My father, a serious amateur photographer, had a darkroom. On weekends he would disappear behind a black velvet curtain for hours. Sometimes he would take me into this secret world and show me how magic could happen in the water-filled plastic trays as the images of my dolls appeared on the paper.
Then, when I was in my twenties, I started to make my friends into dolls. I’d dress them up, find props and locations and make photographs. The images revealed a side of their character or of mine. It was a passion. There was always something new to learn about myself by doing this. And as some of my friends became famous, I realized I could make a living by following my bliss. I sold the images that I made to magazines, record labels, and production companies, or I worked for these companies for hire. I still played with dolls in my own way. In 1981 I created an alternate persona, Will Powers, who made music and videos. Will was and was not me; Will was a work in progress who reflected my own search for identity.
But after 30 years of professional celebrity portraiture, I realized that while my photography pleased others, I was not reflecting on it and it no longer made me happy. The experimental playfulness was gone and I felt like it served no real purpose. Through confronting what now seemed like the emptiness of traditional portraiture, I discovered a way to restore for myself some of the magic of photography; I would focus on who I am rather than who someone else is, or who they want to be, or who other people want them to be.
I had a malleable self image. At times I felt good about myself and at other times I felt so lost in my own skin that I had a desperate need to redefine myself. But even in moments of confusion I found that shopping in department stores gave me a momentary center, a flash of clarity. I felt some connection to who I am, even if I bought nothing. Watching others make their purchases, while I judged if they looked good or bad in them, seemed to settle gnawing questions I had about my own identity. I knew I would or would not have bought what they were buying, so I figured that down deep I must know by default who I am or who I want to be.
And so I began standing outside department stores observing people looking at the window displays. They seemed to be wondering if the clothes they saw on the mannequins would work a transformative magic on them; even outfits that might be completely inappropriate for their body type seemed to entice them. Did they see what I saw when standing in front of the glass? I put myself in their shoes and tried to picture what they visualized. The often headless mannequin bodies seemed to encourage people to project their dreams onto them and imagine themselves perfected by the latest fashion trends.
Over the past 9 years, I have often gone out at mid-night with a high resolution digital camera, one black curtain, tripod, ladder, windex, paper towels and an assistant and stayed up until dawn, photographing the display windows of New York City. I chose to work digitally as this technology has a nearly limitless capacity to blend fiction and fact; I can create a single image that is actually a combination of any number of photographs. By exploring the possibilities of this image-making process, I wanted to escape the conventional notion that a photograph depicts one real moment frozen in time.
After making photographs of the windows, with these as my palette, I began to create fictional narratives. I removed elements from the windows and added components from other images. I adopted personas from literature, mass media, mythology, and cinemaarchetypes that have shaped our collective psyches and contributed to the psychological, social and political perceptions of who we are.
In looking for elements to photograph for inclusion in my story-lines, I spent time at New York's American Museum of Natural History. Again, I found myself watching people as they pressed their bodies against the glass cases housing the dioramas. Most of the spectators here ranged in age from five to fifteen. Often they'd react intensely, screaming about how they were going to be eaten by some fierce creature or conjuring some other scenario inspired by the displays. The viewers became like time- travelers, interacting through their imaginations rather than routinely observing. At the museum, I came to appreciate more about what it means to be human. It is a paradox that resides within each of us --being bound to the particularity of an individual body, while also participating in the universality of the crowd.
The concept that humans share a common ancestry with earlier primates, took me from my investigation about identity into one of evolution. I had learned in grade school that human evolution meant that a new species replaced an older one. I thought of it as a clear linear progression. But at the museum, I began to understand that the path was more complicated. I discovered how stories shape culture. In the dioramas, I saw that the timeline of how we clothed ourselves provides a knowledge of what we once were and of what we are today. Dressing for survival turned into fashion, another kind of survival based on defining how we are to be perceived by others.
I came to see how fashion embodies the spirit of every era. High-profile luxury brands, founded in the 18th and 19th centuries, like Louis Vuitton, Hermès. and Cartier, were worn to tell us who was in power. In the 1960’s fashion was taken over by the youth culture, becoming a symbol of pulling down social barriers and overthrowing elitism. In the 1980’s women expressed their professional and financial progress with more aggressive, blatantly sexual styles. Each decade's fashions reflect both the collective concern of the time as well as the quest for individual identity.
In each fictional narrative, by taking on various characters, I asked myself questions, questions that hinged on the broader question of what it means to be human. I did not think that I would find any definitive answers, but I believed that in the study of how we define ourselves as individuals, as men or women, as nations and cultures, the camera would once again become an instrument of awakening for me.
Standing in front of fashion filled windows on Fifth Avenue or walking down the corridors of time at the American Museum of Natural History, I could transport myself into the past or the future. I could overturn conventional distinctions between illusion and reality by putting myself inside the looking glass. I could fracture the monolithic sense of self, to propose identity as a continuum, a complex of multiple projections of invented selves. I could, in the end, become my own doll.