Kaitlin Maxwell is daughter and granddaughter to the two women in this series. Maxwell appears with them in some pictures, imitating or mimicking their poses, wearing the same costumes. She shoots them alone, shoots herself alone, she poses them against different backgrounds, mostly domestic spaces, but not only. Maxwell’s images represent an intense curiosity about them, the women who raised her, about who they are, apart from her, and who she is because of them. Maxwell wants to know if she looks like them.
Nine and six years younger than my two sisters, I watched them as I grew up. They fascinated me. From my bed, I watched my middle sister put on her bra on a freezing winter morning, and felt sorry for her – I wore an undershirt, but a bra wouldn’t keep her warm. They were my brilliant sisters, my heroes, until they were not.
My mother, the first female, was a ‘prude’. Our female bodies were not talked about, they were our secrets; what happened to them, and what we did with them, was secret. We didn’t walk around naked. My father’s body was also kept under wraps. When my breasts started growing, I thought the small mounds, or lumps, might be a disease.
Maxwell’s images are revelatory to me, unusual: she looks at her close female relatives as characters in their bodies, with bodies. Daughter and granddaughter, she seeks ways of seeing them, and to perceive femininity, sensuality, sexuality and ‘sexiness’ in them and her, and also as coded images. That is, she depicts all of this as ‘just pictures’ of women. Her mother and grandmother are shown as sensual, voluptuous, while the archetypical ‘Mother’ is not. Good-looking, fit women, they pose, and don’t; they reveal their bodies, and don’t.
The poses and postures of ‘femininity’ and ‘womanhood’ supply part of Maxwell’s material. Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote, women aren’t born, they are made. (I love Aretha, but don’t believe there’s a ‘natural-born woman’.) And, the concept of ‘natural’ changes over time, indicating that so-called ‘natural behaviors’ also change, or that nothing is natural. Females will be inculcated, educated, indoctrinated with how to look; how to get looked at; how to behave, and what they can expect of life ‘as women’.
In photography, the knowledge that pictures are constructed, that they are in some sense always fictional – that is, made up – has troubled and wounded the medium. A photograph can’t assert itself as a fact or document. Because like the humans who invented the medium, photographs can dissemble and shape-shift. It is this understanding among photographers that presents a great dilemma: they assemble or frame or construct an image that already is an image, and already seen.
When I was seven, I saw Marilyn Monroe in the movie Niagara. I don’t know who took me. In one scene, Marilyn appeared in a tight-fitting, low-cut fuchsia dress. I had never seen anyone like her. She was sexy. I sent away to her Hollywood studio for an autographed picture. It was the only time I ever did that. It was a little black-and-white picture of her in a bathing suit. She was smiling, posed high on her toes, standing in profile, and looked cute and friendly, I thought.
Monroe became an object of fascination to me, a baby feminist. Her performance of sexuality startled me. Was I supposed to be like that or only admire images of women like that. In the early 1980s, I tried to write her autobiography, to write as Marilyn Monroe, tell her story intimately, but after reading what had been published about her, I became too depressed to write it – her early life was miserable – and, in the 1990s I turned what I had written into ‘Dead Talk’, a short story about Marilyn.
Animals flirt, give off signals for mating; male birds do elaborate dances, their colors brighten and shimmer; some males fight to the death for a female, and sometimes an animal merely rubs against a tree or sprays leaves to lay down its scent. Marilyn Monroe’s flamboyant dress, her exaggerated stroll, her ass in perpetual movement modeled one version of the female of my species using vivid, revealing costumes to catch a mate.
In this Western world, it’s a toss-up. Sometimes it’s the job of females to attract partners; perfume can be used as scent. Men often appear not to need prompts; they were bred to play the aggressor. (They have image problems, also.) Too passive, they may not get what they want. Too aggressive, they might frighten their target. Some are predatory.
In several of her photographs, Maxwell’s women strike poses that might be considered sexy or provocative. These replications are studies in sexiness.
In the first image of the series, Maxwell faces the camera, its remote device on her lap, and shoots from there. She is sitting on a stool in jeans and a black bra, beside a yellow stove. Her legs open into a V and mimic the V of the corner behind her back. The kitchen’s yellow wallpaper, the background, denotes its era, the 1950s or 1960s.