If I’ve ever felt ashamed for slothing away a Saturday in bed with a stack of comic books, D.C.-based photographer Peggy Fleming has set me straight. In Her Place, a book of 56 black-and-white portraits of D.C.-area women in their personal sanctuaries, assures me that I don’t need to answer to anyone but Betty and Veronica.
Fleming focused her lens on the women in her lifeneighbors, shopkeepers, businesswomen, friendsand asked them about the things they did each day to care for themselves. The women responded in free-form verse about the “special places” that calmed and re-energized them. Fleming waited in those places with her subjects, watching for their unguarded moments. “It was incredible when it worked,” Fleming says, “when they had the courage to open up and when I had the courage to do it.”
The resulting images and poems reveal intimacies both stark and subtle. We meet one woman in the shower and read about how luxurious she feels soaping the curves of her body. Another shot puts the viewer on the edge of a bed, next to a woman making her nightly long-distance phone call to the mother she misses.
But not every frame is all peace and quiet. Several are filled with the blurred energy of motorcycles, toddlers, and tango dancers. A few carry a defensive air: One elderly woman squares her back to the camera, her attention turned fully to the piano she waited 30 years to find time to play. This photograph is a document of her hard-won satisfaction.
“Before the language of feminism, there weren’t words that named women’s situations,” says Fleming. “[My work] is about claiming the things that you do for yourself and not making excuses about it.” The collection’s title, a play on words, reflects this reclamation.
Fleming did not become a serious photographer until she was in her 50s. She was working as a ranger for the National Park Service when she took an introductory photography class at the Corcoran School of Art. “A light just came on,” she says. “I knew this was something I wanted to pursue as ardently as all the other things I had done,” a list of occupations that includes civil rights activist, elementary-school teacher, and anthropologist. Her early efforts at photography were in workshops with the Smithsonian Institution, documenting Crow Indian families in Montana and ethnic-market owners in D.C.
In Her Place is Fleming’s most ambitious piece of photo-anthropology to date. During the project’s five-year development, portions were shown at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria and in venues in New York and Peru. The full series was exhibited in Washington last year at Rock
Fleming and her two sisters constitute Three Sisters Press, the book’s DIY publisher, and are largely responsible for the book’s marketing. (Several D.C.-area independent bookstores stock it.) “There is a prejudice in the publishing world against independently produced books, but I’m very proud,” she says. “This way, it’s all still very much a part of me.” Shauna Miller