Photos of the Drama of Womanhood
Marjorie Salvaterra's black-and-white depictions of women combine glamour, humor, and the mundane to make powerful statements about the roles women are expected to play.
From "HER: Meditations on Being Female" by Marjorie Salvaterra
The women in LA-based photographer Marjorie Salvaterra's breakthrough series HER are doing it all, but not the way we're used to seeing it done. The surreal scenarios in HER depict and distort the many roles that women are required to play, exploring the struggle of being female today with style, camaraderie, and a good dose of humor. Salvaterra heightens the drama—playfully tripping the line between sanity and insanity—by giving her models elaborate, theatrical costumes or stripping them down entirely: a line of bare bottoms in an empty field.
The photographs in HER are at once wildly exaggerated and deeply honest in their portrayal of women's experiences as mothers, daughters, partners, and agents of their own ambitions. Drawing on Italian cinema, fashion photography, and advertising imagery, HER explores the psychology of age and gender and challenges us to rethink a notion of femininity predicated on perfection. Inspired by her own struggle to "be all things to all people," Salvaterra started the series by asking her friends and acquaintances—other mothers at school, the nanny—to don crazy wigs and gowns at 6 AM one February morning and crash into the freezing ocean. They did. The stories in HER went from there.
Read more: Photos of the Inner Lives of Women
The series sweeps through the female experience at every age—from girlhood to wrinkles and white hair—blasting past society's injunction to age gracefully, or not at all, and if you can't manage that, to disappear. That's the one thing the women in HER seem incapable of doing.
BROADLY: How did you get started with photography?
Marjorie Salvaterra: I had taken a few classes in high school, but I put down the camera when I left for college—it wasn't part of the "plan." I got a point-and-shoot for our wedding and took that to Morocco where my husband was working for three months. I fell in love immediately.
Tell me about the origin of your project HER—what did it come out of in your own life?
It's easy to shoot when you're somewhere new or exotic. It's easy to see the world in a new way. For me, it was more difficult to come back to my own life and use those same "new eyes." I realized one day that if I take from my own life, my work will always be unique to me. At the time that I had the idea for HER, I was balancing many things at once: being a wife, a mother, taking care of myself, dealing with some health issues. Our lives were in flux financially, and I was still trying to be all things to all people. The idea for an image of women in the ocean—which became The Weight of Water and the first image in the series—popped into my head. Suddenly I knew exactly what it was and what it was about: the idea of water as an outside force, the question of how we deal with it. Do we let one drop of water throw off our day, melt us, drown us, or do we ride the waves?
What was the process of making that first image, The Weight of Water?
Like I said, I had the idea, and then I had to figure out how to get it from my head to the camera. The process was overwhelming, but finally I just started looking on eBay, thrift shopping, and buying up every cheap gown I could find. Then I started calling every friend, nanny, or mom at school I could think of who would be willing to show up at 6 AM and stand in the icy February waters of Venice.
Why did you choose to shoot the series in black and white?
I love black and white. When I first started shooting, it was all film, and I chose black-and-white film—it wasn't digital, so I had to make a choice and stick with it. I'm a terrible decision maker (I don't have a gallbladder, which I'm told is your decision-making organ) but that one was easy. There's a simplicity to black and white that offers a timelessness to the images that I love. To me, it leaves more open to interpretation.
Did you know all the women on the shoots?
Yes, all the women in HER are friends or friends of friends. I've gotten the occasional waitress, who I befriended. My husband always tells me they think I'm crazy when I ask, but so far they've all shown up and jumped right in. I have our old nanny from when my kids were babies; I told her that next time she gets a job she should ask for a full description! At this point, she's been naked so many times for me, she's like a sister.
Were you surprised by the reception of HER? Why do you think the series struck such a chord?
I was definitely shocked. I couldn't imagine anyone feeling the way I was feeling at that point. The shoots also provided a camaraderie that I had never felt while living in Los Angeles. The idea of being all things to all people, not wanting to disappoint others or ourselves, and trying to look good while doing it seems to affect us all.
There's a kind of theatricality in these pictures that's reminiscent of Italian cinema. Was that a touchstone influence for you?
I had no touchstone. Just the one image in my head, women in water, that started the series. I work like that. I wait for the images to come into my head and then work to get what I see there into some sort of reality. Right now I have four images hanging around in that dangerous neighborhood I call my mind.
Well, that's a good place to ask—what's your next project?
I'm still working on Sheila with Red Hair and Ice. Ice is a big one for me because it's about boundaries—something I didn't understand until I was an adult with a lot of therapy behind me!After those projects are wrapped up, I have an idea for doing a series about the amount of space we take up in our daily lives. There's always a lot of work that goes on in my head before I get close to shooting.
Tell me about the Sheila images. These women are styled for the 50s or 60s, at the supermarket or by the pool—your mother's generation. Did the project tap into your own experience as a daughter and as a mother?
Very much. I love my mom, but we differ very much in how we approach the world. I hate secrets. Her experience of womanhood was very different from mine. She and many of her friends were all brought up to believe that you had to put out this idea of perfection. It's too much for me. I have to choose peace over perfection or I'll go mad. Or more mad. I have realized that so much of who we are is how we are raised. In my parents' day, people weren't open about issues and struggles. Thanks to Oprah, there is very little people don't talk about. I believe there's probably a happy medium, though in our house, we talk about everything. But most importantly, I want to teach my kids about boundaries. This was something I personally had to pay a lot of money to learn.
Most of the photos are shot in open outdoor spaces, but two that stand out are Her Last Supper, shot in a mausoleum, and Faith, depicting women in straitjackets in a church. Why are these "inside"?
Those are very different images to me. Her Last Supper falls more in line with how we treat one another. Faith is about how we treat ourselves and how we let the world treat us. I wasn't consciously thinking indoor or outdoor—it was more intuitive, guided by the specifics of the story I was trying to tell.
In The Politics of Being Real, all the women have removed their wigs, and they're all looking up at a camera shot from above. What led you to this image?
I never like to say too much about the images—I want to leave it to the viewer to create their own story. But this one is too good not to share. This was not the image we originally came to shoot. We were shooting Her in Bloom, and I was pretty floored that most of the women had very little hair down there. I had to ask, "Did you all coif for the shoot?" We laugh a lot when shooting. I called my best friend after the shoot and said, "Just so you know, you're about 1972 down there and apparently, I'm 1988." The Politics of Being Real ties into the idea of all the things we as women do to feel good, look good. It adds up. It can feel like a lot. It can feel exhausting.
Talk me through how you were using nudity in the series.
For the most part I have a vision of the image before I shoot. I'm not sure it's a conscious choice to have the figures be clothed or naked—it's whatever fits the story. For Eve Unraveled—unclothed—that is the story. Good hair. Good shoes. All the things we have to do to get out the door in the morning. If we also have others that we're responsible for getting out the door in the morning, the list of things to remember can be pretty long. Some days there are things that end up falling by the wayside. Clothes might be one of them.