Tall Tales, Twins And Truths: The Tangled Self-Portraits of Jess Richmond

Self-portraits, that seemingly narcissistic offshoot of the much broader genre of portraiture, have always been a bit problematic, if only because they’re almost indistinguishable from the larger group. In other words, you can’t tell from the image itself whether it’s a self-portrait or simply a portrait of another artist. Even when the artist has portrayed him or herself with brushes, photo gear or other clues, you’re still forced to examine the caption if you don’t actually know the photographer or artist.

Additionally, many great “selfies” of past eras are often regarded as mirrors into the soul of the artist. For instance, when staring through the rough layers of dried oil pigment of a late Rembrandt or Van Gogh self-portrait, we’re confronted by a masterful statement of our human condition. Even in the more recent examples of most photographic self-portraits by photographers as diverse as Vivian Maier, Man Ray, Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin and Sally Mann, among many others, it seems they all still echo the sincere approach of the painters of the past.

But, in an age like ours, when our mobile devices are flooded with countless retouched digital selfies and animated 3D avatars that coexist and travel between virtual and augmented realities, all set against the zeitgeist of fake news and alternative facts, it stands to reason that there might be another, more nuanced way to look at ourselves. One that may suggest to the viewer that a self-portrait is as much about artifice as it is about a sincere approach to personal vision. And perhaps such a work might include the notion of dealing with our real and virtual identities…simultaneously.

I believe it’s just these qualities that can be seen in a small group of inventive self-portraits by Jess Richmond, which are part of a series of photographs she calls The Madness of Many. In fact, the brief description she provides on her website of this series indicates this strange blend of fact and fiction, the real and virtual: “The Madness of Many is a series of self-portraits constructed solely in camera using cutouts depicting me and my twin sister, Connie, who never actually existed.”

The Story And Method Behind The Madness

So, you might already be asking, “Come again? Just who is Connie, and where did she come from?”

“This series is inspired by childhood stories I was told about my twin sister, Connie, who never actually existed,” Richmond reiterates. “What began as an innocent bedtime story evolved into something that genuinely confused me as a child.”

But in a way, it’s how artists have always worked for centuries, constructing images based on factually challenged myths, fables, folklore and gospel readings. It’s just that in Richmond’s case, the story came from her family instead of hearing a sacred text at church or a revered novel in school.

“I used this as a base to draw inspiration from,” says Richmond. “I am interested in the construction of a lie through both the camera and the human memory. Both innately truthful mediums, but what happens when you confront them with a lie? I explore the construction of identity by literally splitting myself in two by creating a life-size paper cut-out double. Our bodies mirror each other as we twist, contort and slide through the frame. Together we balance and wrestle our dual identities…one is real and the other is false, but which one is it?”

What’s striking about these visual conundrums is that the self-portraits appear simple and straightforward. It’s almost as if you might miss what’s unusual about them if you don’t take a second look.

“At a quick glance,” says Richmond, “my images seem easily digestible. They convincingly suggest that two people exist in the frame, but this is merely a trick of the lens. One is real, while the other is flat, flimsy and made of paper.”

She says that it’s generally only upon closer inspection do you sense that something is off. “Maybe it is the unnatural bend of my body or the strange fall of my hair that causes a pause,” she says. “What I believe the images do successfully is disrupt the viewer’s expectations of photography, an inherently truthful medium. What you see isn’t always to be trusted.”

She says that once you realize that there’s some kind of a trick involved, you begin to notice that the entire image becomes a medium of deception. “In a single frame, the real and the false exist in reciprocity, both enforcing and conflicting [with] the other….I strive to create an illusion: Almost like a puzzle that’s for the viewer to solve. It’s amusing for me to watch the process unravel.”

Of course, perhaps the most essential ingredient to the success of the work is a very subtle sense of humor. In all her work, Richmond has a wonderfully deadpan delivery when she appears in her puzzling pictures. “In a way, I’m like the magician behind the trick,” says Richmond. “I’m creating a world of visual confusion that causes the viewer to question his/her own perspective of it. So there’s an aspect of self-humor that’s undeniable.”

How The Many Resonates With Convulsive Beauty

Richmond isn’t the first artist or photographer to deal with notions of honesty and trickery. There are myths that date back to Ancient Greece that tell of artists who could use trompe l’oiel painting techniques to fool nature.

But Richmond looks to a more recent modern artist for inspiration. Namely, the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, who “is a favorite and has been a huge inspiration for me as a photographer. His work stands as a testament to the deviousness of the image. I’m specifically drawn to his use of trompe l’oeil because it reveals the deception of conventional representation, which causes you to question its inherent truthfulness.”

In a way, Richmond is almost working directly from Magritte’s playbook, of sorts. For example, in a Time magazine review by Robert Hughes of a 2001 fine-art exhibition of Magritte’s work in New York City, the critic wrote, “The objectivity of collage—taking an image from outside and putting it, whole and entire, in the fictional space of the painting—appealed to Magritte, because he liked standardized images; it was their encounter and rearrangement that created the magic, more than the things themselves.”

Although in Richmond’s case, the “thing” is her own likeness, and the space isn’t a painting, but generally a tiny studio setup. The resulting images are seamless photo montages that tap into and re-interpret the notion of convulsive beauty, a term coined by Surrealist founder André Breton. For me, Richmond’s photographs seem to be visual definitions of convulsive beauty because the images she constructs are beautiful on many levels, yet there’s a distinct dissonance in showing her virtual, distorted, nearly identical image so close to her own.

Learning The Magician’s Trick

To create each image, Richmond says, “is a very drawn-out process involving quite a bit of preparation and planning. It begins with photographing myself in various specific poses in the studio against a white backdrop. I rely heavily on the self-timer!” She says she’ll often run back and forth more than a hundred times to get just the right pose. To create these images, she uses a large-format Epson roll printer in order to print the life-size replicas of herself directly in her studio.

For each image, she chooses a pose that works and then prints at exact life-size proportion, which is brought to life by the printer. “It’s an exact paper replica of myself that I then use to pose with in the final images. The rest of the process hinges on trial and error. The photos I construct are very fragile and only exist from one specific angle. It’s all about capturing the split second where everything aligns into a believable final photograph. I don’t photoshop any of these images. Everything must be done in camera.”

What’s Next For Jess (And Connie)

Although Richmond has only been producing this series for the past few years, starting around 2015, it’s a very exciting time for the young photographer who earned two important awards in 2016. She won the grand prize for Photo District News’ Fine Art Curator Award Winner and was a Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward recipient. The work has also been shown, she says, at Milk Gallery, Foley Gallery, Leslie-Lohman Museum and Division Gallery and has been featured in various media outlets, including Vice, Refinery29, Huffington Post and GUP Magazine.

However, at the moment she doesn’t plan on changing her strategy for creating these images. She also plans on keeping her day job as a commercial photographer. 

“I hope to keep on creating and continuing to play with paper, in-camera collage and self-portraiture,” says Richmond. “Maybe one day the series will accumulate into a book or a finalized show for exhibition, but for now it’s a continuing work in progress that I’ll keep working through.”  

To see more of Jess Richmond’s work, visit jessrichmond.com.

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