Contemporary New Zealand Photographers (Auckland: Mountain View Publishing, 2005).
Yvonne Todd got her training in commercial photography, and you can tell. Her work draws heavily on its techniques and genres: particularly portrait, product, and scenic photographies. But while commercial photographers are trained to make things look perfect, to promote a fantasy-of-reality, Todd’s images are always not-quite-right, they miss their mark. Her images cue us for the fantasy but deliberately fall short of the commercial ideal, contriving punctum-like effects, feigning hubris. This was typified by Asthma & Eczema (2001), the suite which won Todd the 2002 Walters Prize and made her famous.
It features fine-detailed commercial style images: a giant too-perfect sympathy-card shot of a dewy rose, an elegant but cadaverous female hand, looming backlit women, vignetted profiles of slightly trashy made-over girls-next-door, and a lonely satellite dish. An awful pall hangs over the series, a nagging sense of staleness, of déjà vu. The pictures irritate with their knowing artifice, their creepy airlessness, their cloying, over-processed sentimentality. Asthma & Eczema traffics in clichés, in kitsch, and yet it is not ironic. It is more concerned to recuperate stereotypes, pointing to the profound emotional investments that underpin them.
Hubris is the crux of Todd’s next two series, both of portraits of women. At first glance, Bellevue and Sea of Tranquility (both 2002) suggest a documentary project, as if Todd were cataloguing human types in the pseudo-scientific manner of August Sander and his German heirs, or indeed parodying their taxonomies. Each series presents its subjects in a more or less consistent format, inviting us to compare and contrast. Bellevue and Sea of Tranquility are neither documentary nor directorial, fact nor fiction, but a mix of both.
Bellevue consists of nine portraits of cosmetic-counter consultants from Auckland’s department stores and upmarket pharmacies. As a girl, Todd had appreciated such women as the epitome of beauty and good grooming. Plucked and polished, they approach the ideal, embodying their expertise in the use of lotions and potions to conceal irregularities and eliminate unwanted detail. They put their best face forward, aspiring to a generic mainstream good-look, buying into the ideology they sell to others. However, the women are not models and the images are far from perfect. We see beauty techniques grapple with wayward human faces that refuse to conform; we catch freckles poking through concealer and register faces too hard to fix. Like a magnifying mirror, Todd’s photos show up the irregularities that make-up and airbrushed studio photography typically seek to suppress. Todd’s barbed title translates as ‘beautiful view’ but recalls illness (New York’s Bellevue being America’s oldest infirmary).
Sea of Tranquility approaches the same idea from the opposite direction. While Bellevue presents its subjects as they present themselves, the five women in Sea of Tranquility are elaborately dressed and made-over with wigs and false eyelashes by the artist. They are styled like ‘the daughters of Mormon pastors, circa 1969’ but she photographed them like starlets. With her dead eyes, Alice Bayke looks like she’s stepped out of Valley of the Dolls, while Susan Blunton is more Little House on the Prairie. Recalling internet sites for mail-order brides and glamour shots of suburban housewives seeking to perk-up their marriages, these images fence-sit between fantasy and reality. Suggesting stoicism, gawkiness, and pathos by turns, the images invite us to imagine the women’s back stories.
Large, imposing, and authoritative, the images explore habits and conceits of studio photography as much as their sitters. Sea of Tranquility can be compared to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of Taussauds exhibits, but, where Sugimoto gives waxworks a pulse, Todd’s images are killers. They play off the uncanny sense that reality is already aspiring to the conventional quality of the photograph. All this begs the question: what is Todd’s relation to feminism? Bellevue and Sea of Tranquility certainly engage familiar questions about women being pressed to live up to mass-media prescriptions but they are less about pointing the finger at men as beneficiaries of the gaze—indeed, to date, men barely figure in Todd’s work—than exploring the space of women’s investments in living through these fantasies.
After Bellevue and Sea of Tranquility, Todd returned to the manner of Asthma & Eczema. The Book of Martha (2003) doesn’t inventorise similar images of similar subjects but offers an odd group of diverse images, whose genres crash against one another. It works as an ensemble, with associations ricocheting between images, prompting us to imagine narratives linking them, or at least to wonder what was going on in the artist’s head. Suggesting a missing installment of the Bible, The Book of Martha features images of a severe nurse (Draize), a dark mysterious cripple in a wheelchair (Advancia) and a heavily doctored self-portrait as witchy anorexic (Martha). They are attended by a close up of an ice skate (Prell), a bleak Bauhaus-style shot of North Shore Hospital (Tide), a catalogue shot of blank signs emerging from fog based on how Hell appeared to Todd in a dream (Forment), and a desktop sculpture of an iron lung (Lung)—Todd’s one and only foray into sculpture. The Book of Martha has a cinematic quality, its combination of portraits, still-lifes, and landscapes suggesting stars, props, and locations. It has the logic of a David Lynch movie, mixing heavy expressionist images with seemingly benign ones, made ominous by association.
Like Lynch, Todd maps the suburban gothic. Her bios habitually note that, as a teenager, her favourite reading was V.C. Andrews’s notorious and trashy Dollanger novels. And today, gothic melodramas are more typically set not in mouldering castles but in suburban homes and strip malls. Gothic novels reject love and light for the dark side. They are typically presented as case histories of damage, pain, dislocation, and insanity; cocktails of repressed childhood trauma, violence, vampirism, narcissism, gender confusion, and more. Characters are enthralled at the prospect of psychic fragmentation, investing in others as doubles, representing repressed parts of themselves. Things are never as they seem and our engagement is maintained through suspense. With its preference for female protagonists, the gothic genre has become a site of heartfelt and, at times, bitter debate for feminists. Does it embody a feminist spirit or is it part of the problem? The jury is still out.
Women are clearly Todd’s key subject. Her oeuvre is overrun with female characters: damaged, gawky, misfit, variously hobbled or proud. All seem to exemplify some physical, psychological, or sociological malaise, implicit or explicit. Her work is ‘symptom city’, agony-aunt territory. Her allegorical figures suggest saints and martyrs, exemplary and superior sufferers, like the sadistically named Advancia in her wheelchair (2003), the desiccated, windswept anorexic, Resulta (2004), a visibly pregnant Youth-for-Christ type, the sexy-frumpy Bo-Drene (2004), or The New Helen Keller (2004), whose disability is invisible. Masochism looms large in the work. Roba (2004) looks like a cloaked, preternaturally calm cult member or suffragette, while her accompanying petrol can suggests potential immolation, fanatical self-sacrifice: Nana Mouskouri meets Carrie. Todd describes her cast as a ‘rainbow of affliction’, stressing an oddly utopian underside to their collective or cumulative condition.
Todd’s non-portraits breathe in same diseased air. In her still lives, picturesquely twisted driftwood becomes shorthand for a world-weary heart (Vol-Ron 2004) and burnt birthday candles and a diet pill on a mirror are a sermon for the eating disordered (Homage to Dr Spackman 2004). Candy-coloured asthma inhalers float majestic in a clear Magritte sky, and the only thing that spoils it is a single mucus-like drip (Empire 2005). Todd’s denatured landscapes are equally repellent. Her sublime waterfall is a man-made one, its frothy highlights picked out in white, in the manner of old-school photo-retouching (Dreft 2002). A pastoral puddle is betrayed by its poisonous, pearlescent, petrochemical sheen (Methylated Puddle 2004). And, she lines up corseted Van Gogh cypresses against a depressing grey sky (Seriousness 2004).
Perversely, Todd casts disease and disability as status symbols. As a child, she admits being jealous of the attention her sick friends received; one broke a leg and got a walkman, while an asthmatic cousin was cherished as ‘delicate’. Craving attention from her working parents, she indulged in hypochondria. She repeatedly leapt from an oak tree hoping to break a leg and sometimes pretended to be paralysed from the waist down. So, it is no surprise that Todd would identify pain as a kind of pedigree. It makes perfect sense in a culture where trailer-trash sufferers earn their fifteen minutes on Jerry Springer and women’s magazines offer pain, pain, and more pain, real or imagined, as the guarantee of authentic femininity.
But Todd’s images are so ambiguous that it’s hard to know whether to read her women as victims or villains, threatened or threatening. Take Fractoid (2004). The figure suggests a sexy nurse-type in a synthetic-looking retro pink uniform; svelte, albeit working class. Megan Dunn calls her ‘an Avon Lady gone wrong’. She stands on crutches, but, incongruously, in heels, showing off her legs. Her face is a dark, formless blank, as if digitally excised to conceal her identity—but for whose benefit? Perhaps it is a fetishist’s image, only including the detail that counts. Fractoid evokes a standard trope of horror films, where the trauma someone suffered grants them a supernatural power, and we have to rethink their curse or injury as a menace to ourselves.
So, are Todd’s characters genuine sufferers, saints, and martyrs or self-indulgent thespian ‘look-at-me’ types. Perhaps, in each case, our gut-level response to the question tells us more about ourselves.
[IMAGE: Yvonne Todd Methylated Puddle 2004]