As the pandemic experience has made all too clear, women continue to play an outsized role holding our families and communities together.
"The art of connecting, that’s what I practice."
New York City-based photographer and social activist Lanie McNulty debuts her photo series and book, The Angel in the House, connecting a series of women from today back to the original notion of the female experience.
The touchstone for this body of work is Virginia Woolf’s warning that women must reject paternalistic notions of “the Angel in the House,” the idealized woman of great beauty and purity who adopts male desires about what a woman should be and say. Proving herself to be a capable inheritor of Woolf’s occupation, McNulty has meticulously constructed large-scale, cinematic images that reveal the interior lives of modern women as they know themselves.
Working in the tradition of artists like Julia Margaret Cameron, Gertrude Stanton Käsebier, and Lady Clementina Hawarden, the series builds on an era when female artists embraced domestic themes and were excluded from “important” art subjects such as history and nudes. By staging her images of life on the home front in close collaboration with her subjects, in what she calls “photo improv,” McNulty’s images are designed to be as unscripted as possible. Behind the scenes, immense deliberation and exploration go into developing each visual metaphor, turning her subject’s homes into densely detailed sets. The images each communicate their own narrative and collectively offer insights into the “women question” at a time when the pandemic year has revealed the outsized role women play holding our families and communities together.
My camera gives me a way in, a way to connect meaningfully with other human beings. It also gives me a way out, a way to work through personal struggles and things I don’t understand.
For instance, my series Lifted Up in New York City emerged as I wrestled with faith in God and From the Ashes of Rwanda began with my discomfort with the paradigm of white America coming to save Black Africa.
Most recently, The Angel in the House began with my personal regret that, despite my best intentions and opportunities, I somehow hadn’t heeded Virginia Woolf’s directive to “kill the angel in the house.” Citing a popular Victorian poem by Coventry Patmore, an homage to the ideal woman as virtuous, devoted to her domestic duties and her husband’s pleasure, and docile despite her misery, loneliness, and abuse, Woolf urged women to defy that calling in order to be set free to write, to create, to realize our human potential. Well, I somehow missed that message. By that I mean I thought I could do it all – be a mother and a wife, but also fulfill my ambitions as an artist, a working woman, and a good friend. But I found it impossible. Knowing I wasn’t alone in these struggles, I picked up my camera, seeking to connect with other households. I was hoping to find answers not only for myself but also for my daughters and my son. I was also looking for kinship.
I really wanted this series to be authentic, and that led me to invite my subjects to become my collaborators in a process that I call “photo improv.” Over many cups of coffee, phone calls, emails, and texts, my collaborators and I engaged in deep conversations, often over several months, about our lives. I learned histories through old snapshots and family lore, and new posts on social media. We talked and traded stories about relationships, power dynamics, worries, dreams, triumphs, and disappointments. I dug into the ways in which they’d arranged their physical spaces, the objects they hold dear, the cluttered bookshelves, the children’s rooms. Slowly the prompt for the picture emerged. Then, working together, we turned their home or garden or rooftop or backyard into a stage, moving set pieces, adding props, selecting wardrobe. My collaborators became actors acting out their own lives, hoping to reveal some truth about their lives and relationships.
What was revealed was always something none of us could have planned, or scripted. While every Angel has her own unique and nuanced story, collectively what was revealed was clear: the angel in the house is still very much alive – in fact, she hasn’t much budged. As the pandemic experience has made all too clear, women continue to play an outsized role holding our families and communities together.
In the Victorian era, tableaux vivants were a popular parlor game. This posed entertainment in a domestic setting was performative, illusionary, interactive, and transactional; engaging all of the participants, both performers and viewers, in composing a scene that communicated a narrative, usually from an existing story. Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the most celebrated Victorian photographers (and, coincidentally, Woolf’s great aunt), participated in such tableaux vivants, setting her home as the stage for her family and friends as the cast for dramatically directed storytelling. This Victorian game inspired me as I set out to understand women’s lives beneath perfected facades and engaged my subjects in staging their perceptions of their lives at home.
However, it wasn’t until George Eastman’s Eastman Kodak Company stated producing small, affordable cameras around the turn of the century that women from a wider breadth of society gained access to the artform. One woman who benefited from Kodak’s outreach was Gertrude Stanton Käsebier, who won a Kodak-sponsored photography contest. Käsebier’s victory spring boarded her to a career as a professional portrait photographer, and her widely praised works were displayed across the country. Another inspiration for me, Käsebier often captured subjects in the realm of mothers and their children, and always portrayed them with great nuance and psychological detail. In Käsebier’s work, the occupation of photographer is as much a subject as anyone that appears in her images.
For The Angel in the House photo series, I worked in the tradition of the above and others like Lady Clementina Hawarden to build on an era when female artists embraced domestic themes and were excluded from “important” art subjects such as history and nudes.
My journey in this series taught me that Woolf’s warning remains as relevant today as it was in the early 20th century – not such a surprise, especially given how the devastation of the pandemic year highlighted how so many women were left handling everything on the home front. For me, the pictures my collaborators and I created reflect the complexities of this insight; the ways in which our domestic spheres define us, for better and for worse. Woolf understood that; she also understood that women so rarely have the choice to determine what’s right from them, even today. Rebecca Solnit’s words ring true to me: “There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.” And I would add: and how we fight for options, not just for ourselves but for our sisters.
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