BOOK REVIEW: Her: Meditations on Being Female by Marjorie Salvaterra (Glitterati)


“I’m forty-three years old and I’m trying to grow as a person, but so is my skin. I’m not that interested in holding on to my youth. My life is far greater now.” – Marjorie Salvaterra

With quirky staged monochromes and filmic theatricality meeting hard, unapologetic femininity Her: Meditations on Being Female by LA based Marjorie Salvaterra is a large 136 page hardback photobook split into different collections of photographs/text: HER, Sheila with Red Hair, ICE and Old Venice, each exploring the visceral and transitory nature of being a woman. The forty-one year old artist explores the book format to combine textual prophecies with performative portraits, colliding as an irregular cycle of power, tension and discontent with society’s determined structures of femininity. This empowering work opens up a lively debate about photography’s current relationship with the representation of raw (often aging) femininity, something often brushed under the carpet.  Recent trends in contemporary art reveal a resurgence of ‘youth culture’: skinny bodies enveloped in harsh flashlight and electric neon; it’s therefore a welcome relief to observe Salvaterra’s Cindy Sherman-esq monochrome style, to see somewhat humorous depictions of despair, desire and empowerment that doesn’t take itself too seriously. One image sheila smokes illustrates tongue ‘n cheek social disorder: a citrus-sparkling bathroom illustrates a woman hanging front first out of the window, classic tea dress and heeled court shoes in the air; from this image we see a liberating naughtiness that reveals the housewife stereotype as flawed and imperfect. A couple of pages on sheila throws a pool party presents a feminist attack on women’s traditional societal ‘place’ within middle-class American suburbia: seven women clad in 50s print bikinis gather around a garden pools, straight-faced and each alone in smoking/drinking/sunbathing. These women appear in the depths of individual despair, and are seen as not content; their stiff postures in this ironic performance mimics the reality of their (and other) women’s mothers, chained to society’s system, for only a few moments whilst the shutter is pressed.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Faith is a theme that repeats throughout, not only through the illustrative page-by-page telling of The Serenity Prayer, but through some of the staged shots. her last supper denotes one central woman with 12 disciples gathered in fur coats, big hair and Hollywood glamour around the iconic cloth-laid dinner table appropriated from religious iconography. Salvaterra ruptures tradition – there’s no bread to be broken, no wine shed, just clean, empty white plates. Perhaps this is a story to parody woman’s media-led restriction on overindulgence in order to gain physical perfection or (as the ‘unimpressed’ expressions on her guest’s faces show), it could be a vehicle for processing emotive tensions that often arise within friendship groups (think ‘The Real Housewives of…’ series), the characters certainly gaze at the central figure with discontent. The image faith shows the same women as standing parishioners, arranged at different pews within a small town chapel, dressed in uniform of black wigs and white straightjackets. Here some women gaze towards the photographic lens in addressing the viewer, the structure of religious space has set the scene for deconstructing the language of power. Turn over to an image that cuts through the notion of the ‘restricted’ congregation – the stories we tell ourselves has been shot from the same viewpoint, the same women sporadically positioned as an audience (in what appears to be a small theatre) this time dressed in nothing but underwear. The camera’s on stage viewpoint shoots the back of an ‘all but heels’ presumably naked woman engaging her nearly-naked female parishioners, who appear seduced by this on-stage female performance. For a moment, I’m reminded of the artist and post-Lacanian psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger’s writings on Fascinance, a transformable gaze of encounter between women (see The Matrixial Borderspace, University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

“she goes on, and on, and on”

Stormy beaches, rainclouds and saltwater… the cycle of nature and her universe feature throughout, enhanced by the different girl to mother age groups of females participating. A group of women with blurred eyeliner unapologetically stare whilst emerging from the sea in one image, whilst another image shows the women stationary holding a black umbrella casting a shadow on each subject’s face whilst protecting ‘that’ little black dress from the elements, nature vs. culture collide through a well-choreographed performance.

“And then I learned…
It’s not who we attract in our lives, it is who we decide to keep that defines our pathology.”

Salvaterra’s story is a little repetitive of 1970s/80s feminist artworks in places (like artists such as Ana Mendiata or Mary Kelly who explored nature vs. culture and Hannah Wilke deconstructing women’s bodies and religion), but some images are more unique and transgressive, especially those depicting nudity to communicate sensuality between women. The work is strong when her creative style and direction choreographs the same characters in different scenarios, appearing throughout in unified support of both the project and each other as women/girls. Happily, the artist gracefully avoids falling into the trap of trendy photography as I’ve seen too many recent ‘feminist’ projects that appear to visually fit into a contemporary easy-on-the-eye, easy-to-publish box; I feel it’s perhaps less common than previous decades to access contemporary images of gender that explore the melancholy of real experience, there’s so many current ‘so-called’ political art projects that unfortunately adhere to the media-driven ideal codes of youth, beauty, thinness etc. As a young woman, I can see beyond this frame and on flicking through the pages of Her: Mediations on Being Female, I was relieved to find a seemingly likeminded artist trying to break the mould.

Hardcover: 144 pages
Publisher: Glitterati Incorporated
ISBN 978-1-943876-10-5

Her: Meditations on Being Female by Marjorie Salvaterra is published by Glitterati Incorporated and is available here