What began as a lighthearted take on women’s obsession with interior decor became more nuanced when Patty Carroll considered the role of home
There is more to Patty Carroll’s draped portraits than meets the eye. At first glance playful and lighthearted, they depict female models swathed in fabric that camouflages them against their surroundings. “I have a pretty good sense of humour,” says the Chicago-based photographer. “I don’t like it when artists take themselves too seriously.”
But beneath the fun, the images touch on deeper-rooted themes – female domesticity and identity, and the relationship between the two. “The work is from my ongoing obsession with the idea of home – what it means, where it is, and what it feels and looks like,” explains Carroll. “Sometimes the home can be a place to hide in, or where you silently go about chores that nobody ever notices. It can be a place of contemplation and mystery, myth, or a familiar place to go, but also a place where personal psychodramas get played out.”
Carroll first got the idea for Anonymous Women: Draped when she was living in London with her husband – the couple relocated to England from the US from 1992 to 1996, when he was director of the Royal College of Art, and Carroll made work and taught at the academy and at the London College of Printing. On one shoot she started putting items such as a frying pan or pieces of food in front of her models’ faces, fusing female identity, objects and domesticity.
In 2003 the idea resurfaced in her work after the couple moved into a 1950s ranch house back in the US. “It was the house I never had as a child,” she says. “It had all these drapes, which had been there since 1951. I took them to my studio and used them in sets I had made for another project about scenes from films.
“I started to visit flea markets, charity shops and antique stores to find pieces to go into our home. I began to think about the obsession we have with ‘the home’ but, in particular, women and home. It’s like men and their cars – women become obsessed with the home. It’s a place where they can indulge themselves and project who they are on to the house. The drapery pictures are about becoming the dwelling itself… the home as engulfing the person – it being part of you, and you being part of it.”
But it wasn’t until Carroll’s niece got in touch that the idea crystallised. A Marine posted in Iraq at the time, she sent a photograph of herself sitting in the desert, looking forlorn, and Carroll “began to think about women in war – those who were participating, or Iraqi women who were passively involved and would no longer have a safe place to call home. This led me to think about home as an unsafe place for other women – those who might face domestic abuse, for example”.
“In this work I address the sharp edges of domesticity; the home as a place of comfort or where decoration becomes an obsession, where a woman is camouflaged by her domestic interior, which renders her invisible.”
Six years later, Carroll began the project with gusto, soaking up many other influences along the way. Originally trained in graphic design but later studying under Garry Winogrand and Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design in Chicago, she references everything from a painting by René Magritte to a play-fight with her assistants. “One day they were bickering so I sat them down and threw drapes over them,” she says. “It started to become its own thing and I just kept going with it.”
Other influences include religious iconography and 19th-century images of babies, which included hidden mothers, obscured by cloth, holding their children still for the long exposure. This last precursor wasn’t a conscious inspiration, she says, but she made a video with a friend’s baby when people kept referencing it.