Eva Stenram’s new series ‘Drape’ is collection of vintage pin-up photographs manipulated and re-printed by the artist. The original photographs depict women situated within a domestic setting, standing or sitting in front of a window. The photographs appear aged: they are black and white, in square format, while the dated interior design situate the photographs in the 1950s and 60s. Using these photographs as source material, Stenram partially disguised the subjects in the images by extending the curtains in such a way that they appear to overlap the women’s bodies. The title of the series ‘Drape’ effectively alludes to a double entendre in which the drape stands for a curtain as a household item but it also stands for the artist metaphorically draping the bodies of the female subjects with the material of the curtain.
The curtain is associated with drawing a physical yet also psychological line between the public and the private. The photographers of the original pin-ups appear keenly aware of this connotation as they asked the subjects to stand or sit in front of the curtain, venturing to the very edge of private space almost as a matter of provocation. Here, the curtain also functions as an improvised studio backdrop, highlighting the presence of the sitter posing for the camera – separating her from the background and thus making her more visible. By visually placing the women behind the curtain, Stenram’s effectively subverts the source material in two important ways: she inverses the private with the public and she makes the women not more but less visible. In other words, the purpose of the curtain is completely inversed in Stenram’s manipulation.
As the curtain has strong connotations of the theatre, Stenram’s project alludes to a type of performance by the subjects in the images. In ‘Drape IV’ in particular, the manipulated image appears as if the subject hides behind the curtain, teasing the viewer’s gaze, as if she is fully aware of an audience looking at her. Although it is only the subjects’ legs and feet that are visible in most of the images, the position of the bodies clearly signify that they pose for the camera. In other words, rather than performing for an anonymous audience, the subjects’ appear to perform for the photographer. The poses invoke the impression that the subjects are familiar with the photographer and that their performances are a well-rehearsed ritual.
As bare feet, legs, stockings and shoes appear to be a reoccurring theme in the photographs, ‘Drape’ has strong connotations of the fetish. In his classic essay Fetishism, Sigmund Freud argued that the foot fetish is the displacement of sexual desire onto alternative objects or body parts, caused by the subject’s confrontation with the castration complex. From the original source material it is evident that the photographers had a strong (sexual) interest in women’s feet, legs, stockings and shoes. Yet Stenram further highlights this visual association with the fetish by fragmenting the body of the subjects in such a way that it is often only the feet or legs that are visible. In ‘Drape’ the subjects are exchangeable and literally faceless women who are photographed not for their beauty or personality, but for specific physical attributes and body parts that have a fetishistic value.
Any body part or indeed object can have a fetishistic value ascribed to it. The film theorist Christian Metz argued that the photograph, too, shares ‘many properties of the fetish (as object), if not directly of fetishism (as activity).’ The photograph is a fetish object because, in a more literal sense, it stands in for the missing object that it seeks to represent. In other words, a train spotter will perhaps enjoy looking at a photograph of a train because it stands in for the missing object (the train) represented in the photograph. A photograph as material object itself can have a fetishistic value as it is collected, cherished, valued, sold and exchanged. Yet, I believe, Stenram project alludes to something all together more complex: that apart from referring to a fetish of the body, and apart from referring to the fetishistic value of photographs, it also refers to a fetish of the body specifically ‘performed’ in the act of being photographed. As such, while Stenram’s work references vintage pin-up photography, it equally references an image conscious society constantly performing itself by inversing the private with the public.
Christian Metz’s quote from his classic essay ‘Photography and Fetishism’ can be found in The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
This blog post was first published on the foam blog.