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Inside Out: On the Photography of Elizabeth Claffey

Inside Out:
On the Photography of Elizabeth Claffey

Christoph Irmscher

The Indiana-based photographer Elizabeth Claffey began her career in print photography, working for a variety of newspapers in New England and Texas and at Universal Studios in New York, where she participated in studio shoots, making and editing images for websites and media use. Maybe this is where she acquired the interest in storytelling that pervades her art. Yet Claffey’s training in women’s studies (a field in which she obtained a graduate certificate at Texas Women’s University, where she also completed her Master of Fine Arts) has no doubt added depth and understanding and a political edge to the stories her camera captures—stories about herself, her family, and her children; other women; people living, due to disease or poverty, on the margins of our perception; as well as stories about the things we own, wear, and use, things that shape our lives even as we shape them, too. Themes of kinship, love, and friendship, both past and present, of memory and identity, health and illness run through her work.

Claffey’s photography is intense and brings her viewers close to, and immerses them in, the lives of other people. It plays with the notions of intimacy and distance, as her camera seems to touch and caress her sitters even as we remain several degrees removed from them, separated by the cool, smooth surfaces of her images, the manifestation of her deep respect for her subjects as well as her desire for artistic control.

From “Medical History,” Appropriated Book/Photographic Transfer © Elizabeth Claffey

That control is different from that exerted by socially sanctioned narratives over people (in Claffey’s case, those of institutionalized medicine) that attempt to fix them in place, reduce them to a diagnosis or disorder. In her “Medical History” series, for example, photography emerges as an interesting vernacular counternarrative to official ways of talking about human beings, their histories and their bodies. Superimposing family snapshots over pages taken from medical manuals or diagrams of internal organs, Claffey questions the pretensions of physicians to “know” a person from the inside out. With her mother’s medical history as a starting point—taking hormone pills as a young girl to avoid pregnancy, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008—Claffey crafts a series of photographs in which amateur shots from family albums, featuring relatives in their Sunday best, their faces often reflecting the seriousness of the occasion (isn’t this is how we will be remembered?), prevail over the privileged knowledge exemplified by textbooks. Rather than serving as a decorative background to the words printed over them, the human figures push themselves into the foreground of the picture. Our eye almost automatically drifts to them: they are fully recognizable, even if we don’t know who they are, whereas the text that is included is distorted, fragmented, blurry, hard to decipher. In this way, Claffey’s camera validates the work of the unknown amateur photographer, elevating their image-making over that of the illustrations and definitions provided by the experts.

Medical discourse, treated as the only gateway to the truth, tends to reduce people to things, an observation that informs Claffey’s series “Blood Lines.” Here her camera is focused on the accoutrements of the medical examination rooms, the X-rays, chairs, pain charts on the walls, which she arranges and modifies in novel and sometimes jarring ways. Again she uses images within images, though this time she doesn’t affirm them: she modifies and, to some extent, mocks the taped-together, full-body X-ray stretched out on an exam bed instead of the patient. Medical imaging turns the inside of our bodies out. But that also means, conversely, that the outside (what we look like to ourselves and others) becomes the new inside, something to be held onto, to be treasured—in a kind of refusal to let the X-ray, a picture of what’s going on inside us, define how we are. The clinical look of Claffey’s photographs in these series—employed here to almost parodistic effect—objectifies not a human being but the discipline of medicine itself, casting a cold look at what it does to a person even as it might succeed in healing her.

From “Blood Lines,” Mixed Media © Elizabeth Claffey

Claffey’s “Patient #” continues this investigation to great effect, contrasting the aging, imperfect, mottled bodies of anonymous patients with the pristine white gowns or cover-ups you’re handed at the doctor’s office. In this grim series, these gowns become like shrouds, the garments of corpses, wrappings for puckered, pustulating flesh, maps of decay. At the same time, they don’t really cover up; the bodies in Claffey’s pictures, headless like Greek statues, don’t remain hidden, refuse their objectification into identical packages wrapped in white.

From “Patient #” © Elizabeth Claffey

If people aren’t things, in Claffey’s world, things, too, may be like people, or stand in for the people who handle them and thus endow them with meaning. They have a life of their own. Take the poignant “Shared Possessions” from a sequence of photographs Claffey created in Albania, where she traveled in 2016 on a Fulbright grant (“Mother’s Milk, Father’s Blood”). The bar of soap, given by a man we can’t see, except for his right arm, to another man who is mostly outside the frame of the picture, embodies what has held this community together. Shaped by the hands that have used it (the hand on the right is still slick with suds), this bar of soap resembles, at least in outline, one of the stones in the wall in the immediate background: another example, like the soap, of nature rearranged and re-made for human use. But it is more than that: formed by human hands and now, in this picture, held by human hands, the soap, blindingly white against the men’s darker skin, is not just a potentially rare commodity. As it is being transferred from hand to hand, it becomes both a promise and a symbol, a reminder of the importance of the “lines of blood and milk” connecting people in this unfamiliar world, where kinship inevitably means friendship, too.

From “Mother’s Milk, Father’s Blood,” Archival Inkjet Print © Elizabeth Claffey

In a statement, Claffey describes the aim of her work as “creating space,” and it is moving to see how this space continues to exist even after the people who used that space are gone. Take what has become Claffey’s best-known series to date, “Matrilinear,” a collection of black-and-white compositions that celebrate the experience of motherhood, the relationships between mothers and children, between mothers and daughters, and between women generally. A particularly memorable sequence in this series features, enshrined in oval frames, the used tissues found in the garments of the photographer’s mother, disposable items tucked into the pockets of clothes, made sacred by the memory they bear of the hand that once held, crumpled, folded, and discarded them. Taken on a lightbox, Claffey’s photographs present these ephemeral objects drifting weightlessly against a black background, like diaphanous jellyfish floating magically at the bottom of the sea. Though these tissues were never meant to last, they have now become durable artifacts, the frames surrounding them with a halo of permanence.

From “Matrilinear II” © Elizabeth Claffey

Claffey’s work makes me think of a passage in writer-photographer Wright Morris’s The Home Place (1948), a tribute to the fragile permanence of things, which endure even as they seem to wear out. “Any house that’s been lived in,” wrote Wright in a book describing, under the thin veneer of fiction, his return to the Nebraska of his childhood, “any room that’s been slept in, is not vacant any more [sic]. From that point on it’s forever occupied.” One could say the same thing about clothes. I own a house in the Bavarian Forest that once belonged to my grandparents. Despite my best efforts, it’s still full of their things, pens that don’t write, tools that no longer fix anything, records I can’t play, incredibly tiny dresses no one can wear (was my grandmother, whom I remember as a well-dressed, proud woman with a regal posture, really that small?). Among those is my grandmother’s dressing gown, an elaborate affair, whose design, an abstract pattern of black and turquoise swirls, made it seem like the epitome of elegance and refinement to me when I was a child. One of its pockets still contains a crumpled piece of tissue that she once held, the other a pink comb that she would have used first thing in the mornings lest anyone see her with her hair in disarray.

Claffey takes things that others would discard and blesses them, makes them sacred, holy. In an interview she explained that the oval frames she had used symbolize both the beginning and the end of human life, the cradle and the grave, but to me they also evoke the circular frames often used in vernacular religious art for images of Jesus Christ (derived perhaps from the traditional almond-shaped mandorla). In a recent exhibit devoted to Claffey’s work at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts, these photographs appear together, as “Matrilinear II,” separated from the other images in “Matrilinear”, as they should. The overall effect, visible in installation shots, is revelatory: a reminder that the impulse behind Claffey’s art is a push to elevate and dignify the mundane, to make us aware and help us celebrate the poetry of the everyday. 

A similar interest in the auratic significance of things guides the series of photographs in which Claffey documents the illness of Suzan, a woman diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer (“Blood Work”). The contrasting shots of Suzan’s kitchen at home, with its shiny pot and kettle sitting on an immaculate oven range, and of the antiseptic Styrofoam and plastic cups that have become the new reality of her “tea time” at the hospital, are so moving precisely because they are so understated. The shock of seeing these two images juxtaposed is even greater because the color schemes (brown, white, yellow, silver) are so similar; in the world of the ill, strange things gradually assume a new kind of terrifying familiarity, and home, this diptych tells us, is no longer, or never again can be, what it once was.

From “Blood Work,” Archival Inkjet Print © Elizabeth Claffey

As “Blood Work” makes clear again, the principal emotion underlying Claffey’s work is an insistent tenderness, a loving patience for the infinite beauty and extraordinary vulnerability of our daily (and nightly) lives, a tenderness, however, born out of a fierce intelligence. Apart from being smart, Claffey’s work is also extremely sensual. It instills in the viewer a longing to touch, a desire that—since the photograph can only incite, not satisfy, what we feel—invariably survives the act of viewing and carries over into the viewer’s own life, reawakening, perhaps, a long-lost or suppressed wish for similar intimacy, of a kind no longer mediated by the camera.

From “Darkness and Nothing More” © Elizabeth Claffey

The most pronounced manifestation of this transformative appeal is Claffey’s newest work, the basis of her book-in-progress, “Darkness and Nothing More.” The title seems almost ironic. Claffey’s night images of family life—a child’s naked legs on a dark stairway, the toes of the left foot ever so slightly curled inward and touched by the light; milk spilled next to a chair; a discarded pair of bunny ears, looking impossibly white in the darkness, floating in an almost empty inflatable pool; her partner’s hirsute, bent legs, surprisingly animalistic against satiny bed sheets—have a visceral impact on the viewer. Rendered in black and white, these ordinary sights, heightened to the level of mystery by the camera’s lens, are both powerful and infinitely fragile, raw in their unexpected beauty. Darkness here isn’t “nothing more,” to be sure, but everything else. It’s certainly not the regrettable absence of light, but the presence of everything that matters. More radically than the light of day could, such darkness, shared with those we love, tells us who we are and reminds us of who we are meant to be with and of where, against all odds, we are headed, now and in the future.