Remember Warheads candy? The pictures that make up AWT contributing photographer Frances F. Denny’s newest series, PINK CRUSH, are something like reverse Warheads: sweet on the outside with a pop of acid on the inside. Shot in a palette that would make Lisa Frank proud, the photographs examine relics of 90s girlhood through the critical lens of an artist who lived it. We feature pieces from PINK CRUSH in the Play issue (including the cover image!), so we were thrilled to attend the opening of The Curator—The Search for Outstanding and Undiscovered Fine-Art Photography at PDN/Foley Gallery, a contest/exhibition for which PINK CRUSH won the Still Life category. It was also a great excuse to talk to Frances in-depth about the inspiration and process behind the work.
Titled after nail polish colors (“Brownie Point,” “Frenched,” “Across the Universe,” “Lovie Dovie,” “Sugar Rush” and “Pink Lemonade”), the pictures are bright, playful and nostalgic, but be warned: they may bring back painful memories of hula-hoop contests, unicorn binders and cheekbones slick with body glitter.
Writing about PINK CRUSH, you note that the subjects exhibit a “wariness of the saccharine” while at the same time revealing an attraction and attachment to girlish icons. What inspired the series?
This series has been brewing in various ways for a long time, but didn’t come to fruition until last winter when I decided to take the plunge and rent a studio space. I’m interested as an artist in the variety of sources that shape girls’ sense of what it means to be feminine, to be a woman—whether those sources come from the family, as my prior series, Let Virtue Be Your Guide investigates, or from pop culture of a certain era, as PINK CRUSH looks at.
Also at the heart of what I have been thinking about in my work for years is the tension between being complicit in something and knowing better. I mean that on a personal level and a broader level. I studied feminist literature and theory in college, and have a robust appreciation for the ways in which femininity is a construct. But I also realize how difficult it is to resist a lot of those constructions. I hate that as a girl I loved pink, hearts and stars and rainbows and bubble gum, and that some part of me is still very much attracted to those feminine signifiers.
I read Roxane Gay’s book, Bad Feminist, last fall and was struck with her notion that perhaps we should let ourselves off the hook a little about being a “perfect” feminist. The feminism I was raised on in college—Wollstonecraft, De Beauvoir, and the second wave feminists of the 60s and 70s—was eye-opening for me, but it may be yet another impossible standard to live up to. So PINK CRUSH has been a way for me to admit something—or declare something perhaps—about the kind of feminist I am. And as Gay writes, the best kind of feminism is one that is self-defined and self-sought.
All of the portraits in PINK CRUSH (including the Play issue cover image) portray their subjects turning away from the camera, or with faces obscured. What was significant about not showing their faces?
I didn’t want the pictures with figures in them to be too personal or idiosyncratic. As you noticed, there are details particular to those people, but I was careful about not including faces because I want the figures to represent something more universal. As soon as you see a face, it becomes a portrait of a person. And I don’t see them as such. The figures sort of float detached in their frames, without touching the edges. Paradoxically, while the figures become more universal with this treatment, I also see them collectively functioning as a self-portrait.
Speaking of the cover image, I noticed a detail at the show that had previously escaped me: the subject’s multiple ear piercings. It makes it particularly difficult to gauge her age—her white tank top and the strong yellow light on her skin and hair evoke youthful innocence, but the earrings are more suggestive of adolescence or adulthood. Was that ambiguity important for you to capture?
The ambiguity about the age of my sitters is definitely important. All the women I photographed are around my age, with a few outliers. I shot the photos at the age of 30, and that is the median age of all of the women, who are a mixture of friends I asked to sit for me, and of women I approached on the street. (No one I asked turned me down!) I like that there is something uncomfortable about how you can’t tell their ages in the photos—in each one, there is something girlish emphasized about them, but most are undeniably womanly as well.
I love the bubble tape still life. It’s such a prosaic, really silly item, but the way you’ve staged it so carefully—the almost-matching background, the glimmer of sugar, the way a little bit of tape is laid out—endows it with such charisma. Could you talk a bit about the process by which you chose and shot the still life objects in the series?
I made lists upon lists of objects that elicited a kind of nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s: certain candies, stickers, hoola hoops, daisies, gimp, hair styles and vast amounts of glitter.
The process of shooting the objects was totally intuitive. The colors were important to get right. I sourced many of the items from Ebay and Etsy, and then played with shooting them on different colored backdrops, with different colored gels on them. I was looking for the series as a whole to look like a giant rainbow, so sometimes I knew I’d need a yellow picture, or I had too many blue ones, etc. so the color schemes would kind of shake out that way. But mostly it was just a lot of time messing around in my studio mixing colored light and backgrounds with the objects. Trying to understand how to make each one fit in the series but also get at its potential as a thing.
On a related note, how do the still lifes relate to the portraits?
I actually see three different kinds of pictures in the series—the figures, the objects, and then the process shots, those moments where I pull the camera back and show an actual dust bin full of glitter and dirt off my studio floor (“Shape of My Heart”), or a stool set up on a hasty backdrop with a balloon taped to it, used to test the lighting before a model arrived (“Sheer Romance”). Sometimes it’s easy to miss, like the edge of the frame where you can see where the iridescent mylar is folded back on itself to reveal where the candy bikini is push-pinned to my studio wall (“Teeny Bikini”). The process pictures are important—I see them as an implication of myself in the series, as if I’m pointing the finger back at myself.
I formally related these three elements—the objects, figures, and process shots—with the color palette as well as the sizes of the prints. The figures loom larger, the others are smaller. This creates a visual rhythm as you look through them. Pairings emerge, but I like that they can be arranged in many ways successfully. With a few exceptions, combining the objects with the figures didn’t work as well—there was a certain necessary mystery that got lost. I liked creating dialogue between photos rather than try to cram too much into one.
How are these works a departure, in terms of subject matter and style, from Let Virtue Be Your Guide, your last series? In what ways is this series perhaps in conversation with those works?
PINK CRUSH looks really different from Let Virtue Be Your Guide—I think some people have been surprised by that. I was sort of surprised by it. First of all, I have been a devoted medium-format film shooter for seven years (which is what Virtue is shot on), and the PINK CRUSH photos were all made digitally. I simply could not have been this experimental in my studio, or had this kind of control if I had been shooting film (or could have afforded it, honestly). I sure a techier photographer could have done it, but that’s not me. Also, my prior series is all shot with natural or available light, and the new one is made with artificial light that I could manipulate. That felt necessary, both for my control of the picture, but also because it conceptually made sense for PINK CRUSH.
But—after all those differences—I see the two projects having more in common than not. Both are about how girls become women, and the ways that that one’s sense of self as a woman is affected by outside sources—whether that’s one’s family culture, or the period in pop culture one’s adolescence overlaps with. Both series are about those influences, and both have to do with the difficulty in navigating that formation of female selfhood. This might be pretty obvious, but both series have begun with myself, and come from an incredibly personal place.
In terms of process, I honestly had a lot more fun making this series. Having a studio-based process has been new for me. After my last series, which is more documentary in look and feel, I craved complete control and a way to work close to home—without having to get permission to photograph in someone else’s space, or worry about whether or not I was taking a picture that could be problematic for someone I cared about later on. Those anxieties are part of the work, and the care for the work, but I was looking for more freedom with this series.
I’m grateful to the women who agreed to be photographed for PINK CRUSH—I think they quickly understood that the photo was not a portrait of them, that they were standing in for something that was coming from me. I mean, that was pretty evident when I asked them to turn around or hide their face! Most of the shoots involved a lot of laughing. It’s sort of perfect that those pictures were finished in time for the AWT Play issue!
The Curator is on view at PDN/Foley Gallery until August 7, 2015. And look out for Frances’ first monograph, Let Virtue Be Your Guide, to be published later this year by Radius Books!
Photos by Frances F. Denny, Featured image: “Lovie Dovie”
Photo of Frances by AWT