Patty Carroll has been known for her highly intense, color saturated photos for four decades now. She’s gotten attention for several projects over the years, especially her “Man Bites Dog” look at hotdog stands and “Elvis?” –which focused on Elvis impersonators. Nothing she has done however has been as personal, political and gotten as much attention as her current project, “Anonymous Women,” which examines the issues of women and the home.
Carroll started the ongoing series in the mid-1990s when she lived in London after her husband, Tony Jones, took a job to became the director of the Royal College of Art. Away from the pop culture subjects that she was used to photographing, Carroll’s “Anonymous Women” was sparked during a period of introspection.
A Chicago native, Carroll also was Adjunct Full Professor at School of the Art Institute of Chicago until 2014, and previously taught at Columbia College in Chicago, The Institute of Design at IIT and the Royal College of Art in London, as well as other universities.
The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito recently spoke with Carroll about the motivation behind her “Anonymous Women” project, part of which is on display at the Schneider Gallery, 770 N. Lasalle Street, through April 29.
CA) How many different pieces are part of exhibit “Anonymous Women” ?
CARROLL) It’s hard to say because it’s an ongoing process. The whole series began in 1995 and it’s had three iterations. First it was the heads, then it was the drapes, and then it was the reconstructive series. Now it’s gone into something called demise, meaning she’s being done in by this stuff. This project has had many, many iterations and changed and developed in different ways.
CA) How much of it is at the Schneider Gallery?
CARROLL) There are ten there.
CA) When you started it in 1995 you were living in England at the time? What differences did you notice there regarding how women are viewed?
CARROLL) Yes. In more traditional societies, at least when I was living there, I was known through my husband as Mrs. Jones. That was fine but it was a name I used through commerce and business. I was not known in my career as Mrs. Jones, but they did not know me. We moved there and they didn’t know who I was so I was known to them through my husband.
CA) So was that basically the spark of this project?
CARROLL) It was. Also, when we moved to London we thought we were going to stay there and up until that time my work had always been about American culture rather than me as an individual. I had photographed hotdog stands, Elvis impersonators and cheesy motels, things that really had to do with America and the underbelly of American culture. When we moved to London that wasn’t there so I was going through a bit of an identity crisis personally as well as career-wise in terms of what I was photographing. As an artist you always produce what you know the best. What was happening is that what I knew the best was myself or so I thought. It was an introspective period so I started this series with the heads — putting domestic objects or food or kitchen supplies on top of this model’s head which we painted very white so she was more like a statue or a lily-white woman. They were kind of funny and disturbing at the same time.
CA) It seems like a lot of your work has a bit of humor in it. Do you think that helps to make a statement?
CARROLL) Yes, I do. I grew up with my mother being a very funny person. We would make jokes about things, even things that could be incredibly sad or bad. We tended to get through them by laughing. I’ve kept that same philosophy with my work because I think making something young, beautiful or interesting to look at makes a subject more palatable and adding humor allows you to get it in more of a gut way than intellectual. Beauty and humor are the tricks in my back pocket.
CA) As far as the process for each picture, do you shoot them in order of the ideas that you come up with or are there some that you’ve thought of and you’ll get to those later?
CARROLL) A little of both. There’s no rhyme or reason to that part of it. Sometimes I’d start with a prop and come up with an idea, there is no method to it.
CA) How long do they usually take? It seems like there’s a lot of staging involved.
CARROLL) Yes. It depends on the picture but the ones I’m working on now can take up to a week. You can work so long and then have to step away and come back the next day. Sometimes they go really fast and that’s always a surprise but I usually don’t get them done in less than a day.
CA) You said it started with you. Do most of them represent the way you feel or do they represent different women in the world?
CARROLL) I think of them as portraits of different type of women rather than specifically myself or a specific person. It’s really about identifying specific types of people rather than specific people. Sometimes it’s suggested by the drapery or fabric or objects rather than a specific person. There also those pictures where I certainly wouldn’t relate to an interior that looked like that or where that came from, but at the same time I can relate to the woman or the type of woman who might have that type of interior.
CA) So there is meaning in the props?
CARROLL) I hope so.
CA) I read that while most may assume that it is about how domesticity oppresses women, to you it is more than just about issues of women and the home.
CARROLL) I think that women, particularly today, have complicated relationships with the home. Women have gone through various stages of liberation between getting the pill in the 1970s and getting the vote much earlier than that and now fighting for equal pay and recognition, etc., we have those types of fights, fights for recognition. We have lots of things to do and responsibilities and at the same time home is the domain that gives you base. It’s where your family is or where your heart is or where you’re comfortable but if you’re in it too much it may be a trap. We have complicated relationships. For example, my niece is an executive at Amazon and she was a captain in the Marine Corps. She’s a very accomplished person. She’s very smart, she’s getting her MBA at night while working full-time and has a husband and three kids. When I talk to her on the phone or get a text from her, she may ask me something like ‘Do you like this lamp?’ [Laughs]. So we still relate as women about things we like. We like our couches and our rugs and stuff. It’s what makes life comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with that but at the same time some women feel trapped by it or other women feel burdened by it. There are all sorts of ways to think about it so I’m trying to address a bunch of things in this.
CA) Do you want people who view it to come to their own conclusions?
CARROLL) Absolutely, yes. The whole point is that hopefully people can relate to them on their own level. I’m not trying to dictate to somebody about how they should feel but if they can get an emotional reaction that’s fabulous.
CA) It’s interesting because you’ve done the “Man Bites Dog” hotdog stand series and the Elvis impersonators, but this seems much more political.
CARROLL) Yeah, it is. And it’s becoming more political. I come from a political background, my father [John W. Carroll] was a state senator for twenty years and my brother accuses me now of becoming just like my father. The older I get, the more political I get. That may be true. I think as women we have an obligation to keep the standards up.
CA) There is also a book for sale presented alongside essays by author and artist Naren Barfield and Dr. Lauren DeLand, professor and scholar of contemporary and modern art. What do the essays do for the art?
CARROLL) Hopefully they explain it in different ways. I think that sometimes people really want to read about how to interpret things or how to look at things, so I think that it’s very important.
CA) Are those essays the writers take on your work?
CA) Do they align with your view 100 percent of the time?
CARROLL) Yeah, but again, I want people to interpret the work how they see it. I’m not trying to dictate. I did write something about my process in the book and there are the two main essays.
CA) Do you think there is any danger that if someone reads the book that their own view of your work may be compromised?
CARROLL) I don’t know, maybe. I can’t speak to that.
CA) I know you said this is an ongoing project. Are you working on anything else besides this?
CARROLL) Yes. Our circumstances have changed. My husband has taken another job, this time in Kansas City. He is the president of the Kansas City Art Institute so I split my time between Chicago and Kansas City now. I was granted a studio in Kansas City for three years and I started a series of still-lives there using decorative fabric and ceramic birds and fabrics. It’s called “Flora and Fauxna.”
CA) I read that it has to do with women being referred to as birds.
CARROLL) Yes. Also, I wake up every morning to birds chirping in the tree outside our bedroom window and I realized that you never see these birds until they leave home, because their home is the trees and they are always camouflaged in the homes just like the women. It’s kind of another analogy of it.