In her latest series Swallow The Tail, photographer Elizabeth Hibbard addresses how pain and uncertainty manifest between various states of being: physical and psychological, intimacy and isolation, consumption and expulsion, desire and revulsion.
Hibbard’s photographs are dark and swathed in inelegant natural light that captures and accentuates her state of unease, often peering through windows, doors and other structures in the home environment. They’re staged, and on one level bring to mind the 90s to early 2000s narrative photography of Gregory Crewdson, Anna Gaskell and Charlie White, but with more anxiety and less theatre.
They look at how the construction of female identity may go deeper than external cultural and social forces, cycling into internal family dynamics. In one picture, shot at a voyeuristic angle through a bedroom doorway, Hibbard’s mother lays in bed, sewing hypnotically. It feels like a cryptic riff on a Norman Rockwell painting – a concerned, almost-grim look into a casual, repetitive, everyday routine. In another, Hibbard leans into her mother's arms while her mother peels a sheet of dead skin from her back. The pictures are loaded with these states of embrace, mimicry, consolation and confusion.
I spoke with Hibbard about her work, influence, and how Yale – where she’s currently working on her MFA fits into it all.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Elizabeth Hibbard
Jon Feinstein: You say this about your photography: "I am concerned with how the construct of femininity is unreflectively inscribed, not just socially, but from within the space of the family structure...” can you elaborate?
Elizabeth Hibbard: In my experience, and as I’ve come to dissect it in therapy, there’s a level of socializing and conditioning that came with being part of a family and having the roles and functions of being part of that kind of system, which felt very gendered. I grew up in an era of a certain vein pop-culture feminism where certain images, like high fashion models or Barbie Dolls, were at the forefront of discussion for their social conditioning effects on women and girls. But I think modeling myself on and in response to my mother as my idealization of womanhood and her own problematic self-perceptions feels to have been much more the initial mode of dissemination of these gendered constructs, and for me in a way that felt so seamless and second-nature to how I learned to interact with people in my interpersonal relationships that it took much longer to recognize.
Feinstein: What inspired you to make work around these ideas?
Hibbard: I spent the better part of the past decade in therapy, where I uncovered a lot of really formative memories around feeling policed into a certain and very gendered personality/ expression of ‘self’ in my family system; my assigned ‘role’ of being pretty, sacrificial, emotionally available and a mirror of others. When I started peeling back the ideologies that had been planted in my subconscious as truths about how I needed to behave, present myself, and ultimately had found myself perceiving myself as, I found myself feeling very much unsure what was left that comprised ‘me’, and making work about that process and untangling felt like a space to start.
Feinstein: Has making this work helped you resolve/ rethink any of the issues raised in therapy over the years?
Hibbard: I think the therapy and the art practice inform one another back and forth, but I do think that the work helped me confront things I had been processing over a long period of time in a more present day sort of way. I think the process of making the work did feel ultimately like a way to feel like I took some control back over stories I had about the past by reenacting or reimagining them in this space and format where I now felt I had agency. My desire to also approach the storytelling in the work in a way that was nuanced and tried to capture the complicated and multifaceted nature of memory and representation has perhaps had an effect on the relationship itself and has spilled back into how I look at things in therapy and in my day to day life.
Feinstein: I also see your work drawing from, and building on a range of influences in stage narrative photography. I see elements of Crewdson, Charlie White, Angela Strassheim, but with a darker spin – less cinema and more personal darkness and uncertainty.
Hibbard: Charlie White’s work was something I definitely was thinking about and looking at while working on the project, and Angela Strassheim’s work was shown to me towards the end and I’ve since completely fallen in love with it, so it pleases me greatly that you’d bring them up; Crewdson was of course on my mind as well with my Yale application and everything. I think finding a way to take that sense of the cinematic and drama and merge it with something slightly more vernacular feeling, like the way a particular dream or memory can feel like a film sometimes, or you have a film in your memory based off of a family photograph, was something I was trying to figure out how I might accomplish. I guess personal darkness, dreams, films and memories are all from the same place, in my mind, so they all found there way in there together.
Feinstein: There's a particularly unnerving image of yours that first drew me into your work. It's the back of a doll's head with a massive patch of hair removed. At first glance, it's unclear whether it's an actual person, and the mind wanders down a rabbit hole of "what's going on here."
When we shared the image on Humble IG a few weeks ago, the reactions ranged from wows to shock, to viewers triggered by their own Trichotillomania (hair pulling condition) to even a few vocal unfollows.
What’s the story behind the image?
Hibbard: I bought a hairdressing practice dummy without a set idea of what to do with it, and found myself brushing its hair and thinking about the ritual of my mother brushing my own hair, and referring to this inanimate object as “her” after a while, feeling a kind of maternal tenderness of my own.I had a minor surgery this summer due to some health problems that are making me have to question my future ability, and therefore examine my desire, to bear or not bear children.
I found myself wanting to find a way to explore the impulse to anthropomorphize or project onto it/her, a piece of plastic and foam, which is what is exposed in a cut-away cross section, and my maternal tenderness and daughterly identification with her, and in that identification, wanting to examine the differences between flesh and the body, object and subject.
Feinstein: Did you expect these kinds of reactions? And do they change the image's meaning for you?
Hibbard: I’m accustomed to a certain psychological discomfort being associated with my images sometimes, and am always trying to find ways to ensure that my use of visceral imagery doesn’t seem like I’m simply out to shock for shock’s sake at all.
I definitely didn’t anticipate the connection to Trichotillomania being made for anyone, I think perhaps the size on Instagram didn’t translate the image very well which didn’t help the reading of what was occurring before the camera. It was an important lesson for me in providing more context in the future; I always fear over-interpreting my work for people, but this perhaps was a swing too far the other direction, which led to some greater misunderstandings than I would have hoped for.
Feinstein: Tell me about the title "swallow the tail"
Hibbard: Growing up, my mother would use this proverb that her mother had used, that her mother’s mother had used, and so on for many generations: “if you swallowed the cow, don’t choke on the tail.” I understand it’s a Scottish proverb, and the implication for me was that it meant, if you suffered through all that you’ve suffered, you best choke down the rest to make it worth it.
The relationship between martyrdom and “goodness” feels for me to have been very much part of how I was socialized as a girl, and they became intrinsically tied concepts for me early on. So for me, to “swallow the tail” is to clean your plate, and the promise of absolution that’s predicated on a the implantation of a false guilt.
Feinstein: You mentioned that this project was recently completed. What, marks it being "finished"?
Hibbard: I think that moving across the country for graduate school has given me the distance to see places the where I feel I didn’t adequately acknowledge my adult-self in the project; it feels very much from the perspective of a past child-self, which can perhaps lack a certain complicity in the present day and in the process of the image-making itself. It was incredibly cathartic and healing for me to make, and I think perhaps a way of fleshing out the present within it is possible, but at least for the moment I feel like it was something I purged and healed to a degree and now I am now ready to reexamine these themes from a new, broader perspective and in relationship to other concepts.
Feinstein: You're about to matriculate into Yale’s photo MFA. Has the program changed how you make/think about photography and the constructed image?
Hibbard: It has flown by so quickly already, but has also been a wonderful opportunity to get the distance I was just describing from myself and my past and think in broader terms than I was before. Being part of a community of artists who are so rigorous and diverse in their thinking and perspectives, and I think it’s led to me entering that stage of graduate school whereas I’m questioning everything I thought I knew about photography and the ways I’ve previously settled into image making. The biggest of those being now, that I need to develop strategies to relinquish more control, and sometimes have less specific goals going into making images.
Feinstein: I’ve been obsessed with this Yale Photo mystery since hearing the stories it when I was at Bard. Is the brutal “hot seat" — the red chair you sit in with your back to the board of critiquers – real?
Hibbard: There's no red chair at critique, just a normal office chair! But we do sit with our backs to the work and face a panel of faculty and guest panelists. It's a much more formal, performative format for a critique than I have ever experienced before, which has taken some getting used to.
I've only had two, but I've found that the anticipation is much more stressful than the actual experience so far; once it gets going it starts feeling like a normal conversation more or less.
Ultimately, this is exactly what I came here for: to be challenged to articulate myself as clearly as possible, be pushed to make the strongest work I can and get honest feedback from my peers and artists that I respect and admire.
Feinstein: What's inspiring you creatively outside of photography? What are you reading/ listening to, looking at these days?
Hibbard: I’ve been trying to take advantage of the incredible libraries available to me here at Yale and look at archives that I normally wouldn’t be able to have access to, such as portfolios of past graduates of the program; Elaine Stocki and Justine Kurland’s have been real highlights so far. I’m reading too many things at once right now, but just recently finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts which was so incredibly moving and felt so pertinent, and I’m now in the middle of Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and The Death Drive. I’ve been revisiting Tarkovsky’s Stalker often lately as well, I think the feminist implications of impending environmental disaster is something I’m definitely trying to figure out how to engage with in the work.