I look at photos daily. My own. A whole host of online photography feeds. My photography book collection. I look to see what is happening. I look to be inspired. I save work I like. Sometimes, a photograph, or series, or project sticks with me. I can’t get it out of my head. With Grace is one of those projects.
The photographer, Emily Larsen, follows a young woman from about the time she enters puberty. She has been doing so for seven years. Early in the project, perhaps the reason for beginning, Grace is “diagnosed with a fast acting, little understood illness of the breast tissue that, within nine months, resulted in an emergency double mastectomy.”
Cue the horrified but fascinated onlookers.
I usually have a problem with this type of project. Most of them, it seems to me, are exploitative, the pictures are not exceptional, the story is not well told. They rely on the train wreck at hand to be interesting. I can’t say this one doesn’t do the latter on some level, but it quickly goes beyond, the photographs are well made, and there is a cohesive story told.
Immediately, I have questions, about Grace, about my reactions to Grace, about societal attitudes towards young women and beauty.
The lead photograph of the project is a head, shoulders, to just below the bust line image of Grace, without clothing. She is tastefully made up, a crown of flowers in her hair, as if she will be participating in May Day celebrations later that day. The expression on her face is equal parts perplexed, irritated, distrustful, determined. Grace is very pretty. We notice immediately that there is something wrong with the body pictured. Where breasts would normally be there is a pair of horizontal scars. That the area of skin around the scars is not lightly tanned, as are her face and shoulders, makes it seem like her breasts have been unsuccessfully erased in a botched photo retouching job.
The image would be arousing if the body were whole (and I recognize that to a small segment of humanity, mutilation is arousing). In that context, Grace’s gaze becomes accusatory, as if to say, “Not getting what you came for?” This photograph, if her breasts were intact, would be NSFW (Not Safe For Work) in American culture. There might even be questions of child pornography since it is possible the photograph was made before Grace reached the age of consent, if not shared before. With breasts removed, it is not and there are not.
Questions of societal attitudes towards women and sexuality multiply. This happened to Grace as she was crossing the threshold of puberty. Teenage woman normalcy, if there is any such thing, is thrown out the window. Yet, she is still a teenage woman with the hopes, longings and desires normal to teenage women. She will be subject to the joys and indignities of being a young woman in a society where breasts matter. How can we look at Grace and not question our attitudes towards physical beauty and what women are here for?
Another image of Grace shows her in a sudsy tub of water, taken from directly above. It seems an amalgam of a sequence of scenes in the film American Beauty, the rose petal bath scene, the rose petal dream scene. It is a take on an iconic image trope. A desirable young woman, not quite fully concealed beneath (in this case) a sudsy scrim, in (we imagine) a clawfoot bathtub. Her lips are ruby red, eyelashes perfectly fluttered, eyebrows carefully tweezed. In Blue Velvet opening sequence fashion, one breast scar peeks out from between the suds to question the fantasy of ideal beauty and perfect sex object we are being seduced to have.
There are other images in the series that speak to the ordeal Grace has been through, is going through, though it is clear that the photo essay is focused on the broader societal attitudinal issues, and not Grace as a human being, which is ironic, given the title of the project.
A final black and white image shows a more mature, more sophisticated Grace starring unflinchingly into the camera, head tilted to one side, short hair, robe split open, reconstructed cleavage revealed along with the telltale breast scars. It is an image ready for Vanity Fair. The scars channel the likes of Cindy Crawford and Lauren Hutton in a nod to the notion that beauty is enhanced by being not quite perfect. Behind her there is a framed image (mirror reflection?) of an image of a vase of sunflowers, channeling Van Gogh, himself a master of the beauty that lies beneath the skin. The image is strangely surreal, sunflowers turned on their side, one of the sunflowers dropping out over the frame within the frame. A nod to the surreal nature of Grace’s experience?
My wife did not like this photo series when I showed it to her. My friend Sharon, who I ran this essay by to be sure I wasn’t being male stupid about a subject that is sensitive to women, also had issues. My nurse wife wanted to know more about the disease which she couldn’t imagine being anything but cancer. Both she and Sharon wanted to know more about Grace, which is the present weakness of the series. We don’t learn enough about Grace herself, or really see the ordeal she has been through, only that she has been through one and what that has to tell us about our society. Ms Larsen calls it a work in progress. I imagine there will be a book. I hope we get to know Grace a little better.
Thanks to my wife Holly, friend and fellow photographer Steve Gentile, and friend and fellow writer Sharon Watts for helping me write a better essay and avoid being man stupid.