There is a particular intimacy in the domestic environment.
It’s a private space that is individual and universal at the same time.
It’s a place of contradiction.
A portrait is a partnership and a performance. It is created between the artist and the sitter to be newly recreated by every viewer. A ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary may capture images of people unawares, but this is not truly portraiture. For a portrait is about the face a sitter chooses to present and the way the artist, and later the viewer, interprets it. Large areas of the human brain are dedicated to the reading and analysis of physiognomy. In evolutionary terms, much depended (and still depends) on accurately assaying an individual’s character and intention.
The photographs of the Australian photo-artist, Tatjana Plitt, are portraits in the truest sense, although they take unconventional approaches to the genre. The photo-series ‘Blaze’ presents ordinary couples posing in the exaggerated attitudes adopted by the heroines and heroes depicted on the cover of cheap romantic novels. In Plitt’s images, the imperfection of her subjects – that which marks them out as real people – is set in contradistinction to the febrile fantasies of pulp fiction. Far from undermining the sitters, her images reveal in them a poignant humanity.
At first glance ‘Blaze’ may seem very different from her later series, ‘Gay Warriors’. In this case, the portraits have a formality that conveys depth while hinting at the complex ties enfolding these domestic relationships. It is, of course, clear from the series title and from the evidence of our eyes that these couples share the same gender and one or both serves in the armed forces. This may be what first draws our attention. It is certainly the thread that weaves connection through the series, building a powerful statement about human worth and personal commitment that lays waste to the absurd notion of judging an individual’s value by their sexual orientation.
But I find that the more I engage with the dignified subjects of these understated portraits, the more that questions of gender or even military service fade into the background. What, finally, is uppermost in my mind – in that barely conscious assessment of pose, gesture and context that is hardwired into being human – is the primacy of interpersonal commitment in the meaning and function of the family, the domestic and the community on which our wider society is based. Such relationships, in all their rich variety, are the bedrock on which rests the turbulent complexity of civil life: a foundation held firm in the emotional interlock of being. What ‘Blaze’ and ‘Gay Warriors’ share is a profound belief in the value of real human relationships over fantasy or caricature.
Alasdair: When, how and why did you begin to make photographs?
Tatjana: I remember the moment I knew I wanted to be an artist. I was in the Netherlands and saw Rineke Dijkstra’s photographic series ‘New Mothers’, portraits of women very shortly after they had given birth. The raw power of these images moved me deeply; they captured something essential about what it means to be a human being: the struggle, the joy, the agony, the ecstasy… I knew then that I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the world by engaging in the process of photographing it. As soon as I got back to Australia, I enrolled in the Fine Arts course at RMIT University [Melbourne].
What draws you to making imagery in the domestic environment?
There is a particular intimacy in the domestic environment. It’s a private space that is individual and universal at the same time. It’s a place of contradiction. On the one hand, it can be the mundane site for our everyday functioning, at odds with our emotional aspirations, our existential quest for a magical dimension to life. And yet, on the other hand, our domestic environment is a place of comfort, infused with affection and memories.
How did the series ‘Blaze’ come about?
Growing up in a culture where romantic love is highly valued and celebrated, I found my own experiences rather more complex and challenging. As a young girl, I read Mills and Boon romantic novels. They all told a similar story: the blossoming of a romance filled with intense emotion; pining for the beloved; in ecstasy with the beloved; the devastation of potentially losing the beloved…
The first six months of my own relationships generally follows this romantic pattern… and then the emotional intensity declines. Romantic moments become the interludes between domestic chores, rather than the other way around. There is frustration and argument or, even worse, boredom and indifference. I was, of course, well aware that the idealised notions of romantic love celebrated in our contemporary culture are not a reality. But, nonetheless, I sometimes found the vast discrepancy between the ideal and the reality quite shattering.
What did you want to communicate through this juxtaposition of ordinary people with poses drawn from commercially produced sentimental imagery?
Mills and Boon novels caricature love by stripping out the complexity of human relationships. In the ‘Blaze’ series I wanted to contrast this simplistic idealisation of romance with the imperfect reality of actual human relationships.
Who are the people in the images?
The majority of the subjects in these photographs are people who answered advertisements I placed in local newspapers, but some of them are friends and family. The couple in ‘A Wonderland of Plenty’ are my then boyfriend’s mother and her partner. He is exposing a hairy chest, a common symbol of masculinity and sexual potency when used on the covers of Mills and Boon novels. The difference here, however, is that he is overweight and bald. These imperfections add to the charm of the couple’s affection for each other and prompt the viewer to question stereotypical and commercially promoted notions about love as forever youthful and superficially beautiful.
How did the subjects feel about being in the project?
Everyone I photographed was excited about being involved. Many couples had never before posed together for a professional photograph (except perhaps on their wedding day). Certainly, none of them had ever been part of an art project.
How were the poses decided?
It was important to me that the process was collaborative. I brought covers of Mills and Boon romance books with me to the photographic session. We would look through these together to decide which pose would work best and feel comfortable for them.
It was actually quite an intimate process. I hadn’t previously met most of the couples, yet within ten minutes of meeting them, I was walking into every room of their house deciding where to shoot and going through their closet to select what they would wear.
How did they feel about that?
For the most part, they were happy to be guided by my selection of most aspects of the shoot. I would usually make about twenty to thirty shots and then show the couple the images on the computer and get their feedback. We would go through that process three times. This allowed them to get a better understanding of how they looked on camera and decide what aspect of their performance they wanted to enhance. They were clearly aware of the ‘vocabulary’ of romantic gesture and most couples really enjoyed hamming it up for the camera.
What do you think happens in the slightly uncomfortable gap between the fantasy and the reality?
‘Blaze’ is a celebration of awkwardness and imperfection in loving relationships. This is heightened by the captions, which mimic the suggestive and sensationalist vocabulary and formulas of cheap romantic fiction.
I was thrilled when a couple responded to my advertisement in a local newspaper that is aimed at people over fifty years old. In fact, they were actually more than eighty years old! The cover of a Mills and Boon novel usually portrays young, beautiful, wealthy people. I wanted to portray an older couple in the throes of a romantic moment as a way to critique the representation of love as always-youthful, but I also want to celebrate their real love for each other, shared over more than half a century. The image is titled ironically: ‘A Moment’s Madness’! [First image at the top of this article]
Western culture puts the climactic romantic moment on a pedestal, celebrates it, glorifies it. But is that what the older generation value or were encouraged to place value on when they were young? What is it that this couple feel for each other and how it normally expressed?
Do you consider that we have come to think of love in a different way in contemporary society?
I’m interested in how the performance of romantic tropes informs how we experience love. How much of love is a learned behaviour? One of my favourite quotes is by [the seventeenth-century French writer] Francois de La Rochefoucauld: “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.”
How did the ‘Gay Warriors’ project begin?
I became interested in an apparent contradiction of a different kind. The intensely beautiful human capacity for tenderness and love, and the harsh reality of humans mercilessly killing each other in war. I wanted to explore this through a series of portraits of couples where one or both serve in the military. The theme could have simple have been that… but I became aware of yet another contradiction: male and female soldiers who were prepared to die for their country, but who, being homosexual, were not permitted the same personal and domestic rights as their heterosexual counterparts.
Can you describe what you set out to do through this series?
I wanted to normalise gay relationships in order to highlight the unjust discrimination same-sex military couples faced at the time. [In the USA, this prejudice was removed from law, if not from all popular opinion, when the Supreme Court overruled the Defense of Marriage Act in 2015.] The worst forms of violence arise when one human being or group ‘dehumanises’ another. I wanted to show the humanity and normality of their domestic lives; to make visible ‘common ground’ shared by us all.
Why did you choose to situate these portraits in the bedroom?
There are two reasons…
Gay couples are discriminated against because of their sexuality, and we associate sexuality with the bedroom. I wanted to normalise this space and normalise their sexuality. These are ordinary bedrooms, they could belong to anyone. I am emphasising their universality and humanity, rather than their difference.
These images draw on the traditions of seventeenth-century Flemish marriage portraiture, which depicted the couple in the bedroom. At that time, the bedroom was the centre of the home and the bed the most expensive piece of furniture in the whole house; a symbol of social status. History is written by the victors, those in power and those who have money. By referencing historical paintings, I am highlighting the way that a minority has been excluded from the historical canon.
That referencing of the traditions of European painting seems to carry over into the posing and symbolism used in some of the images…
Yes, in the portrait of Zachary and Marshall and their two daughters, Emma and Taylor, there is something in both the girl’s expressions that reminds me of the subjects in historical family portraits. It is one of my favourite images. They have an air of confidence, aloofness, of being totally secure about their place in the world and by extension, the unquestionable respectability of their family. The inclusion of the family dog further emphasises this confidence and stability; in seventeenth-century domestic portraiture, dogs were symbols of loyalty, fidelity and status.
How did you meet the families in the images?
All of the couples in ‘Gay Warriors’ are from the USA. I reached them mostly through online community groups and via social media. Once the word got out about my project, I had people from all over the country writing to me. I had originally planned to photograph in just one locality, but I ended up photographing families across the USA. I set up a Kickstarter [online crowd-funding] campaign to raise the money necessary to travel.
How did the couples and families respond to being included in the project?
Most were super excited that someone was interested in their story, so I felt I had their trust from the beginning. However, I did spend time speaking with them online to ensure they were comfortable with me and the project before we met up.
Given that one or both of the adults is serving in the military, did they have any concerns about appearing in the portrait?
Military personnel are usually not allowed to appear in photographs in their uniforms to make political statements, so this was a concern for some people. But none of the couples who participated in ‘Gay Warriors’ experienced any negative repercussions from appearing in my pictures. At the time, there was a strong lobby to have the Defence of Marriage Act repealed. That law had greatly disadvantaged gay men and women in the military. They had had to hide their personal relationship from their colleagues and friends under what was known as the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy. Inevitably, that took a huge emotional toll.
And in many cases, being gay was just one of the prejudices the individual had had to overcome…
Yes, the situation of Lorrena and Crystal is a good example. These women face a triple discrimination: being black, lesbian and female, all of which have historically been marginalised and belittled in the US military.
At first sight ‘Blaze’ and ‘Gay Warriors’ are very different ways of depicting relationships.
One of the principal differences between the two series is the approach to how they are posed. ‘Blaze’ focuses on the performance of a romantic ideal, whereas ‘Gay Warriors’ was a stripping back of performance to reveal the authentic nature of the subjects (at least, as much as that is possible with any portrait where the subject is aware of the camera). My only guidance for the family members in ‘Gay Warriors’ was that they have an open expression, but not smile. Despite those differences, I think both approaches have ended up highlighting the humanity of the subjects. Both series are a celebration of difference and universality, of vulnerability and love.
Back when I was at university, one of my teachers advised me not to make images that protest against what I don’t want to see, but rather to create images of what I do want to see. That was a big motivation for the way I approached both series.
What kind of response to your work do you get from the public?
One of the comments I have received quite often is the power of viewing the images together as a series. The work is not really complete without the other images – seeing the differences and similarities between the couples is what makes these images effective.
What have you learned about yourself, through the process of making these photographs?
How much I struggle with the disparity between the magic of existence and harsh reality of surviving in this world; between awe-inspiring beauty and the mundane. As I get older, I have come a little closer to accepting those contradictions, but it is still ‘a work in progress’…
Tatjana Plitt was born in Germany, in 1977. She completed her Bachelor of Media Arts at RMIT University, Melbourne, in 2005 and now works as both an artist and an architectural photographer. Her photographs have won a number of awards and have been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in Australia and internationally at venues such as the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney; Chelsea Museum of Art, New York; and MICA, Baltimore, USA. She lives and works in Melbourne.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the February 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.