A Shade of Red
“It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived…Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips….That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.
– Colonel Gonin (commenting on the liberation of the Bergen-Belson concentration camp)
Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.
– Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida, 10)
I hope that this series of photographs sheds a little light on what both Colonel Gonin and Roland Barthes have observed. Their insights point to the ways in which the idea of the onlooker, whether actual or imagined, is the primary building block in our construction of identity. It seems that many critical explorations of the notion of identity as constructed by the Other are entirely negative – they take identity as insubstantial or narcissistic. These photographs have shown me that posing for someone, or “making” yourself up are not about vanity or superficiality, but about connection, about “humanity” as Colonel Gonin says.
My desire is for these photographs to examine the confluences between photography, posing, performance, and cosmetics (“putting your face on”, as they say here in the south) in a celebratory way – as a way of engendering a community based on our uniqueness. The women in these portraits span all ages and ethnicities. Some were comfortable in front of the camera some were very ill at ease. Regardless of their motivation or hesitation, in the end, I think we were brought together by two twin desires: One, the lure of the lipstick, of the chance to become ourselves by becoming someone else, and two, the desire to connect with people and be part of something.
The first desire needs little description for lipstick is something all women have some familiarity with. For many young girls lipstick is the first thing you try on in your mother’s make-up drawer. Sometimes wearing it became a way to fit in. Sometimes a way to stand out. Sometimes a uniform. Sometimes an armor. Sometimes a gash. Sometimes an incision. Sometimes an invitation. Sometimes a warning. Sometimes just something that goes with your dress. Whatever the reason, it is always transformative.
In speaking to the second desire- the desire for connection and participation- I’d like to say a little about the actual process by which this series came together. Most of the women in this series knew neither me nor my work. Most had never had their portrait taken. Despite not knowing who I was or what the experience would be like, hundreds of women agreed to be part of this project. One portrait would lead to three and then each of those to others, and so on. I went to each woman’s personal space, I told her about myself and the project, and then she told me about herself. Among the women there is a pastor who started her own church and an eighty-seven-year-old artist who I meet in Marfa, Texas. There is an opera singer and a widow who had lived without her husband for most her life. There is a woman who, without looking into a mirror, could apply lipstick like it was an art form. They learned about me, and I learned a little about them, and, along the way, their photographs were taken.
Initially I thought this endeavor would result in a series of 20 photographs, and then I thought it would total maybe 50, but after one year I had taken 150 women’s portraits. One hundred and fifty unique, interesting and thoughtful women who were all willing to put on the same shade of Revlon’s #740 Certainly Red lipstick and wear it in their own singular way.
I would like to thank all of the women involved – it has been a most fulfilling collaboration.
*More about these series.
“I like making things from paper, found objects, thread, packing materials and plaster. I like designing things for commercial ends and designing things for no end at all. I have a degree in photography and a MFA where I focused on many mediums. I am inspired by hardware stores, building sites, empty rooms, peoples messes, stories, fabric and quiet days. I live and work right outside of Austin TX with my husband and our puppy dog. Please contact me if you have an idea that you think I can help you with.”
And more here.
*** A N D Alyson Fox & LPP here.