excerpt from chapter entitled "The Subject Self"

Gretchen Garner --- 2003

"Disappearing Witness: Change in Twentieth Century American Photography," Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 190-218

In the early seventies these photographers were joined in self-imagery by the feminist artist Mary Beth Edelson, who, like Samaras, came to photography from the world of art. In 1973 she created, through posing and handwork on the prints, a series of double self-images called “O’Kevelson,” three pictures showing her transformed into Georgia O’Keefe and three showing her transformed into Louise Nevelson, two feminist-artist idols. In a series of photographs showing her towering nude figure rising above the camera, all made from the same negative but differing in the handwork done on the prints, with titles like Trickster Body, Lightning Rod, Nobody Messes with Her, Strong Medicine, and Patriarchal Piss, she pictured herself as powerful, vengeful, and magical. Edelson’s use of her own figure in ritual performance augured the rise of a feminist tide of self-imagery, proclaiming a new kind of woman. With a strong interest in goddess spirituality, Edelson would continue to perform, sometimes as priestess and sometimes as goddess, asserting her figure as powerful in the natural environment. In long exposures, often involving moving lights, the ritual figure was recorded as a sometimes transparent blur in the landscape.

Ritual made its appearance in the early seventies in the self-imagery of Mary Beth Edelson, and in all of her work of that decade—painting, photography, performance—a spiritual thrust was foremost. When she began creating rituals and photographing them, it was, as she says, “with Joseph Campbell’s writings about myth ringing in my ears.” For her it was the feminist movement, and within it, the women’s spirituality movement, that provided “that rare thing in our contemporary culture—a context in which the rituals, symbols, stories (myths)could be shared with a community.” Edelson has participated in the revival, or perhaps we should say the reinvention, of a female-or goddess-centered spirituality, and siting her practice as she does in her own person is exemplary, not dogmatic. Her claims for it only go so far as its authenticity for herself. In 1978 she wrote, “What I am most concerned with is spirituality as it manifests itself in our bodies/minds and how this effects how we see/feel about our being, and as a feminist awakening to the greater self as female, as well as making a political statement for women that says I am, and I am large, and I am my body, and I am not going away.”

Like Samaras, Edelson has never been exclusively a photographer, and like him, she freely manipulates and mixes photography with other media. But when she has used the camera she felt that it was “far more revealing and private than the same type of act using a brush… It captures the soul of the moment—there is no hiding form this exposure. These moments before the camera are beyond your absolute manipulation or control and therefore say how it is—reveal reality in ways that can surprise.”

Tableau, or directorial photography, has indeed become a huge genre, and much of it has to do with self-definition, often in narrative form. With the possible exception of Friedlander’s, all of the self-imagery discussed in Chapter 11 is directorial in mode—Duane Michaels, Lucas Samaras, Jerry Uelsmann, Arthur Tress, Cindy Sherman, Mary Beth Edelson, Barbara DeGenevieve, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, John Coplans, Anne Noggle, Eleanor Antin, Eileen Cowin, Jo Spence, and Helen Chadwick have directed and determined the content of their photographs. In addition to extending the concepts of the self, tableau photography has been used to make visible the photographer’s sense of psychological reality, sexual fantasy, and deep, often irrational, feeling.