“One must always take photographs with the greatest respect for the subject and for oneself. […] It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
Inspiration hit at an unexpected moment, when I was asked to create a nude portrait of my current partner’s ex-girlfriend. As I photographed her, I became acutely aware of how our relationship was entirely predicated on the fact that we had loved the same person. I admired her beauty as she posed on my bed- the same bed I shared with her former partner. I thought about the photographer’s gaze, and its position of power over the subject. The images were, upon final analysis, mine, and I could control how the subject looked. And yet I was vulnerable, since the subject of my photos held a formative romantic role in my partner’s life. Nearly everyone has at least one person in their life that creates a series of comparisons and questions. I found her to be a fascinating, beautiful, and incredibly difficult person.
I was drawn to explore the feelings evoked by this interaction. I set out to honor this connection and other connections like it, paying homage to the effect we unintentionally have on other people as we move through our lives. People are affected by those that have impacted their partner’s life. Habits that were created by a partner, in response to a behavior by another person, act as small echoes of those people who were around before us. Rather than view us as entirely discrete individuals, autonomous and unaffected by the messy web created by human relationships, I see these networks of people, these ripples, as essential to who we are. Additionally, people date and don’t find connection, or a reason to remain in each other’s lives, moving on to new people. What does some person have that another lacks? Why Person B and not Person A?
A less individualistic form of life intrigued me. Our interactions function as ripples in the water: some are more impactful than others, and the overall landscape of the body of water remains ostensibly unchanged. The ripples do, nonetheless, have an effect on one another, and that impact can be mesmerizing. I work to create imagery that can reflect this. Deleuze and Guattari speak to this noting that, “"Multiplicities are rhizomatic. [. . .] There is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object, or to divide in the subject. [. . .] A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determination, magnitude, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature." In contrast to Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, which is similar in scope, Metamours relies less on an idea of collective feminine knowledge than engaging a decentered network of relations. I was curious about the nature of these multiplicities and connection. If I had slept with several of the same people as someone else, we had more in common besides simple coincidence: we were part of a larger entity.
I found myself with a number of questions that felt both emotionally compelling and ripe with potential. As a photographer, can I put myself in a position that is more vulnerable than my subject? Can I create a portrait of someone with whom I have a complicated relationship, and do so while simultaneously acknowledging the competing needs- the need to create an interesting image with the need to create an image that doesn’t disrespect or exploit my subject? I decided to create a series of portraits, all of people who had slept with people I have slept with. I would not photograph any of my partners, exes, or paramours, and no one I had slept with could be included in the project. I wanted to explore the tenuous and difficult relationship between people who have had a lover in common. Metamours emphasizes the unintentional complication and connection that sex brings to interpersonal relationships.
I began with a difficult subject: I contacted the woman that my partner of 18 years had left me for. I wondered if I could get her to meet with me, engage with me, and allow herself to be my subject. I wanted to know if the aversion I felt for her would appear in the image if I made an effort to combat that feeling while photographing her. We met, drank tea, and in a moment that felt reminiscent of McElwee’s “Sherman’s March”, I told her how I was feeling about her, verbalized my insecurities about her, and then we proceeded talk, followed by the photo shoot. Like McElwee’s narrator in the film, I had developed a neurotic and somewhat self-centered engagement with my subjects.
After 20 years of loading film, I still managed to load the roll incorrectly, and processed a half blank roll of film. It felt like a scar left by my emotional state during the experience. The key photo from that emotionally exhausting session is one I still feel an intense connection with. She looked at me, and asked, “What are you going to do with these photos? Are you going to do something bad to them?” I can look at the photo now, and the expression in her face indicates that the power still was never in her hands, no matter how much I emoted at her. I had felt vulnerable in the presence of the woman my husband chose to be with over me, and yet I was still, ultimately, in control of the likeness and where it would end up. But offering her likeness to me was also a kind of a complicated gift from her.
This project’s emphasis is bravery and curiosity, rather than jealousy. I chose to confront the fear that lingers in one’s head about what an ex-partner was like, or whom one’s ex dated after the termination of your own relationship. Jealousy existed to be exorcised, and I believed that the space I was creating for these interactions contributed to this process. It became paramount to approach these tensions and see them realized visually, while still maintaining respect for the people within the images. I walked into these situations with the assumption that the other person had the upper hand. Reading the body language and expressions of some of the participants, I start to question my role as the underdog.
Nothing in my life has left me questioning my stated childhood goal as much as graduate school. However, people seemed engaged with the concept contained within this body of work. I knew there was a project in this source material, no matter how difficult delving into it proved to be. Exploring this content left me with the dilemma of how much a photographer should use their personal experience to exploit the situation of others. Many people declined participation in the project. Some responses were cutting in their candid and succinct nature, “ I feel that participating in this project would be at odds with my instinct for self preservation.”
Initially, I chose to photograph with only 120mm black and white film, in an attempt to create classically beautiful imagery, reminiscent of the way photographers like Steichen and Callahan approached portraits of their wives. Fascinated by the role that the male gaze plays in traditional portraiture, I attempted to photograph these women in a way that visually referenced portraiture by male photographers, while acknowledging the difference inherent in these encounters. The sessions were full of conversation, both about us and the lover that was the catalyst for our interaction. The role of the lovers was only acknowledged by the absence of visually depicting them within the project. I wanted to play with the tension of creating a project that was essentially about lovers and sexual relationships, while simultaneously ignoring those people. The working title for the series became “Metamours”, a recent neologism, “meta” = with or about, and “amour” = love. It refers to the partner of one's partner, with whom one does not share a direct sexual or loving relationship. I contacted men and women across the country, traveling to seven states, photographing 28 people, and was rejected by 14 people.
The portrait sessions were often intense, stressful affairs that yielded insightful conversation about both my subjects and myself. The stress of the portrait sessions often resulted in hurried, flawed images. I began to shoot in many different formats, as a way to open myself up to more possibilities in image making. I consulted with my subject, and sometimes had them create a portrait of me. As a child, I kept huge numbers of collections, hoarding everything from stamps, and figurines, to moths and butterflies. I sought to collect the metamours as well, unintentionally viewing them like objects; and so they integrated themselves into my life as things to possess. The work itself developed a style similar to Walter Benjamin’s arcades, or Surrealist practices of montage and appropriation. I had created hundreds of photographs, a collection which I obsessively revisited and consulted during this project, which was not unlike Benjamin’s relationship to his collections. As he notes, when discussing his own obsessive collections, these items have spirits within them, “which have seen to it that for a collector – and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be – ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects.”
I was not consistently producing imagery that I was proud of, but had grown so committed to resolving the problem set I had created for myself that the project continued, compelling me to keep exploring the subject matter at the expense of other potential photographic projects, and occasionally at the expense of my emotional health. I wanted to understand these people, to compare them to myself, and in a sense, control and own them. I began to feel desire for many of them, both in wanting to be them, and in capturing part of their essence for myself. At certain times, this felt paralyzing. Giorgio Agamben wrote, “There is nothing simpler and more human than to desire. Why, then, are our desires unavowable to us? Why is it so difficult for us to put them into words? It is so difficult, in fact, that we end up hiding them, constructing a crypt for them somewhere within ourselves, where they remain embalmed, suspended and waiting.” Due to the nature of these sessions, and the constraints that had brought us together, my desire felt like an impediment to the project, as well as a socially unacceptable possibility. In photographing my metamours, I was not only paying homage to their beauty and impact on my life, as I originally intended, but I was owning and controlling their likeness, in an attempt to regain some power in a situation where I had made myself vulnerable to them.
I struggled with the exposed position I had put myself in, and began to feel the weight of every rejection that I encountered. Some people, when approached about this project, felt flattered by the inclusion. Others were surprised by how intensely personal I quickly became with them, and shared in kind. Many participants empathized with the somewhat morbid curiosity about a partner’s exes. I continued to seek out more people, increasingly people currently dating my former partners. In order to enhance the emotional potential of the sessions, I began asking my subjects to write a message to me, in which they explain what they “really” think of me, and another message, in which they explain what their perception of our connection is. During these sessions, I had noticed that many people had entirely different perceptions of these complex relationships. Some felt that we had fraught and complicated interactions, carrying a great deal of weight. Others felt that we had impacted each other’s lives in minimal ways, if at all. It appeared that the only consistent aspect was one of inconsistency. They sealed their statements in a pair of envelopes, wherein a promise was given by me that I would not open the letters.
The letters became a new object of fixation for me. I attempted to create a bond of trust with these people by upholding my promise to not open the letter and expose their words to my viewing audience or myself. Not opening the letters is a reflection of the ongoing tension I feel with these subjects. The letters themselves became precious items, and an object of fascination. The project has evolved into an installation including the letters, my writings on the experience of these portrait sessions, and a lightbox created for each of my metamours. What initially was conceived as a project documenting the links between these people and myself has shifted over time into a smaller, more personal examination of each person, along with the overall experience of the encounters. The images were less impactful as documentary, and in layering multiple images and objects within the lightboxes, I am able to add a visual representation of the multiplicities. In an effort to create successful portraits, I sometimes revisited my metamours two or three times in an effort to capture the perfect shot that distilled the emotional weight of our relationship. When that failed to produce the results I sought, I started rephotographing the portraits in my own environment, in an effort to depict how much the project had integrated itself into my own daily life.
Joseph Cornell has been an influence on my aesthetic, and his use of boxes and collections resonates with my need to possess and distill my interactions with the metamours. I am inspired by incorporation of found objects into his pieces, the physical act of compartmentalizing experiences that runs throughout his work. The lightboxes will act as shrines to each metamour. Each will include layers of imagery and objects related to the specific interactions I had with them. Benjamin asserts that easily reproduced images lose their aura, and therefore their spiritual impact on the viewer. The lightboxes serve to create a unique, non-reproducible object that contains the spirit of my experience with the subject contained within them. The size and content of each lightbox reflects the emotional weight and complexity of my relationship with the subject. The varied way that I shot the project over the past two years resulted in portraits that have an eclectic aesthetic, and encapsulating the interactions within the lightboxes is a way of distilling the interactions for the viewer, creating visual consistency within the body of work. Cartier-Bresson notes that, “in photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject”, and speaks to the “thousands of ways to distill the essence of something that captivates us”.
Metamours takes such seemingly minor life details: something as specific as a shared sexual partner, which is simultaneously inconsequential and immensely impactful, and opens them up for examination by the viewer. Revisiting the subjects, photographing them multiple times, and using a variety of treatments on the same image in an effort to find the most effective way to transmit my intentions to the viewer. This has led to a repetitive loop of self-reflection and introspection. In combining a number of images and experiences into these shrines, I am inspired by Baudelaire’s sense of possibility in “countless layers of ideas, images, feelings have fallen successively on your brain as softly as light. It seems that each buries the preceding, but none has really perished.” These shrines will be as layered and complex as my experiences with the subjects within them.