The Anonymous Woman: Picturing Domesticity and Identity
Patty Carroll in the New York Times Lens Blog
Patty Carroll, Fringe, From the “Heads” chapter
Patty Carroll was an established photographer and teacher in Chicago when in 1992 she moved to London, where her husband had gotten a job as rector of the Royal College of Art. She taught photography at what is now the University of the Arts London, but the move brought about an unexpected shift.
“In London, people insisted on calling me Mrs. Jones,” she said, “Which was fine, but it was weird because, you know, I’m Patty Carroll.” It was an odd experience to be viewed purely in terms of her relationship to her husband. “I was known through my domestic status, basically, and it was very unusual for me to have that happen.”
Those encounters inspired a photo project that she would pursue for the next 20 years, “Anonymous Women,” which explores women’s identities and relationships with their domestic worlds — and always depicts them with their faces obscured.
She started photographing one model who visited her London studio weekly for what became the “Heads” chapter of the series: portraits of the same woman in white paint, usually with simple foods or items draped over her eyes. When Ms. Carroll moved back to the United States in 2003, other events would influence her project’s direction, as she began the “Draped” portion of “Anonymous Women.”
Credit Patty Carroll
Ms. Carroll and her husband bought a 1950s ranch home in Indiana, and she began to decorate, combing antique shops and estate sales for vintage fabrics that would adorn both her house and, later, her models. At the same time, her niece, a logistics officer in the Marine Corps, was stationed in Iraq.
“I was devastated and worried about her, then I really started worrying about the women in Iraq,” Ms. Carroll said. It weighed on her that she was engaging with her own domestic sphere, her dream house where she had a chance to do “this sort of obsessive fun renovation,” while the households of many women in Iraq were being destroyed.
Her portraits reflect on the notion of women’s identity being contingent upon the belongings that surround them, with arrangements that call to mind religious head coverings — burqas, hijab, habits — that signal specific roles.
It was no accident — Ms. Carroll went to Catholic school for 12 years. “My whole visual vocabulary comes from the Virgin Mary,” she laughed.
Each image tells a different story. In the “Reconstructed” part of the series, the figures of women merge into the cluttered materials around them, and the Anonymous Woman’s identity is eclipsed by the objects and belongings that weigh her down.
Credit Patty Carrol
When Ms. Carroll constructs a scene, she often begins with an object — vintage curtains from her house, a lamp from her collection — and arranges an environment that engulfs the woman within it. She hired a small team to help her build scenes and used mannequins for those that took longer, sometimes days, to set up.
Her photos have been published as a book, which Ms. Carroll dedicated to her mother, who had been an editor for one of the 10 suburban newspapers her family owned. “My mother was a very smart woman, who was very funny, very sarcastic,” Ms. Carroll said. She was also playfully resourceful when it came to finding loopholes to inconvenient rules — she once published a gossip column written by the family dog since she, as the editor, could not.
The project is still ongoing. Its latest chapter, “Demise,” brings the death of the Anonymous Woman, who is “either being completely overwhelmed by her stuff, or going crazy, or the stuff taking her over in some way.”
Some of the depictions of death were inspired by the board game “Clue,” where someone is killed in each room with an everyday household object. Other images nod to works of literature, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a woman confined to a room for supposed recovery is instead driven mad by it.
Credit Patty Carroll
This text is Honorably extracted from lens.blogs.nytimes.com in associate with schneidergallerychicago.com by Hoomartgallery.com.