Artist Rebecca Webb, whose day job is curating the film program for UCSD's ArtPower!, found the inspiration for her latest project in a fitting room.
"With each piece [of clothing] I was considering buying," Webb wrote in a recent email interview, "I found myself asking 'can I get away with wearing this? Will I look like I am trying too hard?'"
It got her thinking about aging and how Southern California women in particular seem to have an interesting take on the matter. She eventually used Francisco Goya's "gentlemen's paintings" as a starting point, grabbed her camera, posted a few "looking for middle-aged female models" posts on Craigslist, raised some money on Kickstarter and got started on her own Gentlemen's Paintings series of 40 color photographic portraits of Southern Californian middle-aged women.
I sent her a few quick questions about the project and she was kind enough to provide some interesting answers:
Kinsee Morlan: You've shot more than a dozen of your Gentlemen's Paintings so far. What kind of commonalities are you finding amongst these middle-aged Southern California women?
Rebecca Webb: With this project, I am challenging the notion that pictures don't lie. I ask my subjects to choose what they want to wear that best expresses who they think they are. In my pictures, I then I try to capture their self-image, which is hard to do. The problem is the disconnect between the way they want to represent themselves and the end result, that is, the portrait. The photographer Diane Arbus calls it the “gap between intention and effect.”
I think Southern California Women have interesting ideas about the way they want to appear and who they are that you just don't find on the east coast (where I am from). Middle-aged women from Southern California have a double-dose of confidence to pull it off—or at least the attitude!
KM: What, if anything, are the commonalities between your series and Goya's?
RW: In the 18th century, Francisco Goya painted a series of portraits of society women called “Gentlemen's Paintings.” Goya's title and work serves as the inspiration for my project. Not only did he paint provocative portraits (presumably for an audience of male patrons), he also painted portraits of aristocratic women in bucolic settings who faithfully embraced their current mores—at least by their outward appearance. My project is a modern take on Goya's work, where I depict women who are able to take many more liberties. I use the context of San Diego's paradisiacal landscapes to further draw a connection to Goya's work and thereby create a stark contrast to my urban east coast past.
KM: How are you finding your subjects?
RW: I am finding my subjects through Craigslist and word-of-mouth. I was pleasantly surprised by the many responses I received through Craigslist. I am still in the process of finding models. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in participating!
KM: When you shoot No. 40 and begin to show the work as a whole, what do you hope people will walk away with after seeing the series?
RW: I am planning to exhibit the entire 40 portraits together, accompanied by HD video interviews with each subject about their expectations about their portrait and their views on aging. In a sense, this project is a documentary about Southern Californian women. I also think my pictures are well-crafted and I hope that viewers appreciate that. Most importantly, I want people to see these women as they see themselves.
KM: I'm actually not sure if you yourself fall into the category of middle-aged, but will there be a self-portrait in this series?
RW: I definitely fall into the category of middle age, but I don't feel my age. This is where I got my idea for Gentlemen's Paintings. I was thinking about that disconcerting place between how I feel and how I look when I was shopping for clothes recently. With each piece I was considering buying, I found myself asking “can I get away with wearing this? Will I look like I am trying too hard?”
Ultimately, every image in this project is a self-portrait. And yes, I am one of the 40, over 40.
KM: And what have you learned about 'aging gracefully.' What does that even mean these days?
RW: I'm still trying to figure that out! This project is partly an exploration of that question. Women my age are certainly not June Cleaver or Jackie O in a pillbox hat with shoes and purse to match. Ultimately, aging gracefully means being comfortable in your own skin—but you can get a lot of work done on your skin these days. Aging gracefully happens when you love your work, and you can work until your very old.