Enid Crow is a photographer and artist based in Brooklyn, New York. In her images, she dons costumes–many of her own making–to explore themes ranging from spectatorship to gender relations. While Crow’s interests and techniques place her firmly within a tradition established by photographers like Cindy Sherman and Nikki S. Lee, Crow’s combination of humor and homemade ingenuity make for an utterly individual body of work. Her “Disasters” series consists of pictures of herself as a spectator of some horrible, off-camera disaster. Taken together, these comic images constitute an unexpectedly serious exploration of the act of witnessing tragedy. Crow’s other series, including “Faggots” and “The History of Moustaches,” use similar tactics to poke fun at the markers of masculinity and conventional definitions of “correct” human sexuality.
Enid Crow recently spoke with me about the deeply personal origins of her work, the complex relationship between performance and photography, and the turn-on of a fake moustache.
Page 291: I seem to remember reading that you started the “Disaster” series shortly after September 11, 2001. Is that right? Could you talk a little bit about how that series got started?
Enid Crow: I started the “Disaster” series a few months after September 11th. For a Christmas present in 2001, my sister gave me a book of photographs of the World Trade Center terrorist attack. I couldn’t open the book for a few days. The idea of entertaining myself with photographs of strangers’ horror was so repugnant; the invasion of intimacy felt pornographic.
I finally did open the book, and even though I was uncomfortable about looking at the photographs, I found the act of seeing other people seeing horror to be a little comforting (even though I still hate the idea of the book). The faces in the photographs reflected what I was seeing in the mirror. My then boyfriend’s mother had killed herself less than two weeks before the attack; then he was caught in the subway around Chambers Street when the first plane hit a tower. He wasn’t killed, but living with the horror he experienced was devastating. I was in my first year of law school at Cornell. He left America and went back to his father’s home in Japan and I moved back to New York City to finish law school at NYU.
The first pictures in the Disaster series weren’t funny. I was copying the pictures from the Christmas present book and I shot three pictures of myself running away from things. I was working with my mother’s Sony Cybershot 2.5 megapixel camera, my first experience with a digital camera. A few months later, I bought a 5 megapixel Konica-Minolta camera and began sewing uniforms for the pictures: a 1940s nurse’s uniform, a schoolgirl’s uniform, a business shirt. The costumes and characters became a big part of the pictures and the humor and gender play emerged. Cindy Sherman’s film stills and Laurie Nix’s photographs of dioramas of disaster scenes influenced me a lot.
291: Some of the pictures from the “Disaster” series don’t, as singular images, seem funny to me at all. They’re still sort of shocking. (I’m thinking especially of “Wall Street Disaster” and “Times Square Disaster.”) Embedding them in this larger series that has turned comedic seems pretty transgressive–like a leveling act that places pretty direct allusions to 9/11 on the same ground as fictionalized and ridiculous disasters the viewer never sees.
On the other hand, it also seems to sort of visualize the healing process and emphasize the effect of distance on traumatic events. It reminds me of an article Julian Gough wrote for Prospect magazine a few months ago about the underappreciated powers of comedy, which the Greeks understood as tragedy seen from the gods’ perspective. Why do you think this series became funny? Was it a conscious decision?
EC: I think that the series became funny for a couple of reasons. The distance had something to do with it. 9/11 was such a devastating, horrific event, and my boyfriend’s mother’s suicide was tragic. Focusing on the pain of those events for months would have been crippling. Humor, on the other hand, feels much more liberating. And so it follows that over time, I couldn’t sustain so much sadness in the pictures without needing to do something funny to counterbalance the pain.
I think the audience also helped the series evolve into something comedic. My friends thought that “Wall Street Disaster” and “School Girl Disaster” were funny. Maybe they actually thought that it was funny to see me acting the part of those characters. So I conciously developed the humor because I thought it was something people were interested in seeing.
291: You mention that your friends found the series funny–probably because it was funny seeing you act out the characters involved. You also act out characters in your more recent works as part of the “Faggots” and “History of Moustaches” series. Was the “Disaster” work your first major self-portrait project?
EC: “Disaster” was my first major series of self portraits. I started taking pictures of myself when I was studying dramatic arts at SUNY Geneseo 20 years ago. A few years later, in graduate school at Northwestern, I started doing short performance art and installation projects that involved self-portrait photographs. For example, I did one piece at the N.A.M.E. Gallery called “Skeletons in My Closet.” People came into a closet (filled with paper mache skeletons) and took away small self-portrait photos of me with phony secrets written on the back. At that time, my purpose for taking photos was to support the live performance–they didn’t exist apart from something live.
After Northwestern, I moved to Sarasota, Florida to work for a theatre. This was around the time of the NEA Four case and the Sarasota County Arts Council decided not to award grant funding to a theatre group’s proposal for a performance art festival because they were scared of potential nudity and controversy. So, without a good venue for performing, I started focusing more on the photographs themselves. I became disciplined about taking pictures regularly. Many of the pictures I took up until the “Disaster” series were fairy tale-ish and I played characters; some were documentaries of myself.
291: Do you miss performing? What do you feel you’ve gained and lost as you transitioned from performance/installations involving photographs to performances that are experienced solely as photographs?
EC: I don’t miss live performance. I am a shy, reclusive person and I think I am becoming shyer and more private as I get older. So being able to perform without a live audience and record it in a photograph for people to look at later is more comfortable because it removes me from direct confrontation with strangers.
I like shooting photographs outside and on location. When I was doing live performance, it always had to be on a stage or in a gallery where you could attract an audience. With photographs, I’m not bound by walls in that way. Some people have assumed that I shoot my photographs in a studio using projections for the background. I always shoot on location, often in Delray Beach, Florida near my parents’ home.
Shooting a single photograph demands more precision and economy than doing a live performance and I think these demands make for a fun game. With a live performance, you have less control over where people are going to look–the sum of several moments is what is critical. So, some sloppiness is allowable, even if you are dedicated to controlling every small detail like Robert Wilson. With a single photograph, however, the single moment itself is what is critical and so it’s essential that everything is perfect. You only have a few seconds of a viewer’s attention to tell the story or deliver a punchline so you’d better get everything right. The sky has to be just so big in proportion to your body. Your eyes have to be looking just the right way. And your moustache had better not be coming unglued at the corner! Getting everything to fall in place is especially difficult when you’re shooting yourself and you can’t see the composition and light.
291: You mention your moustache falling off–your two most recent projects, “History of Moustaches” and “Faggots,” have involved a lot of moustaches. Before we get into the overarching themes of those series, let me ask a really basic question. I know you find or make many of the costumes you use in your work. Where do you find all those moustaches?
EC: I have a good moustache source on the Internet where I can get basic, no frills moustaches for six or seven dollars each. But every now and then, I’ll be walking around in Manhattan and I’ll randomly find a store that sells really gorgeous, top-of-the-line phony moustaches. The most expensive moustache I own is very pale blonde, narrow, with delicate little curls on the ends. It’s a surprise find from a Halloween Superstore of all places. It’s so beautiful–like a trophy moustache. I have no idea how I will ever use it.
291: How did you get involved in these two series that both require moustaches? It seems like the moustaches serve as a sort of unquestionable marker of masculinity, or at least pretend masculinity. What led you to explore masculinity in general, and male homosexuality in particular? I’m especially interested in your decision to co-opt a label as violent as “faggots” to title the series of that name.
EC: As a feminist, I am interested in the way that masculinity and femininity are constructed in our culture. I use humor in the photographs to draw attention to the ridiculous ways people are expected to behave or look based on their gender. There is something comic about the moustaches, I think, precisely because they are an unquestionable marker of masculinity. The characters are funny too—-a Coast Guard captain, hunter, construction worker—-they’re hyper-masculine, archetypal male figures. Beneath the humor, though, there is a pattern of female exclusion that is tragic to the women who experience it. This exclusion is pervasive in women’s lives, yet I think that audiences have grown tired of hearing women artists speak about this kind of exclusion in a straightforward, serious way. It’s interpreted as complaining, unfortunately. With humor, no one can accuse you of complaining.
The “Faggots” pictures have a violent title but they came about in a very sweet way. My boyfriend Justin often comes along on my photo shoots. When I was dressing up as men for the moustache pictures, he would get excited and want to kiss me. So, we came up with these little stories about men being in love or in lust that we could act out together for the photographs. Justin has never kissed a real man, though I suspect he dreams about it all the time. Maybe this is the closest he will ever come to ever loving a man. I chose the title “Faggots” because it’s a word that’s usually used with such cruelty to attack people like Justin and, consequently, it has such tragic connotations. But I think these pictures have such honest sweetness to them, especially the one of us on the park bench. The birds were chirping and the sun was shining and we were such happy boyfriends. We were so in love that day!
All images © Enid Crow.