A photographer exploring ways in which female identity is constructed in current cultural context.
Szwarc told Matte Magazine in 2013: As a woman of course I relate to other women. Through photographing them I isolate and explore different aspects of my experience of being a woman. It is a way of self-portraiture, but enriched by the experience of others.
This exploration of how women constitute their identities and organize their experience is a theme throughout much of Szwarc’s work. Though she keeps her camera aimed at others, one can sense that this is also a deeply personal project. The exploration of femininity, community and American identity is both a study of others and a path to the self.
While this quality of self-portraiture is present across her work, perhaps more striking is Szwarc’s ability to convey a deep sense of each subject’s individuality. Each photograph feels deeply personal. This quality likely stems from Szwarc’s process of working with her subjects – she takes the time to get to know each individual before attempting to capture their character on film. As she notes to Don't Panic:
Working with people and places where they live is a very special time for me. To get to know them, connect with them, see who they are, where they live, what their dreams are and capture all that in a photograph that will communicate a nature of that exchange and therefore relate to a universal human experience is always my greatest challenge. It is about spending time together and sharing moments, about connecting. That connection becomes the spine of the portrait.
Additionally, Szwarc’s work allows her to consider her own place in her adopted country. Exploring the ways in which identity is created in the U.S., Szwarc also contemplates her own. She comments in the Daily Beast:
I was wondering what it meant to be a woman in the U.S. and what it means to be American. I also started reflecting on my own cultural identity and how my childhood was different growing up in Poland.
Szwarc’s 2010 collection Anna is a striking example of just how intimate and revealing her work can be. The series features her mother-in-law Anna. Szwarc had not met her husband’s mother until the couple moved to the U.S. Their relationship was built through the process of creating this collection. Szwarc describes her relationship with Anna as 'unique', adding in Time that,
We connect through the camera and through the act of photographing. [It] is a way for us to spend time together. It brings us close… It’s gone from not knowing someone at all to knowing this person very intimately, in a sense, and witnessing this person’s ups and downs, witnessing her life.
These photos do, in fact, feel very intimate. Viewers see Anna sleeping, bathing, and apparently deep in thought. In one photo Anna is pictured asleep on her couch, surrounded by pieces of a partly disassembled artificial Christmas tree. Another shot shows Anna enjoying a snack at her dining room table; reclining in robe, with her cat assuming a similar position in the background. A number of the photos depict Anna in various forms of disguise – in one she holds a Venetian mask in front of her face, in another she is dressed for a Halloween party at her church.
Rather than obscuring her subject, Szwarc’s photographs of the masked or costumed Anna further expose the woman’s efforts to construct an identity and find a place for herself in her adopted home. These masked photos also speak to Szwarc’s interest in exploring the elements of performance and construction intrinsic in individual and community identity.
Szwarc notes of Anna that having moved from Poland and spending much of her time in New York City without her husband, she has had to create a community for herself – to find a place where she belongs. The richly detailed photographs of Anna in her apartment speak to the ways in which she has built her own world, albeit one where she often appears alone.
This series was featured in Time magazine for Mother’s Day 2013.
The themes of constructed identities and belonging in the U.S. community that Szwarc began to explore in Anna are further developed in her American Girls series. Upon moving to New York City, Szwarc was struck by the sight of young girls walking around with their American Girl dolls – many of which had been customized to match their young owners. She explains:
My initial attraction was towards the visual image of girls walking around with their mini versions of themselves. I was struck by the fact that the product was actually called ‘American Girl’. I thought that it clearly meant that the company imposes stereotypes about who a contemporary American girl is.
The product of two years work, the series of 100 photographs all depict American girls with their 'American Girls'. Shot with a 4x5 large format camera, the pictures are rich in detail and color. Vibrant, lush backgrounds frame the girls and their dolls. One girl sits astride a horse on a neatly manicured lawn. In the foreground of the shot sits her doll, dressed in a matching outfit and riding her own miniature horse. Three friends are depicted with their American Girls – girls and dolls all in matching outfits – in the firehouse where one of the girl’s mothers works. With their dolls clutched to their chests and dressed in coordinating plaid jumpers, the lines between girl and doll almost disappear.
In one of the most widely circulated photos from the series, a young girl in a hot pink wig stands in the corner of a pink room, holding her doll. The subject’s strikingly artificial hair color and blank expression render her almost as doll-like as the toy in her arms.
Another photograph from the series, Kayla, was awarded in the World Press Photo 2013 (Observed Portraits – Single). It is a haunting photograph in which Kayla stands in front of her grandparent’s wedding picture in her family home, clothed in a long white lace dress. Szwarc explains that as she was adjusting her camera, she noticed Kayla playing with the eyelashes of her doll. Szwarc captured this unusual moment – with Kayla’s elegant hands appearing simultaneously graceful and awkward.
As in the majority of the subjects in the series, Kayla does not smile. Szwarc explains that she felt photographing the girls without smiles would offer a 'different perspective and create meaningful portraits.' She adds that the fact that she is so often asked about the blank expressions suggests to her 'some sort of taboo' about portraying American children without a smile. It is indeed a striking choice and leads viewers to question why they hold the expectation that young girls always be smiling.
Despite the unifying threads of dolls and unsmiling young girls, the photos in the series display a significant diversity. Racial, socio-economic and cultural difference emerge as viewers move through the collection. Remarkably, there appears to be a fitting doll for each individual girl. The sense that there is a matching doll for every girl is, however, partly illusory. Szwarc notes that during the process of photographing this series, she began to notice that among the dolls, there was actually a limited degree of differentiation. Girls could select the hair color and fashions for their American Girls, but each doll had nearly identical facial features and body shapes. Szwarc notes in the Daily Beast that this led her to contemplate the degree to which 'constructing female identity happens through choice of hairstyle and fashionable accessories'. Of her project, Szwarc said in Don't Panic:
Through those dolls I wanted to investigate identity and gender, what it means to grow up in the U.S. and what it means to be an American girl, a future American woman. The doll is a way that girls carve out their identity. Girls project their identities onto the dolls and then they experiment with them through the mini-me doll play and then when they're ready they leave the doll behind. The doll comes also with a baggage of culturally and socially conditioned gender performance that is passed onto girl's behavior - dressing up, grooming hair, tea parties - all very traditional feminine and domestic activities. So in my project I am questioning how much freedom we have in choosing our identity and gender in contemporary American society.
American Girls thus explores the ways in which American Girl dolls allow their young owners to experiment with and construct identities, while also underscoring the cultural limitations imposed on such exploration.
This series of American girls posing with their doppelganger 'American Girl' dolls has been featured on the New York Times Lens Blog, MSNBC Today.com, and the Huffington Post.
Szwarc’s series, Rodeo Girls, features young girls involved in the rodeo culture of Texas. As a high school exchange student in the town of Canadian, Szwarc witnessed rodeos and remembered them as a particularly 'American' experience. Returning there to visit friends after her move to the U.S., she was struck by the number of young girls participating in the events. As she explained in the Telegraph:
I’d been a few times as a teenager, but I remembered it as a male thing. Now my friends had daughters who competed in the events. I was fascinated: The rodeo girls had such different ideas about being female, such different priorities (than the subjects of American Girls). They had embraced the male archetype of the cowboy, with its hard work and discipline, and enjoyed not having to look or behave in a feminine way.
Whereas the subjects of Szwarc’s American Girls appeared to construct their identities and experiment with notions of femininity through their relationship with their dolls, the focus in Rodeo Girls is on subverting 'traditional' femininity and finding a place for oneself in what is largely considered a male sphere. These girls might not be interested in constructing the same type of female identity explored in American Girls, but they nevertheless are creating and performing their own specific role in the community. The type of girl may have changed, but the themes of gender, identity and American culture remain.
The photographs in Rodeo Girls depict the young women in the costumes of their sport. Beat-up boots, cowboy hats, jeans and oversized belt buckles mark the subjects as 'rodeo girls.' Many of the young women are pictured on or with their horses. All are photographed outside – showing the dusty Texan landscape and wide blue sky. Like the girls in American Girls, the subjects of Rodeo Girls do not smile.
One of the striking images in the collection, a portrait of Carly Christian, age12, shows her with her horse – so much larger than the girl that it is largely out of frame. Christian holds the braided mane of the horse, a clear reminder that while girls’ objects of fascination may differ, the desire to care for and present them appears common. These girls are not brushing their dolls’ hair, but they nevertheless deeply care for, and present themselves through, the things they love.
Rodeo Girls has been featured on the New York Times Magazine and in other media outlets across the globe.
Along with working on her independent projects, Szwarc contributes the photography to the New Yorker magazine’s Making Money series. Her photographs also have appeared in feature stories in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, TIME, The UK Sunday Times Magazine, The Telegraph Magazine.
Szwarc has been awarded Richard Benson Prize for Excellence in Photography, Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture, World Press Photo. In 2014, she received Alice Kimball Traveling Fellowship from Yale University. In November 2014 she participated in Joop Swart Masterclass.
I Am a Woman and I Feast on Memory
In September 2015, Szwarc self-published a set of three artist books titled I am a woman and I feast on memory, which premiered at the New York Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1. Each part of the triptych, consisting of 23 sequential portraits, takes the form of stage makeup tutorials. By employing lookalikes, women who share her general appearance, the artist is placing herself at once as the subject and the object in the photographs. In this stepbystep process she is manipulating her own image through a proxy: her American doppelganger. The artist reveals the idea behind the project:
As a foreigner to the United States, I stand outside the dominant order while immersed in my own process of becoming. This position, unique in that it is my own, and communal in that it is a space I share with so many others, is the source of my interrogation.
Through her experiments Szwarc has learned that
becoming is a process of elimination, a construction that moves progressively towards a void, an erasure of meaning. At first, I would observe myself in the eyes of the double, an act of mimicry that mirrored myself back to me, all the intricate details of how I embody and occupy myself. Now, I imagine myself in a space of emptiness.
Artist's website: www.ilonaszwarc.com
- 2015 - Rodeo Girls, Amerikahaus, Munich, Germany
- 2014 - American Girls, Johnson Hall Rotunda Gallery, Meredith College, Raleigh, North Carolina
- 2013 - American Girls, Foley Gallery, New York, NY; American Girls, Maison de la Photographie, Lille, France
- 2012 - American Girls, Galerie Claude Samuel, Paris, France
- 2016 I am a woman and I cast no shadow, 31st International Festival of Photography and Fashion in Hyeres, France (upcoming), New Genealogies:2016-, Green Hall Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
- 2015 - Lovely Dark, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, CA; Lovely Dark, Danziger Gallery, New York, NY; Emerging, Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles, CA; Views, Landscapes in Polish Photography, Art_Inkubator, Łódź, Poland, Lishui Photography Festival, Lishui, China
- 2014 - Identification, Warsaw Photo Days, Nowe Miejsce, Warsaw, Poland; Masters of Polish Photography, Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland; Yale MFA 2015, Yale School of Art, Green Hall Gallery, New Haven, CT;
- 2013 - Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, London, UK; 2013 Photography Now, Center for Photography at Woodstock, NY; ICP Triennial, Self-Published section, New York, NY; THE FENCE at Photoville, Brooklyn, NY; THE FENCE at Flash Forward Festival, Boston, MA; Exploitation, Glorification, Objectification, Zhou B Art Center, Chicago, IL; Hey, Hot Shot!, Jen Bekman Gallery, New York, NY;
- 2012 - Getxo Photo, Bilbao, Spain; THE FENCE Photoville, Brooklyn, NY
- 2010 - Condition X, School of Visual Arts Westside Gallery, New York, NY
- 2009 - SVA Summer Residency Group Show, School of Visual Arts Westside Gallery, New York, NY
Alena Aniskiewicz, sources: press materials, own materials. 26/07/2013, Updated April 2016, GS