Thursday, September 29, 2011

American artifacts / Lynn Sugarman photography / 1987

In 1987 photographer Lynn Sugarman and designer Paula Scher came up with a clever concept to promote her studio: create some imaginary characters using only objects. The result was a large thirty-six-page book (16.5 inches deep by 11.5 wide) with fifteen still life photos using artifacts from fifteen Americans. What I thought was really clever about these still life photos is the way they convincingly create an image of an unseen person, helped by some short biographic detail on each left-hand page.
    I recently spoke to Lynn and she told me that it took about six months researching, collecting and shooting these remarkable photos. Each one pulls you into the composition and your eye wanders around the layers of detail. Have a look at thirteen: Melissa Shepherd. Aged twenty, lives in Virginia and works as a Congressional secretary for $23,000 (1987 rates). The photo creates Melissa with Liquid Paper, the Washington Post, a While You Were Out slip, Psychology Today magazine, secretaries spelling book, a loose key with ‘Bob’s Key’ written on a piece of paper (she seems to work for a Congressman called John) a partially eaten donut, coffee and more. Speculate all you want on the red panties and Excita condom!
    My favorite is the center spread, a knockout photo that could easily be a poster. Betty Donaldson, aged forty-three, housewife and all-American mom. A giant-size Wonder loaf jumps off the spread, surrounded by a TV Guide, jar of mayo, Velveteen crackers, son Arnold’s bagged lunch, a dry-cleaning bill. Even the little bit of visible wallpaper says something. If you live in the suburbs Betty could live next door to you.
    A nice touch, at the back of the book, is Lynn making herself the sixteenth person though unfortunately using a much smaller photo than the others. She told me that between six and seven thousand copies were printed, it won several awards and her career really took off.

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