For months now I’ve been coveting a copy of Marjorie Salvaterra’s HER: Meditations on Being Female–a new collection of fine art black and white photography that explores what it is to be a modern woman. Admittedly, there are selfish reasons I want several copies of the book (not least of which is because I’m on the cover), but beyond that, I really want to give it to my mom. HER was released May 3rd; Mother’s Day is May 7th. Gift giving dilemma: solved.
Marjorie’s photography explores the many roles she juggles in life: mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, artist. How these worlds–and the obligations that go along with them–intersect is the focus of her work. When I look at Marjorie’s pictures, a flood of questions rushes over me. When we “lean in,” can we have it all, or do we lose something in the process? Can we keep our individual identities in a world where we live under restrictive labels, or do we find more strength in seeking commonality with others who face the same struggles? How do we choose to age? What’s it like to say, “Fuck it,” and let all that go? When do we become women, and what marks that change? And where the hell do we go from there?
Contrary to what you’d imagine, though, I don’t find myself asking these questions when I stand in front of Marjorie’s friendly lens. I mostly feel overwhelmed by the camaraderie of the women she assembles for her portraits, many of whom are artists themselves. They’re a wildly supportive group, these wonderful women willing to disrobe and disclose parts of themselves more intimate than just their bodies.
We show up, many times while it’s still dark out, and we put ourselves in her capable and loving hands. She molds us, and we begin to resemble creatures who are both us and not us. We morph from “I” to “she” to “her”–an evolution and increasing distance of personal pronoun from subject to object. There’s a strange comfort in this anonymity and objectification, especially when that disappearance of self is exactly what we identify with as individuals.
She works quickly, all the while a smile on her face and a joy in her heart. Even in the freezing winter waters of the Pacific Ocean. Even when the authorities tell us to leave because she doesn’t have a permit. Even while shooting her husband pretending to lecture at me as I lay face down on a table in a Palm Springs restaurant at which we aren’t even dining.
Even with a freshly broken nose. In fact, my favorite photo in the whole book, the photo which, to me, most captures the communion of female friendship, was taken while Marjorie’s poor face was growing swollen and turning purple. Still, she kept shooting.
Marjorie’s photographs are striking, funny, rebellious, beautiful, and very, very human, much like their creator herself. She captures womanhood in its many incarnations, unlike any other artist I’ve ever seen. And above all else, she loves women, and the women in her life love each other. Several beautiful friendships have blossomed from meeting new gal pals at Marjorie’s shoots, and my involvement with her work in the first place is thanks to her best friend Coco (a powerhouse talent in her own right) who introduced us.
At Marjorie’s book signing last month, Coco remarked that she was so happy the Sal’s, as they’re affectionately known, had adopted me as family here in Los Angeles. “You’ve really become her muse…” she whispered. And while it’s true–I’m featured on nearly every page of the book–I’m not quite sure if the truth isn’t actually reversed.
The last three years I’ve spent in LA shooting with Marjorie have been my most transformative as a human being–I finally feel like an adult. I turned 30. I left my career on the east coast and moved across the country to start a new one. I held my beloved cat Haas in my arms as he died. I survived driving through 20 miles of white-out blizzard conditions. I had my heart shattered irrevocably only to pick the pieces up and move forward. I know, inside and out, who I am.
I know this, in part, thanks to Marjorie and her work. And I know this because my mother reassured me at every downturn that, yes, this too shall pass. More than that, though, my mom always reminds me that who I am is not stagnant. Who I will become will be determined in large part by the people with whom I surround myself, Marjorie being one of them.
Marjorie’s photographs serve as a stunning reminder that we honor our mothers and our daughters and our sisters and our friends by honestly expressing who we are and why we exist in the world. If that’s not a muse, I don’t know what is.
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