by Juliana Halpert

Published on 08/17/ 2016

There are abundant similarities between Malerie Marder’s 2013 series of photographs, Anatomy, and her 2003 film, At Rest, both on view at Kruger Gallery in Marfa, Texas, from May to late September. Each explores the expressive potential of the human body, typically pictured in the nude and splayed across a jewel-toned bed, luxuriating on a couch, or soaking in a bathtub. In At Rest, the artist’s friends and family are filmed at close range as they sleep, transforming into piles of breasts, backs, arms and legs, motionless but for the passive heave of each breath. The exposed figures of Anatomy’s subjects—prostitutes working in Rotterdam—are also granted precedence, luscious and glowing amidst their brothels’ lurid decor. Within these deeply private spaces, Marder’s subjects embody the aura of secrecy with which we surround sleep and sex—and the many ways that intimacy and taboo can go hand in hand.

Juliana Halpert: For your upcoming show at Kruger Gallery in Marfa, what has it been like revisiting your 2013 series, Anatomy, after several years?

Malerie Marder: Lately, I’ve been spending most of my time concentrating on making new work. Typically, when I’m done with something—well, you’re never really done with it, but when you decide that you’ve spent enough time with it and walk away, it’s almost like it’s not even yours anymore. I’m always like that with my pictures; I know they’re mine, but they’re not really mine. It’s almost like someone else made them. It’s not that I’m not still attached to them; it’s almost as if I’m tapping into another energy in order to make the work, and that I’m not fully responsible for it. The beautiful accident is a large part of the process for me.

JH: How did the concept for Anatomy develop? Was its origin subconscious or incidental in any way?

MM: It came from a more logical place—I was in Amsterdam having a show. I’d been thinking about wanting to do a project solely about women, and really wanted to concentrate on the female figure. When I was there, I started thinking about prostitution, since it was legalized. Not really so much about the Red Light District, because it’s such a tourist attraction, but more as something that’s just embedded in a society. That’s why I chose to photograph in Rotterdam. It’s not touristy at all; the men who go there aren’t necessarily from out of town.

MM:I was also thinking about how this project would be a historical reference, particularly in regard to the many male painters who worked with prostitutes. Toulouse-Lautrec claimed they fascinated him because they were free with their bodies. I was just thinking that these women would have a different relationship to their bodies, and to the camera, and how their performance—their art—was their survival. So that’s how it began—just as this idea in my mind.

But how I actually got there is still something I’m trying to unravel. I was recently going through my dad’s possessions and saw all these things that he had kept from his side of the family, who emigrated from Poland and the Ukraine, and how the ones that escaped all went through Rotterdam. I wasn’t aware of this when I was working on Anatomy—it wasn’t in my mind at all. But the connection is now there.

JH: I can see a connection between these images and the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, and to the traditions of Post-Impressionism in general. It gives them a somewhat atemporal, apolitical quality.

MM: I wasn’t photographing the scenes like they were the aftermath of a crime. Which does happen in these contexts, but that wasn’t what interested me. However, there is a question mark around how much choice these women have. They’ve obviously been abandoned by society at large, and I think Anatomy looks at one way that people abandon other people. It happens all the time, all over the globe, and in various forms and degrees of punishment and cruelty. This is just looking at the outcomes in the most liberal society, where there’s all this choice—but what does that mean? How does this happen? If there’s a social question to my work, that would be it. But I like to think it’s more existential.

I wouldn’t normally have a connection to those women, or to any of these circumstances. But once you transcend those boundaries, you realize that we’re all intimately connected, whether we choose to recognize it or not.

I was also very interested in making a connection where there wouldn’t normally be one. I wouldn’t normally have a connection to those women, or to any of these circumstances. But once you transcend those boundaries, you realize that we’re all intimately connected, whether we choose to recognize it or not. That’s certainly part of the work, in my mind.

JH: How did venturing into foreign territory—both geographically and thematically—and transgressing these boundaries affect your process?

MM: In my experience, you’re typically always overcoming a lot of resistance to do a project. There are outside forces—like money, time, energy, and other logistical things. But beyond that, there are internal obstacles. There are all these boundaries that you have in your mind, like that voice in your head that tells you that you’re a failure. And they have to be overcome. Just to make the work, whether you have real-world success or failure, the process of actually making it and getting it done requires entering a slightly altered state of mind.

I was really trying to bear witness in an honest, pure way to what I was experiencing—to communicate it with utmost purity. That doesn’t mean showing things faithfully to their true appearance, but I’m always trying to communicate what’s happening in the way that I feel it needs to be communicated.

JH: That too strikes me as a painterly quality—to some degree, relinquishing control and letting the medium, or the situation, guide you.

MM: Yes, but the images were really thought out; I planned most of them. But as much as I think something out, there’s this slightly “off” quality to my actual camera and the way I use light. I’m not striving for perfection—I don’t like it when something is too perfect-looking. I find it can render me a little cold. It’s important to have some sort of palpable sense of failure, or some margin of human or mechanical error in the image as well. I was using a view camera, and I like when you feel its presence in an image. Usually the camera itself isn’t usually a perfect instrument. At this point, I’m practically one with the camera, but I’ve definitely had moments where I couldn’t operate it. Sometimes you’re just not working with something right. And Anatomy was a small operation; it was just me and my assistant. We didn’t have every resource and fancy piece of photo equipment available to us. But that’s what I like about it, because I wanted the photographs to register as intimate.

JH: They do. I’ve noticed that the majority of your pictures are shot inside these decadent, almost lurid interiors. What part do these spaces play in your images, and in fostering that intimacy?

MM: I’m interested in these interior worlds—not the outdoors. It started as a way for me to be contrary. Before I was even an art major, I remember being told to go photograph the street. But nothing connected for me. It’s not like I didn’t make a few interesting pictures, but I didn’t fully understand what the purpose was. What was this deciding moment that was so arresting out in the world? I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea, from a philosophical standpoint.

There are a lot of secrets that are held up in a woman’s body. As much as they reveal, they hide.

MM: When I first encountered a view camera, most people at Bard were using using it to shoot beautiful environments in the area. Old mansions, natural landscapes—that was the instinct. But what happened to me was interesting. When I was studying there, a woman who was like an older sister to me came to visit. She knew that I was concentrating on nudity in my work, and she asked if I could photograph her and her boyfriend. Turns out, she had been having an affair with this man, and I was really keenly unaware of what was happening. It was the first time that I photographed something that I hadn’t set up; the event truly unfolded before me.

Ultimately, the man in the photograph wanted the negatives back, and I burned them and only kept one remaining print. I don’t have any of them, but they’re embedded in my mind. I developed certain ideas from that experience. I’m interested in secrecy. And there’s definitely a level of secrecy that surrounds a brothel house.

JH: I see the room and other inanimate objects mediating the women’s gazes in Anatomy—a woman’s face is covered in lace, another subject looks at the camera through a mirror. One woman holds up a picture frame to her torso. But then, some subjects are staring straight back at the camera…

MM: That was very intentional. I see how some people might think I’m working to objectify the women, but it wasn’t something I was specifically trying to accomplish. I often love creating a really clear photograph of someone’s face and their eyes, a look into their inner state—as close as you can come to them. But I enjoy alternating that with something a bit more mysterious, because I feel like the body can be so expressive: expressive of other qualities that maybe betray us on some level. We don’t always operate from this fully safe place. It’s an honest conversation about that, rather than a political one. Our bodies can betray us, our minds can betray us, our feelings can betray us—all these things don’t always operate in sync within us.

But there are a lot of secrets that are held up in a woman’s body. As much as they reveal, they hide. In order to make that more explicit, I used the veil. And the veil is also a painterly trope.

JH: These women’s bodies seem especially expressive—they occupy the space so unapologetically. I’m so accustomed to seeing female figures portrayed as vulnerable and small, not taking up any room.

MM: Absolutely, they’re owning it. Like I said, their body is their art, and their art is their survival.

JH: What has it been like to revisit At Rest? Have you experimented with moving image since?

MM: It’s still my only video work. I’d like to make something else, but I’d like it to be a little more expansive. I shot At Rest all by myself on a little consumer camera, and it’s really low-end. That video had a lot of meaning for me when I made it, but there’s always the question, Does someone want to sit and watch this, for any length of time? I thought about different ways to show it—for instance, each person would be projected separately on repeat. But then I made it into one linear piece, and it felt better strung together. The breathing operated better all together. I felt like I wanted to make a piece that was sort of an illusion—we can’t really see the body breathe in that way. Only film can really create that, where the body becomes more of an instrument.

My father has since died, and one of the men in the video has since died, so it has become an eerie piece for me. There was also a strange coincidence when I went to my father’s grave for the first time. Until then, I hadn’t really paid very much attention to the plot of land where he and my grandparents were, and as I looked right behind my father’s stone, I saw a small one in the ground that read, “At Rest.”

JH: How did you choose your subjects and locations? Were they pre-planned, or shot spontaneously?

MM: A lot of At Rest was shot in Europe, and I really wanted the interiors to feel like the Old World. But a lot of it was shot in Rochester, New York, where I grew up. All the interiors there were somewhat Old World as well, because they were in houses built for early industrialists before the crash. The house I grew up in was large and looming, and carried the reputation of being haunted. I wanted the film to have a classical feel, like a piece of music.

I was shooting on a small, consumer-grade video camera. It wasn’t exactly an aesthetic choice, but I was determined to find a way to make this work on my own—without the help of anyone else. I wanted it to have that intimate and spontaneous feeling. I was able to go and shoot it wherever I wanted. I would meet people or spend time with people I was close with and end up shooting them. It wouldn’t have happened that way if it was all laid out and planned, like a film. It wasn’t cast like a film. It just unfolded.

I would meet people, or spend time with friends, and end up shooting them. It wouldn’t have happened that way if it was all laid out and planned, like a film. It just unfolded.

MM: But I was interested in conveying [my subjects] in peaceful poses of rest and sleep, and how you can use film to turn it into something more frenetic. I liked how some of the bodies started to resemble a sick patient in bed. Philosophically, I was interested in how speeding up this film’s time almost seemed like it was speeding up the approach of death. We typically walk around and edit death out of our life. It was something that I was thinking a lot about.

JH: What’s it like to see your work existing in physical space as opposed to in a book, or online?

MM: On the wall is always the best. You can’t really know what something looks like until you see it in the flesh. You know the work in a more complete way once you’ve seen it actually on the wall. I had purposefully designed the body of work in Anatomy so that it could be printed at different sizes for different spaces. I knew that if I got to show it again I’d want to show it larger.

JH: I noticed you don’t have Instagram. Your work is actually a little difficult to view on the Internet.

MM: I was so late in getting a website, but I’ve finally done that. Prior to that, I began a conversation with my work, and it’s something I’m inclined to stay in, but I really would have rethought what I was doing, or felt differently about it, if I had known that it would ever exist online. I don’t think I would have been able to do it. For me, the intimacy that was being explored, you could only ever find in a book, or a museum, or on a gallery wall—those were the hopeful outcomes when I was making the work. I never envisioned that it would come up on someone’s phone. That’s why the images are only thumbnails on my website; they’re more reminders of what’s been done, instead of a place to experience the images.

This culture of constant sharing a bit like anathema to me. I don’t want my life to be public, and I don’t understand why people do. That said, I do think that Instagram and these platforms can be, and are, used in cool and meaningful ways. Some people share in a really intriguing way. That sounds contradictory, but I suppose my feelings are very unresolved. I just know that I can’t do it. There’s something stopping me. It’ll never be like, ‘Here are me and my kids somewhere.’ Never, ever.

JH: Has the ubiquity of these small, digital images affected your feelings towards your view camera and the older analogue traditions in photography?

MM: I have actually taken some interesting pictures with my iPhone that I really like. There’s one that I made that I decided to re-do with one of my larger cameras, my Mamiya RZ. I took the iPhone picture in a matter of minutes. I spent three hours trying to get a comparable image with my larger camera and finally realized that maybe it needs to be this iPhone picture. This is something I’m definitely thinking about right now. Should my next show be a mix?

But I’d have to present the phone camera images smaller, so that they’d be like little jewels. They’re not competing with the other images. Or should I blow them up so that they’re huge? I’m definitely thinking about those processes, because I take a lot of pictures with my phone, no doubt. But I really don’t like using this camera too casually. I have personal pictures of my children on my phone, but i do think about how to use it in a meaningful and artistic way. There’s something about how it’s so thin—you can put it on the floor. I can’t get any other lens that low.

JH: As with most point and shoots, I think people fixate on the cell phone camera’s capacity to gratify instantly. It’s heralded for its practicality above all. But it sounds like you’re more interested in underscoring its specificity as a medium, and pushing it to aesthetic extremes.

MM: I’m not interested in its more banal aspects. I actually don’t think most photographers are. Gregory Crewdson always said that you can never really lose yourself in your work, even when you’re working in different formats. I’m always trying to make my work a bit otherworldly—it’s never just about the everyday.

Malerie Marder is a photographer living in Los Angeles, CA. She received her MFA from Yale University and BA from Bard College. Her monographs include Anatomy (Twin Palms Publishers, 2013) and Carnal Knowledge (Violette Editions, 2011), and her work is in the permanent collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She is represented by Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, and has has had numerous solo exhibitions in New York City and London, amongst others. “Malerie Marder: Anatomy and At Rest” will be on view at Kruger Gallery in Marfa, TX until September 24, 2016.

Juliana Halpert is a writer and photographer living in Brooklyn. In addition to Daylight, she has contributed to and the New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog.