Disturbing perfection

Photographer Yvonne Todd creates a dark but humorous parallel universe whose characters are quietly unravelling at the seams.

In some ways 34-year-old Yvonne Todd’s eerie, disturbing photographic portraits have more to do with painting or sculpture than they do with photography per se.

“I don’t think of myself as a photographer; for me the most important thing is the construction of the photo. I need to take the photo to document what I’ve done. My energies go into constructing the photo and getting it right, using wigs, clothes and models, thinking about the backdrop and how it’s all going to work. The actual photography is almost like an aside and I always use the same lighting. I don’t actually enjoy the act of photography and I like to get it over and done with,” says Todd.

Todd began using models and and staging her photographs early in her career while she was a student. “I’ve always looked for interesting articles of clothing but once upon a time I had no budget, so I used whatever I could find in second-hand shops, whereas now it has really spiralled out of control. The clothes I’m gravitating towards are becoming more and more expensive. I can’t compromise; I become obsessed and can’t conceive doing the photo any other way.”

In her latest exhibition, Crater of Phlox at Ivan Anthony in 2007, her two diptychs, Female Study (gold) and Female Study (silver), stole the show with their sheer size and lavish portrayal of a fragile, icy glamour. Fragile because the two women appear oddly stiff and frozen, their eyes averted from the viewer and hands clasped, creating a psychological state that is completely at odds with their provocative, glamorous gowns. There’s an absolute insistence on surface sheen and an equally noticeable absence of character and emotion.

As in many of Todd’s photographs the outside world is excluded, apart from a monochromatic background and a single antiseptic rose, held by the woman in Female Study (silver), which wouldn’t look out of place on a Hallmark sympathy card.

A similar frosty portrait of a rose, part of Todd’s Asthma & Eczema, 2001, series, became famous when this then relatively unknown artist won the prestigious Walters Prize in 2002.

The story behind Female Study (gold) is intriguing. The sequinned gown was designed by celebrity couturier and Holly wood fashion icon, Bob Mackie, and owned by singer and waning star Whitney Houston. It was sold in an auction of Houston’s personal effects to help her pay off a US$200,000 storage facility debt and then Todd bought it over the internet from a textile and clothing dealer.

“I like the fact Houston had to sell some of her own possessions to pay her debt; that appealed because of how strange it was – everyone has a price. Whitney Houston has a price and I have a price in the sense that the work is for sale; I pay the model to wear the dress. I do like things that seem very tenuous and Whitney Houston seems very tenuous because she was once a big star and she has fallen on hard times and there are rumours of drug addiction, so there is something a bit sordid about the owner of the gown.”

“Maybe because the dress is so outlandish I didn’t want to overcook the shot. I pared it back and it’s really restrained to the point of being quite austere.

“The psychological feeling is one of being enclosed and restrained. There’s that slightly tragic sense to these works; I’m quite fascinated with celebs who have fallen out of favour; I like the sense that someone retains a very cool and calm appearance on the outside but inside they’re falling apart. I find that humorous because there’s that latent hysteria or feeling that someone is unravelling at the seams but it’s contained.”

Until she won the Walters Prize, Todd had been a stranger to high achievement. She left school early, did a typing course and spent a year working in a bike factory in Beachhaven, which was “a very dreary and bleak time when I felt despairing about the future and began using alcohol as an escape”.

At 19 she went to Whitecliffe College of the Arts for a year and later did a two-year Unitec course where she learnt to “take the photos I’d always wanted to take. I was very dedicated and spent hours in the darkroom and then lugged my gear on the bus from the city to Takapuna to work at home over the weekend on elaborate shoots.”

Five years later when she was 27 she went to Elam. “I had ambition but wasn’t able to launch myself into any kind of spectacular career; it took a long time for anything to happen.”

Things began to change when she started showing work in artist-run spaces and there was a breakthrough in 1998 when her work was included in the group show, Leap of Faith, at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.

Nowadays she works at home, using the modernist living room of her 1970s home, which she shares with her husband and three cats, as a studio. For Todd photographs can begin with a model, a particular item of clothing or a series of drawings and doodles made in her workbook, and once the idea has crystallised she likes to work quickly and intuitively.

“Because there’s no sense of expectation with the workbook, the thoughts come quite freely. Often I’ll go over it and see something that makes sense to me and could inform a new photo.”

Pasted into her workbook, Todd shows me a photograph of a pair of faux Victorian pink satin high-heeled boots, bought on the internet from a woman in Ohio. When they arrived Todd opened the box and found their previous owner had included photocopied quotes from the Bible along with the boots. In many of Todd’s photographs there’s a suggestion of fringe cults and fundamentalism that smacks of Bible Belt America and sweaty, fervent television evangelists.

“I like extremism of belief and the way people implement it. And it’s a very ‘all or nothing’ mentality, which I can relate to because that’s the way I work. There’s no medium level; it’s either very high pitched and feverish or extraordinarily sluggish.”

Her four portraits of Christian women are a good example. “I found a website where this woman makes modest Christian clothing; you send fabric, buttons, zips and measurements and she will make clothes. She used her very homely daughters to model the clothes; they were extremely humble and plain. I wanted to create my own version.”

Disembodiment too is a theme in Todd’s photographs and this sense of removal from the ‘real’ world further emphasises the sense of fantasy. People seem to fl oat in front of studio backdrops – and mundane objects – pipes, glass balls, asthma inhalers and socks – are photographed against fl at backgrounds, much like product shots used in advertising brochures.

“I enjoy object photography; it’s the antithesis of portrait photography because you don’t have to direct or talk to objects. It’s not a high pressure situation.”

It’s no surprise Todd uses a large format camera that used to belong to a food photographer.

The portraits too are treated like product shots and this cool objectivity and lack of context is part of the repulsion or thwarting system, which always stops her images of young women tipping over into cliché, pushing them beyond fashion and advertising photography and propelling them into a far more disturbing zone.

“People often ask why I don’t photograph men. I like using clothes, wigs and makeup and you can’t really do that with men. I can’t see that working for me. I think I use the objects; those are the men; they are ‘other’ to the portraits.”

Given her first “shitty little camera” when she was eight years old, Todd wondered why the results she achieved with this modest contraption fell so far short of the photographs she enjoyed browsing over in glossy magazines and this disatisfaction kick-started her quest for ‘perfection’. Perfection in the sense of creating an utterly convincing and often dark but humorous parallel universe.

“The portraits are characters in this other world of mine. When I was a child I often drew pictures of people with very large teeth. I have an interest in jaws and teeth and there’s a specific toothy thing that fascinates and appeals to me; a combination of the disturbing and the comic. I think my work is humorous and sometimes I throw the big teeth in so the humour is a bit more overt.”

Two good examples are Frenzy, a portrait of a woman with splayed teeth and a ludicrous plaid taffeta dress, reclining in a concrete basement, and Goat Sluice, a demonic blonde who looks like the member of an obscure cult, holding a startled tabby cat, which could well be a sacrificial offering.

During Todd’s three-week artist’s residency at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art last year, Director, Robert Leonard, asked her, “Do you want us to see your women as pathetic or heroic?”

Todd replied, “I’m angling for the pathetic. I respond to stoicism and piety, deflation and disappointment. I avoid hideous words like ‘empowerment’ or anything else in keeping with the heroic.”

Has winning the Walters Prize changed her life?

“There are a lot of elements of deflation to my personality; as an artist you have a lot of self-doubt when you’re making art. I won the Walters Prize five years ago and it was a very exciting thing to happen because it was very early in my career but I guess I’ve moved on.”
“I have a very low-key way of working at home; I don’t have a studio. Most of my time is spent thinking rather than doing the work. To an extent I like to think of myself as a suburban housewife; I like that sense of anonymity; you can hide behind the art.”

As a child Todd craved attention and remembers wearing old-fashioned glasses and pretending to be short-sighted, injured or paralysed. Now some of these traits have filtered through into her work as notions of perfection/imperfection are put under the microscope and we see a strange cast of characters – some of them disturbingly perfect, others obviously flawed – deformed, anorexic, wearing glasses or faceless. But what seems to link this oddball family of images together is an ongoing sense of unease and ambiguity and the suggestion of strange, tenuous narratives.

Virginia Were

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