becoming another moment…. One can linger over them, examine their contents, the relationships within them, the passing values, and witness a sense of longing and loss.”

The compelling photographs that make up Regular 8 can be seen at Wynick/Tuck Gallery, 401 Richmond Street West, from May 9 to June 13, 2009.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The view from inside the photograph

  1. Tracy

    Aww, I loved dress-up as a kid, and I guess that sticks with you. I find myself envious of you all at play in your 50s attire, and the focus of someone’s camera at the same time. Very fun. The photos look terrific.

    I was struck by Jeff’s words about being the participant in the shoot as opposed to being the shooter. I recall helping Jeff out once when he was doing something with colour and light in our garden at night, and he asked me to sit in a lawn chair – just sit – and he flitted around in the dark moving the light and the camera and clicking away. Even though I was required to “just sit”, I kept wondering if I was doing it right, if what he hoped to happen through his lens was happening. When he came into my field of vision I kept trying to get a sense of his level of satisfaction from his body language, similar to what he mentions doing during Sara’s shoot.

  2. Marilyn

    What lovely memories this story has brought back for me. My Dad had an 8mm film camera when I was a child and there are pictures of our family at picnics, swimming at the beach etc. The camera would come with us on our Sunday outings and as Dad filmed, my sister and I would run down the hill at the University in London making sure our hair, that had been curled in “rags” the night before, was flowing out behind us, so it would look good on the movie. It was fun when we gathered in the living room to watch the films after they had been developed, pointing out all the funny things we saw in each other.

    • kristendenhartog

      This is such a great little anecdote! I can just picture the two girls with their hair flying. Do you still have the movies?

  3. Lenny

    I am struck by two things in these beautiful photos:

    1. the desire to see the next frame, what comes next – the sense of time running out and;

    2. wondering what memories this experience will evoke for (your) the little girl in the photos.

    Was she told it was dress-up or was she free to experience it outside the context of time and the mechanics of the process?

    Was she less aware of the camera and so, was it a true moment for her?

    If so, has she transcended time? And later, will an image of the 1950s remind her not of another generation but her own parents?

    • kristendenhartog

      Interesting — I think she is quite aware of the camera. For her, the sense of dress up came more from seeing us dressed up, as her every-day outfits are wide-ranging and sometimes just like the ones in the photos. I remember she was very put out at the Niagara Falls shoot, because I looked “fancier” than she did. I guess she wanted wide-brimmed hat, sparkly earrings and so on. It will be very interesting to see what she makes of the photos in the years to come.

  4. Julie

    Always so intriguing to know what’s going on outside the frame, and now to know, too, what’s going on inside, but in such a way that leaves the mystery of the characters’ lives intact. You’ve added a layer of psychology and fulfillment here, by limning the lives of the actors. As always, thanks for lovely words, engaging thoughts. Also, many thanks for posting Sara’s beautiful work.

    • kristendenhartog

      My pleasure! Interesting that you call them characters. I have been thinking that maybe part of what appeals to me about this work is its connection to fiction….

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