|Dimensions||27 x 22 x 1 cm|
Edition of two hundred, 2013
Published by l’heure dite
Major re-stages mug shots of an unnamed heroin addict originally photographed by the New York Police Department and later published in Marie Claire magazine. The special edition includes fifty Photoshop masks created in post-production under the title of Jezebel with an essay by Catherine Somzé.
Acquired by the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection, the V&A Museum’s National Art Library, the Oslo National Academy of the Arts Library, the Yale Center for British Art, Lafayette College, Swarthmore College, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and Brooklyn Museum.
|Dimensions||27 x 22 x 1 cm|
“I’d originally seen them at a friend’s house in a copy of Marie Claire magazine.” – EJ Major. An unlikely beginning, perhaps, for a project that would be explored in different ways over the following years, finally culminating in the works Marie Claire RIP and Jezebel, now brought together in one limited edition publication. The photographs in question were featured in an article entitled “Diary of a Heroin Addict” and focused on the decline over a period of several years of a young female addict, her drug induced deterioration marked by her mug shots following various arrests.
Initially, EJ used hot wax in order to create prints on acetate – “but still these images lingered in my mind and years after having seen them initially I decided to re-stage them, using myself as the subject. There’s a sense in which I think that this is what they were demanding of me.” Of the decision to use herself as the model in these recreations, EJ says it was in part due to the way the original article had been put together in Marie Claire. “It bothered me, the casual disregard for the person behind the images. These mug-shots were presented as if they told the whole story: Diary of a Heroin Addict, the demise of a woman as evidenced by her face at the points when she was photographed following arrest. What really does that tell us? The images affected me because they hit a nerve regarding my own addiction and annihilation fears on the one hand, but the piece was also motivated by a desire to memorialise an unnamed person, a woman who had already died and had no control over the use of her image. The act of role-playing was integral to the project. Her story could be my story, it could be anybody’s story.”
It was with this in mind that the work was created – shot on a large format camera, EJ used Photoshop, a post-editing software program, to create a series of highly complex technical masks for each image. At points these were used to make her look more like the woman in question – at times they were used simply to edit the image to the desired effect. EJ wanted the lines to be blurred between the identity of the woman and herself – “It is me and it isn’t her and yet it is her and it isn’t me at the same time.” These complex masks later became a project in their own right, Jezebel.
Conceived as wall based artworks in two rows of six, mirroring the original magazine presentation, it was only after joining the Artists Book Co-operative that EJ began thinking about the form of the book. First published as a print on demand title, it was spotted by Florence Tadjeddine of L’Heure Dite at Offprint, who also encouraged the inclusion of the Jezebel works within the final publication. Of the work as a book, EJ says “Marie Claire RIP & Jezebel…is very much a collaboration initially between myself and Florence and then including the designer Sarah Boris and the writer Catherine Somzé. It was an intense but wonderful experience working with these talented women on this publication and the result shows both how concentrated and expansive the book format can be.”
In 2002 London based artist EJ Major came across a copy of ‘Marie Claire’ magazine at the house of a friend. This issue showcased, next to its usual articles on fashion, style and beauty, a series of mug shots of an anonymous drug-addict taken by the N.Y.P.D over a 14-year period. The downfall of this unknown young woman, somewhat ironically featured in a fashion magazine, had a pronounced and enduring effect on Major. After experimenting with working with the images as they were, she decided to re-stage the photographs as well as she could, using wigs, make-up and second-hand clothes. Later she would spend long hours in the studio trying to recreate the indefinable stare of her unlikely model, eventually finding role-play the only way of ‘getting there’, as Major puts it. The images, shot on large format transparency, were then scanned and further worked on in Photoshop. Over the course of 9 months, Major patiently retouched each one to draw them closer to the original mug shots. The 12 resulting photographs that constitute Marie Claire RIP (2007) are a series of self-portraits as much as a staged chronicle of a drug-induced decay. So then, who is Marie Claire in the Marie Claire RIP pictures?
She is neither a drug-addict nor Major herself, of course. Marie Claire is rather a fictitious character, the product of a ‘work of representation.’ The way in which she is presented – and the manner in which most of us will likely react – might be said to be the result of a meaning-making process that heavily depends upon the language of photography – its tools, practices and relation to culture at large – with which Major subtly plays.
Take the very format of the images, the mug shot. It was introduced in the 19th century to create a visual directory of criminals and outlaws. But to what extent has this determined the very stigmatization of whoever is depicted in this way? The history of photography is ridden with practices intended to create evidence of the alleged deviance of specific groups and individuals. It happened in prisons but also in psychiatric hospitals and during colonial conquests. The realism of photography and its questionably scientific use, with standardized procedures and formats, would serve to prove what were mostly merely claims, providing examples of physical, racial, political, sexual or moral deviance.
In her series Marie Claire RIP, Major references the format of the mug shot but chooses not to use the nominal mug shot card. With this decision she partially erases the stigmatizing effect of the format as she brings Marie Claire closer to us, yet still retaining a reference to the incriminating practice. Marie Claire, then, functions as a mirror image of ourselves. We are allowed to identify with, rather than merely judge, the subject.
This humanizing process, set in motion by Major’s subtle play with photographic conventions, is further reinforced by the high production values of the series, so contrary to the lo-res police record Major otherwise aims to reproduce. The high-end quality of the images allows Marie Claire RIP to serve as an entry-point for thinking about photographic practices that foster specific notions of normalcy and beauty.
Enabled by digital technology, the commercial industry has refined its practices in the creation of convincing representations of imagined worlds, using enhanced photographic realism as its primary means. Photoshop helps in transforming imagined scenarios into believable truths, more convincingly than ever. Contrary to this dominant use of the graphics editing software that promotes computer-generated beauty as an attainable goal, Major puts her considerable technical skills and Photoshop knowledge, together with her role playing, in the service of the dramatization of downfall rather than in the shaping of an image of standardized perfection. Paradoxically, she set out to ‘clean up’ the images in order to amplify imperfections and the meant impact of drug-abuse on her own face. In this manner, Major further heightens the cognitive dissonance already induced by the obvious staging in contrast to the sense of realism provided by the earnest reality of the documentary-like subject-matter.
This is a clear marker of Major’s topical interest visible throughout her work in how verbal and visual communication affect the shaping of a sense of self. The character of Marie Claire, as a result of a conscientious play with conventions, images and references, also reveals the very signifying practice at work through the seemingly objective language of what most of us identify as photography. Furthermore, she reminds us of our own finite nature, as we will never succeed in stopping the inexorable passage of time on our own faces. Marie Claire’s changing appearance over time also functions as a memento mori, one that might carry an emancipating message in an age in which to be human often means seeking unattainable perfection. Marie Claire seems to whisper soothing words to us: what makes you truly human is your very imperfection, and perhaps your repeated, failed attempts at changing it.