Made using an antique collodion process, the artists' self-portraits reflect her experience and trauma living under the thumb of a religious cult.
Michelle Rogers-Pritzl uses self-portraiture to process her experience within, and escape from a fundamentalist Christian marriage. Borrowing from a Stevie Smith poem of the same name, Not Waving But Drowning is a collection of visual symbols for keeping up appearances within an abusive relationship, praying for change while stuck within an endless cycle of denial.
Metaphors for silencing women repeat themselves throughout the series. In some images, hands bind together, grasp at crooked arms or reach in to cover a face. In others, materials like gauze cover and restrict various parts of the body creating an uncomfortable, visceral response. It’s hard to look at them without a feeling of unease – Rogers-Pritzl packs years of emotional trauma into images that are strangely as beautiful as they are nauseating. Her use of the 19th-century Collodion process adds an additional signal to outdated ideas about women’s roles and subservience and could be interpreted as creating personal distance, pushing her experience into a reflect-able past.
After meeting the artist at Portland, Oregon’s Photolucida portfolio reviews in April, we emailed to discuss the ideas and process behind her work. She’s also included in Humble’s latest online group-show: “Loss.”
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Michelle Rogers-Pritzl
Jon Feinstein: In your title, Not Waving But Drowning, you borrow words from a Stevie Smith poem. What's the story behind this decision?
Michelle Rogers-Pritzl: The literary arts have always been something I love as much as the visual arts. When I was in graduate school I found that a very effective way of titling my images was to use texts that were important to the images, whether that was fiction or theory. When I began making this series I already had both the poem and the novella in mind for titles because both so perfectly expressed how I had felt and what I wanted to get across in the work.
The poem Not Waving But Drowning opens with the lines Nobody heard him, the dead man, But still he lay moaning: I was much further out than you thought And not waving but drowning then goes on to close with I was much too far out all my life And not waving but drowning. The closing line makes it about more than swimming and it felt like it perfectly described what my life had been like- I walked through life smiling, sat in church on Sundays smiling and went through the motions to pretend like things were fine when in reality I was slowly sinking, I was drowning.
Feinstein: Building on that, your image titles come from Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and each image title feels heavy, poetic and very intentioned.
Rogers-Pritzl: The novella The Awakening was another piece of literature that I felt aligned so closely to what I wanted to communicate. I so deeply identified with Mrs. Pontellier that I knew this was what my titles needed to come from. I actually put together a list of sentence fragments first, before I began storyboarding the images, in order of where they are in the story then I began creating images for the titles that both expressed my story, other women’s stories, and fit the titles. I started with somewhere around 50 possibilities and narrowed it down to the final titles by sketching the images and sequencing my story.
Feinstein: Despite their trauma, these are beautiful images and I'm drawn to your use of the collodion process. Can you talk a bit about the conceptual significance of that process?
Rogers-Pritzl: Thank you! I love everything about the collodion process but for this series and the earlier ones that connect with this body of work I had a specific purpose in using collodion. These plates are not shot in camera, they are shot digitally and then I use a positive transparency to contact print onto a plate in my darkroom. I was interested in communicating through the medium itself the Victorian and outdated rules about women’s behavior that is imposed by Fundamentalist churches, so it seemed natural to use a combination of an antiquarian process with digital media.
On a separate note, there is something beautiful and almost wound-like about the uniqueness of the process- the inconsistencies and artifact-ing of collodion lend themselves to the appearance of bruising on flesh. I have always loved the way that appearance works so well with the message I’m sharing through the images.
Feinstein: The recurrence of hands throughout this series hits me. How do they work for you…for the series?
Rogers-Pritzl: I think for me the work is not about self-portraiture but performance. And as such, what is important to me is that the images are intimate performances for my camera, and the audience, which act out my story. Using my body to communicate an experience is a complex metaphor and I do use hands quite a bit and there are a few layers to that. One is that often the hands are wounded or restrained in some way and I always come back to hands being symbolic of work, of every day utilitarian necessity. I chose hands to represent how I felt every single day restraining myself to try and be the wife I was “supposed” to be according to religious standards.
It felt like I held in a part of who I am on a very deep level, to try and make myself fit into this box, which was what I had been taught was the way I was supposed to be. I walked on eggshells, I was quiet, submissive to someone else’s wishes and desires and the longer you live that way it becomes less of some kind of self-restraint and more of a self-mutilation.
Feinstein: Another recurring visual is draping, bandaging, covering…
Rogers-Pritzl: One of the aspects of props that are seen the most in the images is that draping, bandaging, covering. The first thing I knew would be a part of every image is the white nightgown that I am wearing. It’s meant to evoke images of choir or baptismal robes, to represent purity and the idea of saving one’s self for marriage. On a larger level the coverings or bandaging all represent the ideas of restraint, modesty, purity and submissiveness that are found in this kind of marriage.
Feinstein: One of the most powerful images, for me, is "Her Condition,” (the header image in this interview) What's the story behind this image?
Rogers-Pritzl: There are several layers to “Her Condition.” One is that it reflects a kind of Stepford existence where women are supposed to be these quiet, submissive, conservative-in-appearance creatures. When you don’t fit into that box- and I definitely didn’t even as a teenager, it makes you feel like people think there is something wrong with you because you are true to yourself and that there is actually something wrong with you for your interests or tastes or personality, etc. I think growing up feeling that way is such a toxic situation to be in and I know for myself, and I suspect for other women in the same situation, it can put you in a place where you feel like you will never fit into the church, never have a relationship with another Christian (which you are taught from day one is the only relationship you should have) and I think it can leave you in a vulnerable place when it comes to relationships.
Another part of this image is my own story, finding out that I was just one of many women who all looked alike, had similar interests and backgrounds and that there was nothing special about me at all, except that I stayed the longest and was the one who was shunned because I left a marriage, not just a dating relationship. I was the one with dirty hands, so to speak, which was the only thing that made me different.
Feinstein: Almost all of these images include just you. But there's a few where a male hand juts in. In one image it holds a handful of hair. Does the identity of this person matter?
Rogers-Pritzl: The identity of the male hand in the images both matters and doesn’t depending on how you look at or read the images. There are actually 3 images that have a male hand reaching in, and for my own story they represent a very specific person. The image of just the male hand holding the hair is a literal moment in my own story when I decided to leave and cut all the ties that had kept me frozen and afraid to walk away.
The image of the hand holding my hair is representative of what it felt like to cut such deep ties, and also the moment I jumped. It’s titled “The Shore is Far Behind,” and at that point in The Awakening Mrs. Pontellier has waded out into the ocean an is at the point where she is about to drown. This image to me was my own escape except I did not choose to let the shunning, or the lost relationships and judgements destroy me. I cut the ties to jump in and swim away as fast as I could. This image is what was left, someone still trying to hold me back but the finality of that kind of escape left them with just remnants. Parts that were painful to cut away, for sure, but just as hair grows back the pain of losing friends does eventually fade; you create a new life, make new friends and relationships and life goes on and grows into something beautiful. That is the only image that is just the male hand and it felt very necessary to be able to communicate what it was like to leave.
I am also aware that many people looking at the work have no idea what it feels like to be in a situation like this and because of that I have always wanted the images to be open ended enough that people could relate to them even if they hadn’t been raised Southern Baptist like I was. On that level the identity of the male hand isn’t important because I’d like my viewers to be able to make their own personal connections.
Feinstein:. If you're comfortable talking about it, can you tell me a bit about how you were able to break free from this cult?
Rogers-Pritzl: As cliché as it may sound, I slowly worked up the courage during graduate school and it really came about by making work about my experiences growing up, then talking about it in my graduate seminar for two years. I didn’t realize how surreal my upbringing was until I started talking about things like going to a church banquet on Halloween where we all had to sign a “True Love Waits” abstinence pledge card, wearing a purity ring, etc. I had always had a more liberal view of God but I had forced myself to live by a lot of religious standards that I never felt like other people had to live by.
As I made the first two series of self-portraits in graduate school, and I was increasingly unhappy it was clear to me that I was in the place I was in because I was afraid to violate all these morals. I was afraid of repercussions because I did not believe that any of my friends or pastors would tell me it was ok to get divorced. There are very, very narrow definitions of what’s ok and I was certain at the time that I would be told to pray that God would change the situation. Of course, that’s what I’d been doing for years and things only got worse.
I had been unhappy for a long time, and I began realizing that if I didn’t leave I would have ruined my life with religious beliefs. I was in my mid-thirties at the time and I knew that I still had time to make the life I wanted although I was still fearful it would come at a great cost. And it did- I lost so many friends that won’t speak to me any longer, lost respect for people who didn’t cut me off but treated me differently and lost those friendships anyway, and found out a lot of people I trusted had lied to me. I had help and a place to live after graduate school ended, and I knew that I could either jump- and live my life, or I really would drown where I was and it would be my own fault for living so fearfully.
Feinstein: How has making this work impacted and/or helped you deal with your ideas and experience about religion and the life you escaped?
Rogers-Pritzl: Making the work changed everything. I found the bravery to actually live my life for myself, in the way that was right for me, and to stand with that conviction the first year when there were so many terrible rumors I kept hearing about myself and as friends vanished. More importantly it gave me the strength to start researching the truth of my past relationship. There were so many layers that ultimately that changed my whole view of religion. If people who were supposed to be good and honest could lie to me, or help cover things up, or just turn a blind eye when they knew I was so unhappy, it made me start thinking much harder about the basis of what had been my faith. Our individual lives and happiness do matter and if there is a god of some kind I think they matter to him or her too.
Today in the end, I have respect for every person’s freedom of religious beliefs or lack thereof, but for myself I look at my experience and then add to it things like the constant flood of news stories about sex abuse in the church, the myriad of real and terrible things that have been done to people through religion and it’s not something I choose to be a part of. I do miss it, especially at holidays, but I do not miss the cognitive dissonance that goes with it.