What began as a lighthearted take on women’s obsession with interior decor became more nuanced when Patty Carroll considered the role of home
Carroll creates the images in her studio or “playhouse” – in the apartment she rents with her husband in Chicago. With the help of her two assistants, she makes a simple set for each shot, draping fabric in the background before carefully styling the model – “whoever I can drag in, but generally it’s people who don’t get claustrophobic”.
“A lot of the pictures require someone who is small – tall people tend not to work,” she says. “It’s always a woman. We tend to make one image per day. When we try to do two, I find the second one is often rushed.”
The ideas for the compositions come from patterns on the fabrics, or from found objects, and while Carroll gives each image a title, they are mostly just for identification rather than carrying deeper significance. Her process involves a lot of experimentation and play and is “ever-evolving, very intuitive, time-consuming, but fun”, she says.
“I have a treasure trove of fabric, drapes, props and furniture that we can refashion to suit whatever the photograph needs,” says Carroll. “Thankfully, I have a huge garage that accommodates this ongoing craziness… The ideas are important; I think there are important issues, not just concerning women, but also integral to photographic practice. But I’m always interested in adding some levity and comic relief.”
Covering the model’s face frees her up to play with gesture, she says, and shifting the focus from the person’s eyes to her body language, posture and pose allows these things to take on new significance. “I see these images as embodying the personalities of different women,” she says. “We all know a grandmotherly type, for example, or someone who is very clean and neat, or very chatty. You don’t need to see the face in order to appreciate these personalities.”
Now aged 67, Carroll grew up in the 1950s and ’60s – a time when women were brought up to be good wives and mothers, “silently creating happy households, where the husband worked and the kids went to college and became successful in business… [but] we were the generation of the pill, Vietnam and women’s liberation, so we have participated in huge changes of attitude and lifestyle”.
The contradictory nature of this era influenced the work, she says, and there’s a sense of anarchy that counteracts the intentional claustrophobia. There is also a sense of self-expression, but Carroll says she wants the photographs to speak to a wide audience. “I want the images to talk to a bunch of people and not just be about my personality,” she explains. “The person stands in for all of us.
“But without being too literal, I think that every picture a photographer makes is a self- portrait, so on that level they are self-portraits,” she adds. “I’ve experienced a lot of things that have led me to be the woman in those pictures. I’ve been in situations where my husband gets all the attention, which he should because he’s very funny, clever and charming, but I’ve thought: ‘What am I, chopped liver?’ But everyone has these sorts of experiences and it’s not like that all the time. Acknowledging these experiences is part of the art-making.”
Carroll has self-published a catalogue of the series (available at www.bit.ly/WomenDraped), although she continues to work on it, most recently adding a series of short videos in which the figure performs domestic duties while submerged beneath layers of fabric. She describes these films as “hilariously silly”, but admits they also have a dark quality. “I have always drifted between the outer world of appearances and the inner world of dreams and nightmares,” she says. “For as long as I can remember, I have had a very active dream life – an ongoing, bizarre and surreal part of my existence. I believe everyone has a rich inner life, even if they don’t acknowledge it. But I do, through my photography.”
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