City Paper is not for tourists
Self-obsessed photographer Erin Linkins Myers develops her own body language.
Buddha watches over Erin Linkins Myers’ photography studio, which is actually the stuff-filled living room of her Logan Circle apartment. His stone likeness sits serenely on top of the television, next to a portrait of Frank Sinatra and in harmony with a posable action-figure Jesus. Giacometti, a clubfooted pet tree frog—so named because his withered leg resembles a sculpture by the Swiss artist—also surveys the landscape, which is cluttered with stacks of records and books.
“Lately, I find myself making smaller compositions due to space concerns more than anything else,” says the 28-year-old artist, wrestling with a black felt backdrop that nearly spans the room’s full width. A tripod bearing a large-format camera with an accordion bellows takes up most of the available floor space, penning Linkins Myers into a small square of carpet marked off with tape. Lit with a harsh floodlight, the area looks like a little stage.
Linkins Myers makes photographic assemblages using a technique called Polaroid transfer, quick-printing the negative half of the instant-process film onto drawing paper. She is model and artist, photographing different parts of her body and then collaging the various images together into surreal, not-quite-representational compositions.
Right now, the camera is trained somewhere near Linkins Myers’ left hand. She lines up the shot, moves her hand into the frame, and begins twisting it with belly-dance-like motions, keeping the rest of her body rigid. After a while, she freezes her hand with the fingers splayed. Tiny muscles jump up and down inside her arm as she trips the shutter’s cable release with her other hand.
“I’ve just been thinking about hands,” she says, waving hers in the air and pulling the Polaroid cartridge out of the camera’s back. “Hands and arms—maybe an arm growing out of an arm. Really, when I am making a piece, I just start out very vague, make sure I am in the frame, and kind of wing it from there.”
She flips a lever on the cartridge’s casing to burst the packet of processing chemicals inside and pulls out the photograph, peeling the chemical-laden negative away from the not-quite-developed positive. Because it hasn’t had a chance to develop fully, the washed-out positive looks blurry and orange, like a bad i-Zone shot you might take at a party. The negative is slick with black slime and barely visible.
A pile of finished pieces on a nearby table offers an indication of the outcome of Linkins Myers’ process. Malison, an 11-component portrait, breaks the photographer’s pale, round face into a cubist jumble perched on a thin pedestal of a neck. Her skin glows against the inky-black background. In places, the emulsion has flaked away to reveal pools of blue beneath, a peek at the layers of chemicals that develop the photo on the spot.
“With transfers, the colors are soft, like a 180-degree shift from looking at Polaroids that are fully processed, with such hard edges and vivid colors,” Linkins Myers explains, applying the negative to a sponge-dampened piece of drawing paper on the kitchen table. Blue-green bubbles ooze out the sides of the negative as she smoothes it down with a roller. “Transfers have such a yucky, messy quality,” she adds, “and that tactileness is what excites me about the medium.”
The artist stops rolling and squints at the faint image of her hand on the partly developed positive. It’s her only guide to setting up the next shot. She raises a forearm and stops to contemplate its shape before loading another cartridge into the camera’s back. “To be able to deconstruct the human form and then put it back together…” she says, “it has a spontaneity that I never found with straightforward portraiture.”
After graduating with a degree in photography from Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art in 1996, Linkins Myers found herself in Washington, Va., with no friends, no ideas, and no access to a darkroom. Her husband, Andy Myers, now a manager at Dupont Circle’s Restaurant Nora, was working at the Inn at Little Washington, and she had taken a job at Sunnyside Organics, a small farm in the town of 192.
“I was in a huge rut,” she remembers, “and we were in the middle of nowhere.” So she bought a used camera from a co-worker and began experimenting with Polaroid transfers, for the very basic reason that the process requires no photo lab.
With her husband working nights at the inn, Linkins Myers began photographing herself. “I was the perfect model, not for any self-absorbed reason, but because I was there, I would do anything I asked, and I never said no,” she jokes. “And because I didn’t have a whole lot of other choices.”
Her film’s 4-by-5-inch format, however, soon became a source of frustration. “The size of the pictures began to get on my nerves,” she says. “I couldn’t blow them up, because I had no lab. But I had always been drawn to multiple imaging, so I started to collage them together and play with the disconnects.”
Even so, and despite making regular treks between Washingtons to see shows at the Black Cat, the Rockville native was getting frustrated with the slow pace of country life. “I wasn’t really pushing myself to make work, and everything I loved was back here,” she recalls. “I needed a kick in the pants.”
Inspiration finally came in the form of an Englishman wielding a chain saw. In the spring of 1998, the art-loving owners of Sunnyside Organics commissioned noted sculptor David Nash to create one of his trademark outdoor pieces—giant logs carved with power saws and singe-shaded with blowtorches—for the farm. As Sunnyside’s unofficial resident artist, Linkins Myers was dispatched to Dulles to meet Nash and help him hunt for supplies.
“I sort of grilled him about everything I was feeling,” she laughs. “We were stuck in the car for a couple of hours, so I just started telling him how I was young and unsure and unmotivated and I didn’t know how to live as a working artist. And he said, ‘Look, get off your ass. No one is going to make you do anything.’” Nash challenged her to make a portfolio of 10 new pieces by the time he had finished his 20-foot-tall sculpture later that week. In a few days, Linkins Myers was displaying her new work for the first time, to an enthusiastic audience of fellow artists at Nash’s unveiling party.
Linkins Myers left Virginia for D.C. soon after, landing a marketing job at Don Schaaf & Friends, a graphic-design and advertising firm. She also deployed what she calls “the art assault,” cold-mailing several hundred press packets containing samples of her work to galleries all over the country. Her DIY approach scored representation in galleries in Chicago and Memphis, Tenn., and slots in group shows in several states—successes, she deadpans, “totally due to my pre-stamped return envelopes.”
While she shops her work around to galleries in the District, Linkins Myers is preparing for a group exhibition, “District of Ladies,” opening next week at the District of Columbia Arts Center as part of Ladyfest D.C. She also coordinates the women-run festival’s merchandising committee, applying her photography techniques—as well her day-job skills—to promotional materials for Ladyfest acts such as indie-rock band Dame Fate and performance-art troupe the Miss America Puppet Show.
Through Ladyfest, Linkins Myers hopes to reach an audience outside of the “gallery crowd,” and she has priced her works accordingly—usually under $100. “I think you have to make art accessible and available to people in order to get it out there,” she says. “I’ll try to recoup for the film I use in a piece, but my brain isn’t going anywhere. It will create more art.”
Back at the kitchen table, it’s time to lift off the first frame of the work-in-progress. “I have tried to plan out compositions before, but sometimes it ends up disappointing,” says Linkins Myers, slowly lifting up an edge of the stuck-down negative. The backing comes off cleanly, leaving a grainy, rubbery-surfaced print on the drawing paper. The negative from the shot of her forearm is still bleeding chemicals into the page. It will be ready to remove in about the time it takes to shoot the next image—this time, the artist has decided, of her right hand.
“The final outcome is such a product of my fascination with a particular connection, and I don’t really know what that will be or where it will go until I see what I have with each shot. It takes the element of control out of my hands, which is ironic in a self-portrait,” she says, fitting into the piece the third and last frame. It shows off her wedding ring, the only identifying mark she allows in her photographs.
“I feel like when I started I was very contrived in trying to make feminist statements,” she says. To illustrate this point, she offers Down My Throat, a six-frame, horizontally arranged piece in which a stretched-out column of flesh longer than a man’s
arm is stuffed into her wide-open mouth. The effect is startling, but in more of a darkly comic sense than a preachy or pornographic one.
“Now I am realizing that the beauty of shape is just as valid,” Linkins Myers says. At the same time, she acknowledges that it’s difficult for a woman artist working with her own body to get around politics. “More than anything else, my intention is to restructure the human form,” she says. “But my desire to do that definitely stemmed out of issues with my own body.”
Her most recent pieces, however, are barely identifiable as specifically female forms. “It’s funny,” Linkins Myers laughs. “I rarely remember what parts of my body make up a specific piece. So much of your perception is context.” Which is why titles for some of her latest works were picked randomly from the dictionary.
“Photography is a medium typically used to capture a moment in time and space, and that’s not my goal,” she explains. “It’s more about reaction and my own curiosity, like what would it look like if I could tie my arms in a knot, or if I didn’t have any arms.”
Or if a body could be made entirely of arms, which is the way Linkins Myers has finally arranged the three frames on the paper. Stacked vertically, her left hand forms a fantastic creature’s mollusklike foot, her forearm its arching back, and her balled right hand its head.
“Now we just need to name him,” she says. CP
“District of Ladies” is on view from Wednesday, Aug. 7, to Saturday, Aug. 10, at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 462-7833.