Jenny Gage’s photographs are like a fashion shoot gone terribly wrong (or terribly right, depending on your opinion of fashion shoots); one can discern nods toward the hyper-produced filmset photography of Gregory Crewdson (with whom she studied at Yale’s MFA program), the lewd, veneered, rec room underworlds of Larry Clark, the menaced feminist iconography of Cindy Sherman, everything laced together with suggestions of a flashier, cretin-free Diane Arbus (Gage’s subjects have all their DNA). A Gage photograph in which a woman kneels naked amongst the rushes reveals an alarming and unattributed protuberance—a breast? A third arm? A tumor? Lord knows—rolling out from beneath her armpit. Beauty turned grotesque and then back into a weary beauty—this is the gorgeously debased yet compelling Gage terrain. Looking at her work, an uncomfortable emotional and physical reckoning can occur. Repugnance, of course, is fascinating, and so are beautiful people looking ugly. This is not a petty schadenfreude, however, but a shifty poking at our own perpetual insecurities about façade-making.
Gage produces photographic series, usually “set” in a single geographic location (Ventura, California; Dolores, Colorado), and starring a “young girl” whom Gage has found (or stalked, by her own admission) in the town. These series are not meant to be factual documents of her subject’s life, nor are they entirely make-believe, but joint role-playing ventures that blend autobiography and fantasy—the fantasy of the subject, and the fantasy of the “watcher.” Gage’s oblique narratives are suggestive of sinister events about to transpire, or sinister events that have recently occurred, with the extent of the damage yet to be determined. The mood is always kinetically tense if subdued (the calm before or after the storm), and the tragedy feels fated—like participants in a Richard Yates novel, or a Greek myth, these “characters” are doomed to carry out the proclamations of some dark oracle. As is the case with many bleakly-inclined artists, Jenny Gage, in person, is a righteous hoot. She grew up in Malibu, California, but now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she and her husband Tom Betterton (both in their mid-thirties) collaborate on everything from her photographs to films to commercial photography work. We talked in their garden on one of those two sunny days this past spring in drizzly New York.
I. BEAUTIFUL WOMEN IN UGLY STATES, OR BACK BRACES
THE BELIEVER: You always have such amazing underpants in your photographs.
JENNY GAGE: I’m really into underwear.
BLVR: But it’s not underwear—it’s underpants. You know, saggy bottoms, cotton, little prints.
JG: They’re all either my mom’s or my grandmother’s and I’m always telling the girls, “They’ve been washed!” But I have yet to use a photograph—a photo that I’ve made for a fashion story—in my art.
BLVR: The thing that makes your photographs so compelling to me is that they possess a really sinister element. You capture these women who are so beautiful, but in their least beautiful moments. Yet somehow they look all the more beautiful, for appearing so on the edge and so exposed. I hate this kind of observation—equating an artist’s personality with the work they produce—but I’m going to make it anyway, for the sake of discussion. Meeting you, you’re the last person who someone would expect to produce such a sinister body of work.
JG: The way I operate is that I make photographs of what I’d want to see. And that beautiful ugliness is what I think is the most beautiful. There’s definitely like an element of—this is completely unfeminist—the broken woman being the beautiful woman. The only thing I can think that maybe could have shaped that part of me is the fact that I wore a back brace in junior high and high school. I think that that had a lot to do with the outside isn’t what the inside looks like—I didn’t have the kind of brace you could see, it was under my clothes, but it was hard because…
BLVR: Because when guys would try to feel you up…
JG: They’d say, “What in the hell?!” and I’d say, “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, I have a back brace. I can take it off, but I have an undershirt on…” Maybe that’s why I photograph beautiful women in ugly states. But it’s sort of weird because in the end they are glamorized.
BLVR: But the photographs feel too accidental to be overly glamorized, as though you just happened to catch these women at a bleak moment when they didn’t have their facades up. So it doesn’t feel as though you’re treating their suffering as a romantic idea.
JG: Yeah, that’s true.
BLVR: There’s a nod to fashion photography in your work and you do actually do fashion photography.
JG: I approach the fashion in a similar way that I approach the art but I think the end result is different because there is more of an attention to showing the clothes. In my photographs, I’m very attentive to what the people are wearing but I just need to see a little piece.
II: GIRL FONDLING GUN IN HOTEL ROOM
BLVR: How do you first approach these “girls” you want to photograph, and what is their response?
JG: Well, usually I’m just pretty honest—I say I’m doing a series of portraits on young women. I explain that it’s about them but it’s also about myself, and the tension this creates. I look at them, sort of seeing myself in them and also being really into the character that they are in real life—a character that’s based in truth, but a character that is also prompted by the fantasy the photographs project on them. I would rarely use an actress to play the role of a drifter. Nor would I go and find an actual homeless girl, but there are elements of these characters in the person I find that I’m really responding to, and that I want them to preserve through the photographs.
BLVR: So there’s a double level of artifice in order to convey something true. You see something in somebody and you intuit that they’re going to want to act out this role because they’re expressing something genuine about themselves.
JG: Yeah, exactly.
BLVR: It’s an interesting way to be completely constructed and fake as a means to be truthful.
JG: Right right right. And I definitely think that annoys people.
BLVR: Why’s that?
JG: Because I’ve never been completely straightforward. I like work that frustrates me—I don’t like things that are spelled out and whenever I feel like I’m spelling things out too easily, I’ll back away and try to make it confusing for myself.
BLVR: And maybe what also frustrates people is the way you’re playing with familiar formats that people ingest so unconsciously. Your work has a magazine editorial look to it, the kind of thing a person might unconsciously flip through in the dentist’s office. It tricks you, invites you in, but instead of “Oh look at this great purse” your response is, “Yikes! Look at this girl fondling a gun in a hotel room!”
JG: So much of everything comes down, in an initial meeting, to how we look. I like the idea of looking innocent but not being it. And that’s what I think all my characters have in common. At first you would say, “Oh, this is a nice girl” and they could be a nice girl—but they do drugs and have guns, and lie and cheat too.
BLVR: How much do you involve the women that you choose in the narrative fantasy you’re envisioning for the whole series? How far ahead of time do you have a sense of what that narrative (however oblique) is going to be?
JG: It depends. In the Ventura series, I never had a particularly strong idea of what the narrative was going to be in the beginning, but towards the middle I really knew what I wanted to create. I worked with those girls for such a long time I actually did let them in on my ideas. In the beginning they’d say, “Oh, do you want me with my parents?” or, “Do you want everything about me?” and I’d say, “No, it’s not a documentation of your life. We’re doing some form of reality and some form of make-believe.” But I never want to tell anyone too much because then they’ll start acting out the character that they think I want them to be. I do want them to be themselves on a certain level and not be thinking, “Oh I’m supposed to be the junkie girl at the gas station” because then it really does feel fake; it feels like fashion. It feels boring. But the woman I photographed for the more recent series (as yet untitled), she was my roommate in boarding school [at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, Colorado] and so we’ve known each other for a for a really long time, and she was a perfect subject because I sort of fell in love with her years ago, and I’ve sort of always thought she was the ideal woman, and so she was perfect for that series.
BLVR: So does she function as a kind of bridge from working with people you didn’t know at all, to working with a person you knew and with whom you had a history, to photographing yourself? I can’t help but notice that she looks like you. Like a more psychologically exposed version of you.
JG: No, I did this whole series of photographs of myself a long time ago as a certain character, and then I went away from it for a long time. Narcissism is only fun for so long. I don’t know if she was the bridge to photographing myself again, but she definitely gave me a reason to go back and photograph myself after not having done it for a long time. Also, photographing her was harder than photographing other women.
BLVR: How was it harder?
JG: She was more uncomfortable; maybe it was hard being photographed by someone she knew.
BLVR: Especially naked in the tub, and possibly masturbating.
JG: Exactly; it was really important for her to do that around strangers. It was funny because when I asked if I could photograph her naked, I couldn’t ask her in person, so I had to email her. Anyway, it was harder just because I had many more intense feelings about her, we had more history, so I couldn’t dismiss parts of her personality as I easily as sometimes do with the girls I don’t know.
BLVR: You’re asking this adult friend to return to this “dress-up” activity that as girls you probably did all the time, without any embarrassment.
JG: I’ll be like, “OK here are the nightgowns I have for you today.” But it’s not as natural at all, you’re right.
III: “YOU LOOK LIKE A PROSTITUTE IN THESE PHOTOGRAPHS”
BLVR: As I was on my way over here today, I thought back to the first time I… Googled you.
BLVR: One of the items that popped up was that New York Times article, “The Artist is a Glamourpuss,” and I thought, huh, that’s so…
BLVR: But rightly or wrongly, you’ve been lumped into this group of beautiful, young, New York women artists who wear Prada to art openings and see-through vinyl skirts to grad school interviews and utilize their body in their work. There was a point in the piece where someone used as a pejorative term, “third-generation feminist.”
BLVR: The reporter also interviewed Cindy Sherman, and Sherman claimed she felt young women artists weren’t examining gender implications enough, etc., etc. And so I guess I’m curious, would you define yourself as a feminist? And are you guilty as charged?
JG: Well, I definitely view myself as a feminist. During the time when that article appeared, there was a lot of critical uneasiness over the way I and a few other female artists were seen as participating in the culture we were supposedly critiquing. And while I really was participating with the culture I was critiquing, I was definitely critiquing it at the same time. I think that the generation before us simply critiqued it. They weren’t really in a position to participate as much. Back then, you had two choices: Either you’re the housewife or you’re the breadwinner. That in-between area didn’t exist, where you could critique something from the inside.
BLVR: You couldn’t be the sexy housewife breadwinner.
JG: That’s what I like. But we all looked up to artists like Cindy Sherman and Lori Simmons. We thought they were the queens of feminist art and female artists in general. I think they were uncomfortable with the way we positioned ourselves, because they had such a big battle, then we came along and were like, “Well you’ve gone really far with that battle, now I’m going to move in and work out of this space that’s been created by you,” but neither were we saying, “I am Cindy Sherman Junior and I am going to critique all female roles.” That’s why I always glamorized myself in the photographs—because I like the discomfort that people experience when they look at my work. When I first started doing the self-portraits I remember that some of the women in the class would ask, “Why are you so obsessed with the hooker, the prostitute? You look like a prostitute in these photographs.” And I would say, “So? That’s interesting.” And also I was sort of playing with a picture doesn’t really tell the truth: It’s not as though a straight picture is more truthful than if I put on red lipstick and used dramatic lighting.
BLVR: But whether you’re photographing other women or working with yourself, there’s a way that the glamour is a mixture of the really playful—little girls dressing up—and the really sinister implications of little girls pretending to be grown, sexual women. The people in your photographs are, in a sense, engaging in the same paradoxical battle that you are—you are critiquing this process but also partaking in it. It captures this double-edged quality, and the idea of constant compromise.
JG: Right, exactly. I could never just critique the roles that these women are playing because when I’m photographing them, I’m also in love with them. I’m not just saying to them, “Be the runaway, the sexy runaway, and we’re going to look at it from the B-movie point of view” popularized by Russell Whoever—who’s that guy who did the films with the big boobs?
BLVR: Oh, yes. Russ Meyer.
JG: I’m not doing that, even though I kind of love that impulse. I’m critiquing it but I’m also as big a participant in it as much as any man, in a way.
BLVR: You say you’re in love with these women and that’s also what makes these photographs so uncomfortable to look at, knowing who took them. You are a woman, but you occasionally adopt a predatory gaze. In a way, you’re like a female stalker.
JG: I stalk. It’s true. When I started doing the Ventura series, it was all about me finding these girls—you know, in parking lots, or hanging out somewhere. I was staying at my grandmother’s house and I was driving home and I saw this girl walking on the side of the road. I was with Tom, it was dark, and I was like, “Slow down, slow down.” All of a sudden I realized that we were driving beside this poor seventeen-year-old girl really slowly in a car. That’s when I understood I absolutely am a stalker. I don’t want to attack these women. I’m not a threat or anything. I always say, “I don’t want to see you with your clothes off. I just want to see you in your underwear.”
IV: COLLABORATIVE HUSBANDS AND MISSING NANNIES
BLVR: How about collaborating with your husband? You two collaborated on the film I saw last fall, Elegy. How much is he involved in your photography?
JG: We collaborate on all the fashion work, on all the commercial work; we actually collaborate on everything. All the photographs of me were taken by Tom and have always been, since the beginning.
BLVR: That’s such an interesting, added layer of complication…
JG: Yeah, because it’s him looking at me… it definitely is another layer. And then, just in general, like for Ventura work or for most of the other girls, I took the photographs but we collaborated on everything—the ideas, the locations.
BLVR: So do you direct him? Like how he’s supposed to…
JG: Shoot it? I used to. At first we started making photographs with the camera on a tripod and he would move the camera, but it wasn’t as though he had complete say as to where the camera would be. But I realized that the best photographs were when he would just take them. So now, the collaboration is more like, “What if I was doing this?” or “Take this shot where I’m bending down and doing this.” But I would definitely say those are not the best photographs usually. It’s usually more like him responding to me.
BLVR: It’s definitely very intense though. It’s like husband-wife role-playing.
BLVR: But not just for kicks. It’s a typical New York approach to erotics, like “Well, we could just role-play in our bedroom, but then we wouldn’t have a product afterwards.”
JG: It’s true. That’s so funny. There’s no harm in making a little money off of that.
BLVR: So do you find collaboration to be a pretty fluid, effortless thing? Have you had any excellent fights?
JG: It’s really, really fluid. It’s more like tension than fights. It’s not, “I wanted it with backlight, and you shot it this way!” but more often we both just get very stressed out because we both care a lot about the photographs. We do sometimes fight in the fashion stuff over who’s taken what image. He’ll immediately preempt me and be like, “Oh, I took that” and I’ll be like, “Nooo.” That we do. In a way it’s funny, because it’s less important, it’s like, “Oh that picture of her looking great, is mine.”
BLVR: It’s kind of great that you can’t even distinguish anymore who took what photograph.
JG: Right. It’s definitely sort of blended.
BLVR: Have you collaborated on film projects a lot? Or was Elegy your first foray into that medium?
JG: No, we had done films before. Our first was called Drift. It was half an hour long, and shot on film, very like a B-movie.
JG: I was the star, the actress. And I played an evil nanny. I didn’t say anything the whole movie. I said about three words. The guy who played the father was that guy who was in Revenge of the Nerds. All these kind of B-actors. So that was our first film project.
BLVR: What did the evil nanny do in the end?
JG: Well, she was based on a nanny that I had.
JG: Yeah. She came to live us, and then ran away in the middle of the night, this weird night, where there was a car accident right by my parents’ house and the people came in and were saying “Help us, help us,” bleeding and stuff, and the next morning Mybrit was gone.
BLVR: What? My Brit?
JG: Yes. Mybrit. And she had two braids. And I loved her.
BLVR: Everybody who has braids is evil.
JG: I guess so. My parents had to call the police because she was only nineteen, and we were missing this nanny who came from Norway.
BLVR: So she was actually missing?
JG: Yeah, she just left in the middle of the night and wrote a letter saying, “I’ve gone back home. I’m homesick,” but there was something in the letter that was fishy and she’d taken the money that my parents had advanced her.
JG: Anyway, three weeks later police picked her up on Hollywood Boulevard hooking.
BLVR: Oh. And her braids were akimbo.
JG: It was so tragic, though. She must have been with us for maybe a month, and I especially was in love with her. She was great. She wouldn’t do anything. She’d just sort of sit there and we could do anything we wanted.
BLVR: The perfect nanny.
JG: Right. Then we had to meet her at this fish and chips restaurant with the cops—
JG: And she had a rabbit’s fur coat on and these high boots and she was like, “I just don’t want to sit near those kids!”
BLVR: Oh no.
JG: It was so traumatic.
BLVR: That’s heartbreaking!
JG: I know, I know. So it’s her story, the movie is her story.
BLVR: Did she meet with an equally terrible end as the nanny in the movie?
JG: No, but you know she did hook up with a pilot on her flight, coming from Norway. So this is the girl: Perfect from the outside and kind of evil on the inside. She didn’t do anyone any harm, so it was not the biggest problem. But she didn’t like us, and that was sort of mean.
BLVR: I’m trying to think if there’s anything else to know about Jenny Gage.
JG: She had a crazy nanny, she wore a brace through high school, and enjoys role-playing with her husband.
BLVR: That about sums it up.