Beautiful Words: "You have a strange feeling of soul floating around each photograph."
By Douglas Max Utter, November, 2011
By Douglas Max Utter, November, 2011
The impact of Elisabeth Sunday’s photographs showing one or two persons in their native landscapes comes in part from imagining how and where they were created. Personal interaction and shared psychological space are implicit in the melting gray and black tones of the images themselves, which show their subjects reflected along the undulating surface of a specially made mirror. During extended international journeys over the past quarter century Sunday has used this device to establish an unusual ratio between her own sense of self and the persons / personas that ebb and flow through her mirror, taking the psychological measure of observer and those observed alike as she places her subjects at a double remove from direct observation. This distancing technique tends to outflank the usual questions and doubts that often linger in the wake of both documentary and artistic photography, appealing (somewhat in the manner of surrealism) to a different authority: the timelessness characteristic of the unconscious mind. Farther in the background of her work’s content is Sunday’s exploration of her identity as a woman born to a family of successful artists, and as the daughter of the African American stained glass artist and painter Douglas Phillips.
Sunday’s most recent photographs of men and women living in Ghana, Mali, and Ethiopia are at once forceful and oblique. The figures, dressed in traditional garb or sometimes elaborately painted (as in the case of pictures showing the Koro men of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley region), loom monolithically, expressing a superhuman intensity. Typically Sunday captures an elongated vertical reflection, rushing and bleeding like a single expressive brush stroke. Although Sunday herself is never visible in the frame, she is as much actor as she is director within the drama of these photographs, as she strives to represent not so much the personal characteristics of her subjects, but an essential gesture that connects a given incarnation with the long history of the soul.
In the gold-toned silver print titled “Hope” a man stands on the shore. Five long silvery fish are draped over his shoulders and clutched cape-like across his chest – he seems a god from the sea, dressed in a dream. In “Lifeline” another man hugs a large fish, holding its long body against his own and its sharply tapering head next to his face, while just behind him the sea churns enormously, exploding in painterly-looking rhythms below a narrow strip of blank sky. These and other gold-toned silver prints were shot in Ghana and are the fruits of a relationship that Sunday developed over the past several years with five Akan fishermen who still sail hand-hewn boats into the dark waters of the Gulf of Guinea during the hours before dawn. When Sunday asked them to express their love of the sea the results were startlingly iconic, suggesting primordial links between daily human experience and ancient natural forces.
Implicit in the intertwining skeins of light that bounce across a curved reflecting surface is the recognition that there can be no sure way to capture the rhythms of human life. Sunday’s art is part vision, part accident, and her method is a kind of invocation. She writes about the role of her mirrors (she has had more than one made; last year one became cracked) in a recent blog posting: “The muse is tuned and waiting for me to engage it and bring out the images, calling them forward.” Sunday makes it clear that not just the mirrors but the journeys and events surrounding her photographs work together to cultivate the “muse,” deepening and focusing initial inspirations. All of this, as well as her central mirror-recreated trope of elongation, is part of a profound process of personal growth that began for Sunday in 1982, when she had a number of ongoing dreams about Africa. These were what C. G. Jung might have recognized as dreams of deep transformation, calling forth instinctual energies, and their point of departure was an unusual depiction of flattened and elongated women’s heads and faces painted in 1931 by her grandfather, the noted Cleveland School artist and African traveler Paul Bough Travis. In a kaleidoscopic swirl of imagery the dreams went on to show Sunday nothing less than the creation of the world, from mountains to animals and peoples, stretching and bending in great waves across long ages. Sunday’s first trip to Africa was made soon after this intense period of dreaming, as were her initial experiments with mirror photography.
The largest recent works are 70 inch tall pigment on rag prints from Sunday’s Anima and Animus series. If even her smaller platinum prints often seem to loom, these larger than life figures are all but hallucinatory in the impending power they project. Sunday here is meditating on eternal masculine and feminine energies, using warlike Koro men and nomadic Tuareg women as subjects. The Anima women are hidden under flowing garments, slanting to left or right or reaching upward like dark flames against the steady white curve of a dune. Their dance-like postures show just the angle of an elbow or a knee, suggesting the geometry of the human body swathed in smoky potency, yielding and enveloping.
The Animus figures rise like tough young trees or spears, rooted somewhere beneath the picture plane. Grace and violence here seem cast together in a solid block, as in Animus 1, which shows a ghost-like figure daubed in white up to the top of his chest. It’s as if the sheer thrust of aggression has fused his arms and legs into a single mass, and his whitened profile tilts downward, like a giant regarding the earth. As with so many of Elisabeth Sunday’s figures, these seem composed of stone or bone more than living flesh, bent along universal lines of force, long-buried or drowned but astonishingly rediscovered through the photographer’s process and passion.
"Mirror photography is much more than photographing a reflection, it produces a visual alchemy that combines the physical world with that of the great mystery. Photographing with mirrors allows me to see the world in a different light and capture some element that remains hidden in straight photography. The use of elongation in indigenous and western art has long been an archetype for the unconscious. Following in this tradition, I use my mirror to shine into the internal deep spaces where we universally connect to something greater." --Elisabeth Sunday