Essay by J. Kaufman, Ph.D.
“Tell Me a Story” The Work of Leslie Gabaldon by John Kaufman, Ph.D.
Many narrative photographers no longer think of a photograph as a stand-alone aesthetic image. Rather the single image extends beyond itself into a conceptual-based series whose meanings come from juxtapositions with multiple images. Leslie Gabaldon’s “Domestic Intimacies” does this. Each work consists of multiple images joined together. These then extend to the other works in the exhibition to form a group of images, which become the portrayal of a contemporary family.
The family looks typical at first, but the moments depicted aren’t the traditional photographic markers we associate with family snapshots. No weddings, births, birthdays or “cute kid” pictures. There are no group shots for holidays or graduations. Instead Gabaldon shows us very ordinary, non-communal, bodily intimacies contained in daily experiences. Clothes are being put on or taken off. There is washing or being lost in thought. The children play in the yard.
These photographs are about where privacy is granted in the home, the places where we seek refuge in being alone with our families. Adults gravitate towards the bedroom or bathroom. The children find places to play in the yard. These are secret places where the door is often closed, where others do not invade.
Back to our family: we see mother, grandmother, daughters, and son. Only the father is absent because this is domestic space dominated by the presence of women. The father is away on business or outside of the home. We can perhaps feel him through the presence of the other members of the family, but he’s not there. He is sort of ghost-like. This is often normal in many families.
The older women acknowledge the presence of the camera. They are not as threatened by its invasive quality as the children are. The children refuse the gaze of the camera. They resist its categorization. The mother and the grandmother accept its domination. Images are part of their control of the household, perhaps part of their being controlled also. They have grown into their roles of mother, wife, and grandmother. It is what is expected of women. They have adjusted their self-images to fit these roles. They have learned to be attractive in them.
The children are not as comfortable as the adults. They twist and turn and avert their eyes and their bodies. They are already sensing that this is not quite their space, not quite the result of their decisions. Their postures are less vertical, less stable, and less secure. They have grown, or are growing, into the alienation of being teenagers in our society.
How do the joined images work together? In Mirror we see three photographs combined yet fragmented by space and time, by presence and absence, and by color and shape. In the middle there is an establishing picture that is a close-up of a mirror that reflects a medium-shot of a young woman sitting on a bed. We have two different spaces, that of the mirror and that of the reflection. The reflected room is dark turquoise. The mirror’s room is beige. Perhaps the young woman on the bed is in her space. Perhaps the bright color is her color. She turns away from us and there is a disturbing white, abstract shape of a comforter twisted around a bedpost.
To the left of this picture is a medium-shot that is cropped to show a part of a back and some long hair hanging over it. The cropping fragments and abstracts the body of the young woman. We think that it might be the body of the figure in the center picture. She is also wearing white. But the hair looks too red in the left picture. The hood of her shirt forms another triangular shape of white like the comforter in the middle picture. Both the middle and left pictures create more dynamic formal and narrative tensions such as these.
In the third picture to the right, we look for some resolution to the story of the young woman. Because we read from left to right, our eyes have been conditioned to expect some conclusion to the thoughts set in motion by the first two pictures. But here we find an empty bed. It looks too soft and full of covers to be the same bed in the middle picture. It seems that this bed is seen at night. The dark wall on the right of this picture may be turquoise as in the middle picture, but it’s difficult to discern. Strangely this picture seems to have more presence of being than the other two pictures in which the young woman is shown. How can absence be presence? And beds at night are usually occupied, not empty. These are contradictions rather than conclusions. This is how the joined photographs play off each other.
In all the photographs the females are obliquely made absent by fragmentation. Even the older woman, who is the most frontal of the female figures, is in undress and shadows. Only the boy, the son, the stand-in for the absent father, seems to be a master of the space that surrounds him. But he too is made to seem tentative or uncertain. In the left picture he raises his arm, ready to flee the swing. In the right picture he turns and collapses in on himself, becoming a suspended, womb-like, distorted shape.
Leslie Gabaldon plays with subtle shifts between abstraction and figuration and between narrative and non-narrative. Like Duane Michals or Sophie Calle, she tells extended stories through multiple images. Unlike Calle, she relies less on conceptual and textual documentation. And unlike Michals, she doesn’t play with our expectations of sentimentality. Most of Gabaldon’s work thus far focuses on the family. This is a rich theme, which may develop further and in new directions. But we also wait for her to extend her visual storytelling to other tales.