Department Store Shoot-out | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Department Store Shoot-out 

If photography steals souls, what's it doing with these mannequins?

From photography's beginnings, the act of taking pictures has been described in the vocabulary of war and hunting. Cameras are loaded, shutters cocked; a lens is aimed at a subject who is subsequently shot.

In Theft in the Dolls' House, Jill Casid and Maria DeGuzman continue this potent metaphor, "poaching" images from "staged scenes of merchandised sex and fashion"--in department stores. Since theirs was the "imagined crime" of "image theft," they were treated accordingly. Not consumers but transgressors, they were forcibly escorted out on more than one occasion, for taking photographs of mannequins.

The 14 oversize color photographs in this exhibition depict them in various stages of dress, alone or in groups, sometimes with props. Almost always they stare away from the camera, eyes averted from the viewer.

The images were taken with a Polaroid SX-70 and a Spectra Pro, discontinued models well behind the new technologies. Artists of the 1970s exploited this "instant" technology: Lucas Samaras manipulated the SX-70 emulsion (soft enough to be pushed around for the initial minute or so) to create a series of dazzlingly surreal self-portraits.

Susan Sontag has noted, "To photograph people is to violate them by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have. It turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed."

But Casid and DeGuzman appear to have turned some of their ready-mades into subjects. "Shadow of Your Smile" depicts two women standing back to back in a soft, rosy light, a delicate smile on the downturned face of the foreground figure. The figures in "Passions #1 and 2" become eerily human, their poses and expressions similar to those in romanticized 1920s studio portraiture of women.

Other photographs remind that we are looking at mannequins. The stitched seams in the comic "Nip and Tuck" give dramatic proof of the mannequin's genesis.

Casid and DeGuzman have collaborated since 1991 on tableaux vivants and photo-text projects that have earned them critical acclaim. This time, their agenda involves exploring the "queer history" of window dressing by presenting sexually ambiguous images: a male mannequin with small but pronounced breasts in "Tits," or the lesbian intimations of "Footsie," in which the shoes of truncated figures suggestively touch.

In this way, a department store's window display becomes a zone of potential subversion. Case in point: two photographs from the exhibit, "Sapphic Safari" and "Nightbathers," both of which raise another intriguing consideration.

Put simply, they are beautiful images. "Sapphic Safari" is dominated by chiaroscuro lighting, strong diagonals, swirling stripes, and muted suggestiveness. "Nightbathers" is similarly suggestive, its ambiguity heightened by the reflections and the photography of two women in old-fashioned bathing costumes, walking together into the water.

And while this collaboration may have started out with small, instant images, a remarkable transformation occurred along the way. When digitally scanned and printed 24 by 30 inches, diaphanous lighting, warm orange-yellows, rich dark browns, and muted textures give them the elegant softness of hand-painted photographs.

We view them behind glass, in a long, narrow, well-lit chamber. In some ways, the Allcott Gallery ironically approximates a window display in a department store. It's a particularly appropriate environment for this exhibition. EndBlock

  • If photography steals souls, what's it doing with these mannequins?

More by Barbara McKenzie

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