“Sometimes I see myself and my body outside of all realms of gendered judgment or desire.”
This interview is an excerpt from a series of three discussions between UK artist Eleanor Bennett and myself. I am most thankful to Eleanor for her time, and the depth and intimacy of her answers.
Bennett’s haunting photographs’ esoteric appeal made me curious about the artist, a young woman living in the UK who has met with a great deal of success. One of her most compelling portraits was made at age fourteen. I wanted to ask her more about her evocative work, about these mysterious scenes of bare feet on an icy ground, the sadness and provocation of her portrait of bruised knees, and the empty trailer fading out like a ghost, an old forgotten memory. Eleanor moves back and forth effortlessly between photographing the natural world, the everyday, to motifs of loss, homelessness, and brutality. There is nothing like a conversation with an artist.
RB: As a woman artist what is different about your vantage point?
EB: I have shared much of what other women have experienced. It is hardly a choice with how I was born into the misfortune I have faced. I can project androgyny to feel more comfortable but it only comforts me it does nothing to protect me. Sometimes I see myself and my body outside of all realms of gendered judgment or desire. I often wished as a child I could switch off everyone’s view of me because it is painful to translate their sights and leering into desire when I was barely moving out of childhood.
RB: In some ways, then, you are inverting the viewpoint, e.g. who is looking, as a female; you are looking back and in some way reframing authorship. And yet too me, your work does not seem gender specific? When I first saw your work, I did not have an immediate impression of who you might be. Do you find that this is something people try to identify?
EB: My work is more depression specific and macabre really. I think I do make a real choice to make gender a narrative when it is portrayed obviously, however this is seen in only a handful of work, such as the self portraits or figurative images. However, for work that does not fit into those categories, they are really about this darkness, and depression. As well, you have a sense of my essence in any environmental, landscape, street, fashion, or photojournalist work, reflective of my own narration. Even if rendered voiceless I’m never absent from my recorded images.
RB: In 1958, Henri Cartier-Bresson said: “The creative part of photography is very short. A painter can elaborate, a writer can, but as it’s given, we have to pick that moment, the decisive moment, it is there. Ah! I’ve seen this; I’ve been there. I’ve seen that.” What are your thoughts? Do you go through many versions of the same subject before selecting the best image?
EB: There is really only so much you can do to a photograph in post processing before it appears as something other than a photo. The distance of between a photo in its rawest form and some overly manipulated mess is great distance and I am willing to work in that space most often. With that, a photo can be anything. Captured by Bridge, Film, DSLR, and toy camera and beyond; these formats are all valid to me.
I do go through revisiting the same locations to get the best image. Just the right light or daring to make a better composition on my return is very common with any tourist spots and areas of great natural beauty.
RB: Can you tell me more about the rather dark image picturing bruised knees, black gloves, white lace undergarments, and sado-masochistic like torture instruments?
EB: Work like this reflects my emotions at that point of time I was fourteen when I took this image. What appears to be some type of undergarment is just the hem of a dress wrapped around my legs and caught between. I remember wearing this dress in a town’s shopping centre either at fourteen but most probably thirteen and laughing and smiling with my Mum after she had bought it for me.
I went a very long time before that not wearing anything such as feminine so I was very happy to feel treated because for once she had the money to buy me the clothes I wanted. It was a gift. I remember to the side of me noticing a man glare and keep glaring as if to say I shouldn’t be so happy or feel so free for once.
There seems to be a difference in the way you look at a child, to reassure, guide and educate and I think there was in no way I was being looked at as a joyful child. When I was seven my Mum was so tightly controlled by my Father she didn’t have anymore than two quid to buy me a golden bear I named Winston that it still at home even though I have left. I bare that weapon on my mottled and lined legs and it gives pleasure to no one. It is something to wield. This is why I have my own voice beyond what another’s first impression may hold. The lens grants me some voice that is lasting and is immovable.
RB: I think this is quite different from one’s first impression, but I see the motifs of imprisonment and lack of control. I also find the image of the feet, soiled, indigent looking bare on an icy ground quite disturbing, making me think of the homeless or displaced. Those types of people are so unknown, their stories erased. Aesthetically, the contrast in texture is quite captivating. This unidentifiable image and the contrasts keep us looking. What is the story behind this image?
EB: The setting was selected because of the captivating patterns of the ice. The turns and curves caress and halt around the edges of the stones in a way most cold. The feet are mine. The sores on my ankles you still see the remnants of today even though the image is years old. It was to represent the feeling of neglect and hopelessness. Growing up I felt that I never had a home.
My safety felt ransomed and if I didn’t like that way I was treated I had the option to walk without a penny behind me. The photo is caught of a state of vulnerability and it makes you confront something broken. To see it today makes me feel like I am from a place of strength now. I think it is another subject androgynous. I don’t believe the viewer can find much to prove if the owner of those feet is male or female.
RB: This is a richly intimate view of your life, and yet in has an universal appeal in the sense that the emotions the work evokes will resonate with your viewers.
RB: Can you tell me the story of the image of the abandoned trailer with the shadow of the photographer? I love the spectral essence of this work, and the way the color is saturated and fading.
EB: This piece is titled “All That Comes From Ores”. It is rooted in a return to the wild. Since taking this, I have noticed how in vogue it has become to photograph old things that fall into a ruined state. This was taken before my exposure to that as a trend, so it feels very organic to me.
The old caravan in my earliest memories was full of candy and had plush dogs inside. It came from a long time friend of my Father’s. If you were to see the opposite side, you could see that it used to sell burgers, chips, and the like. Now it is full of scrap metal and to the right of the caravan large mesh panels are laid overlapping one another. On quiet mornings if you were to walk down the path leading to the field you would see rabbits dive to their shelter – which is under this mass of metal mess.
RB: I think perhaps these kind of images have an appeal for people because they have a narrative fluidity, one can project a ghostly story onto these abandoned places, and there are no restrictions.
Thank you to Eleanor for her courage, open spirit and determination.
Her Nails were Bitten and Bruised…shows the artist as baby, with close ups of her mother’s battered hands.