‘To summon hail and thunderstorms’ from the series ‘To Bend & To Shape’ // © Clare Samuel
The Story behind the Portrait
I had been working on this series for a few months already when I made this image, inspired by reading Silvia Federici’s Marxist-feminist history of the witch hunts of the middle ages ‘Caliban and the Witch’. She argues that this tyranny was as a genocide against women, serving to annihilate the power of the feminine (and poor, racialized, disabled) Other, which stood in the way of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the privatisation of life.
I was interested in the way that women are still mythologised today. White-supremacist capitalist patriarchy simultaneously denigrates our bodies and imbues them with strange abstract powers – often in terms of beauty, through desire or repulsion. The real magic is the resiliency of femmes and other oppressed groups in the face of this physical and psychological warfare.
My portraits are very constructed, the individual brings a lot to the image and the process of the encounter between us is something I think about frequently. But my photographs are always more about overarching ideas, the person becomes both symbolic of wider questions, and yet is also still themselves. I tend to photograph people I know very well, a little bit, or friends of friends that I don’t know. But often the subject doesn’t really see themselves in the portrait, and other people will also remark that they look so different. Honestly, people often don’t really like the images I make of them, or they feel weird about them. If they ask me not to exhibit it I honour that, but usually, it’s a more subtle discomfort e.g. they just don’t want the print copy I’ll offer them. I think it’s how serious they are, that people are used to their social-self which is usually presented as smiling. I wonder if they are made strange to themselves, as we are by all images or reflections of ourselves, but more intensely or overtly.
Jenny is someone I’ve known for a long time, we used to work together in the box office at The Cameo cinema and I see her every time I’m back in Edinburgh. I had sketched out a few ideas for poses based on beliefs about witches, particular trials, and also imagery from folktales of that time that related to women’s bodies. Hair is something that came up a lot in my reading and I was particularly struck by a piece of lore that witches used cut hair to create storms, and in Scotland ‘no sister should comb her hair at night if she had a brother at sea’ (Sir James George Frazier, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion). The title of the work is a quote from text, about cut hair being used ‘to summon hail and thunderstorms’. Today hair is a key site in what is deemed ‘acceptable’ in cultural beauty standards. Whether it is face or body hair, or appropriately ‘controlled’ hair on your head. I love the deep red that Jenny dyes her hair and although they annoy her, I think her silver-white roots contrast with it gorgeously.
We did the shoot in the small courtyard of the tenement she had just moved in to. I had brought my nail scissors to use as a prop and we went through her wardrobe to find a neutral top. I hadn’t planned to have her looking up so much, but the light was coming exclusively from above because of the high walls, so it was the only way to get illumination in her eyes. Often it’s working with circumstance or accident like this that gives me something special in an image. The gust of wind that blurred her hair and the bushes behind her at just the right time is a perfect example of this. I think I shot two rolls (medium format) and from the first low res scans, even on the negatives really, I could see this was going to be the one.
As well as the magical feel from the motion blur, I love the sense of power she radiates; her body filling the frame and owning that space, it’s printed large and she towers above us, eyes cast to the sky. It’s like she’s part of the plants behind her, or they are her crown. For me, the portrait confronts you with a kind of beauty that is defiant, easy to become absorbed in but not subservient to your gaze, not consumable.
My portraits are very constructed, the individual brings a lot to the image and the process of the encounter between us is something I think about frequently. But my photographs are always more about overarching ideas, the person becomes both symbolic of wider questions, and yet is also still themselves.
Clare Samuel is a visual artist, writer, and educator originally from Northern Ireland, now based in Toronto. She holds a BFA from Ryerson and an MFA from Concordia University. Her work has been exhibited and screened internationally and recognized by funding and awards including the Canadian National Magazine Awards, Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and the Roloff Beny Foundation.
Clare’s images and writing have appeared in publications such as Prefix Photo, BlackFlash and Border Crossings. She serves on the board of directors at Pleasure Dome, and teaches at OCAD U and Ryerson University in Toronto. Clare is also a founding member of Feminist Photography Network, a nexus for research on the relationship between feminism and lens-based media.
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