WORK IN PROGRESS
Short Project Description:
Maid’s Rooms is a series of black-and-white portraits of former caregivers and their employers accompanied by interviews. Set in the so-called maid's rooms of Manhattan apartments, the project pictures people with various ties to one another and a domestic space they used to share.
Environmental portraits of artists and writers from the 70s and 80s by Jill Krementz and Susan Meiselas (and, in the 60s, by Rollie McKenna and Alfred Eisenstaedt) act as a foil for Maid’s Rooms. While these celebrated photographs capture people ‘in their element’–a writer at her desk or an artist in his studio–Maid’s Rooms pictures the disconnect that can exist between a subject and her environment.
Using the trope of the environmental portrait, Maid’s Rooms draws attention to the overlapping lives of a maid’s room. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, caregivers and housekeepers, as well as employers and their families, live and work in "maid’s rooms" under a range of circumstances. The inhabitants of a maid’s room are often changing. Exploring this turnover and the imperfect correspondence of any subject and the setting, Maid’s Rooms violates the norm established by environmental portraiture of picturing people where they naturally belong.
Most predictably, people stay over in these rooms part-time or full-time when employed to care for young children and the elderly. The children of residents also live in the rooms as babies, or when they move out of the bedroom they once shared with a sibling, or when they return from college. When the kids grow up, parents often work or spend their leisure in these relatively private rooms. Guests sleep on the small beds. Caregivers return when a parent or spouse falls ill. In the 80s, these rooms were not infrequently set up as darkrooms by weekend photographers. They are not known for their views and often look out onto the wall of a neighboring building or alleyway.
The rooms themselves change along with their inhabitants. A sink comes out, a desk moves in, built-in storage goes up, and possessions accumulate. A maid’s room isn’t always used as originally intended but rather as an office, walk-in closet, playroom, prayer room, or part of a kitchen renovation.
In the first non-environmental, or post-environmental, portraits I've taken for Maid's Rooms, some of the disconnect is staged, as when a former "live-in nanny" visits the room she stayed in some 30 odd years ago, currently owned by people she's never met. In other portraits, the awkwardness evolves more naturally; for example, a former employee has overstayed her welcome in the maid's room, and taken to towering boxes of fancy new shoes at the foot of the narrow bed (her former employer groans, opening another box of sparkly stilettos, with a story and a smile).
I started off by interviewing the subjects of these portraits myself. More recently, I have been asking subjects into conversations with each other. Most recently, I am thinking that the interviews should contain conversations between people not pictured (but who also once used the room pictured). The dialogues between caregivers and employers that I have facilitated so far speak to the sitters’ distinct as well as shared experiences, circumstances, aspirations, and negotiations. The conversations also provide a window into the informal networks of caregivers and employers that brought them together. Their words reach outside the room into communities of friends and relatives, extrapolating themes of distance and intimacy at the heart of the project. The relative comfort or discomfort of the room is reflected in the rhythm and cadence of people’s voices and accents, language, word choice, and speech patterns as they talk.
The content of the interviews sometimes more-or-less illustrates the portrait photographs and sometimes complicates them. For example, one subject opts to pose for her portrait by counting the beads on her rosary and ends an interview recounting how seldomly she prays her rosary.
The interviews picture family members who have benefited and struggled as a result of the employment situation and include stories filled with triumph and regret… as well as "envy, irritation, paranoia, and disgust," or some of what literary theorist Charles Altieri calls "the affects" in The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects (2003) and Sianne Ngai theorizes as "ugly feelings" in her acclaimed 2007 book of the same name.
My research for the project begins with my friends and acquaintances, people that I can contact via Facebook. Most of the people I know from childhood were raised by "nannies," as it turns out. What I somehow experienced as a private affair (shameful, in other words) was not uncommon in the neighborhood where I grew up. I must have been blind, considering the endless afternoons my siblings and I spent at the playground with women taking care of us and crowds of other children. One objective of undertaking this project is to better understand my own experience.
Despite my personal connection to generations of people who commonly employ "live-in help," my goal is to have an even distribution of employers and employees represented in the photographs for Maid’s Rooms. Margaret Kennedy, the woman that I first called "my babysitter," has referred me to friends of hers who also worked as caregivers in New York. I have reached out to them, approaching the research from another perspective, and will continue to pursue ways of doing so.
Not only "my connections" but my loving memories propel this project. To avoid the nostalgia that threatens my perspective, I might have brought the portraits more fully into the present, photographing people who live and work in maid's rooms today. But I don't think my affection for my subjects, for a time or a place much less a set of famous photographs, is to be simply overlooked.
Looking through Jill Krementz's portraits from this time period, I wonder if the photographs themselves hold some of the nostalgia I experience in viewing them. Each silky portrait surrounds its subject, neglecting the wider world for an image of the writer ensconced at his desk, rows of books at his back, no "help" or offspring in sight. This conception of completeness, enviable, impossible self-sufficiency, is a significant element of the appeal of a Krementz portrait, one which Maid's Rooms seeks to explore in more depth.
I envision a simple installation of 30-40 small to medium sized medium format photographs and a book. Edited and collaboratively constructed interviews will appear alongside the photographs in the book. The general feel will be of a certain slice of New York circa 1980, the font and design taking their cue from my memory of books and exhibitions as well as actual catalogs from the time.
Research: maid's rooms, January 2018
Further Significance of the Project:
When I Google “stereotype”, the example sentence under th definition reads, “the stereotype of the woman as the carer”. This helpful coincidence raises two issues I’d like to explore with Maid’s Rooms, confirming not only that the woman as carer is a stereotype but that, furthermore, the stereotype of the woman as carer is foremost in our collective imagination.
My objective with Maid’s Rooms is not to reject this mother stereotype or to erase its palimpsest of assumptions, conflicting feelings, taboos, and facts about caregiving, but to engage with them. In picturing women, but also men and children, I am looking to exploit this general familiarity with “the woman as carer,” heightening and breaking through the element of cliche. I think that the Upper East Side of Manhattan offers a potentially provocative caregiving 'case study' due to its being an exceptional, and stereotypical, case. What might people be able to see, or recognize, in a stereotype that they might miss in themselves? What, in turn, might the complication or reflection of a stereotype within the work open up for viewers?
As The Help (2011), a blockbuster book and movie, The Maid’s Room (2014), an Indie thriller, and The Second Mother (2015), a Brazilian comedy-drama, Maid’s Rooms considers the role of class and race alongside gender. In contrast to what struck me as the predictable and sentimental portrayal of caregivers and employers in these films (and, perhaps, even in aspects of the beloved Roma ) Maid’s Rooms looks to capture stereotypes in motion, as they flicker across people’s faces and gestures. Watching the films of Frederick Wiseman over the past few months, I have been moved by the ways in which he simultaneously embraces and subverts stereotypes, leveraging the joys of recognition and caricature only to offset discovery and set the stage for revelations about the changeable as well as intractable nature of human beings and social dynamics. I hope to negotiate the depiction of caregiving in a similar fashion, not to dismiss or accept one-dimensional characterizations of ‘nannies’ or ‘the wealthy’ but to remain curious about the intimate exchange amidst economic disparity that characterizes caregiving, and the recent and current economics of life more generally, in certain contexts (many more contexts than people seem to acknowledge, at least when I first inquire). Through the process of putting together Maid’s Rooms, I will explore myriad ways in which similar arrangements have worked, or failed to work, for the people involved on the Upper East Side, in "outer boroughs of Manhattan," and beyond.
A note on form: These low res negative scans, which I am currently printing, were taken using a Mamiya 7ii medium format camera and 80mm lens. The minimal distortion and boxy, intimate feel of the images seems appropriate for the subject matter. Depending on what happens in collaboration with subjects, I imagine different perspectives and degrees of proximity, both literal and figurative, that buildout the straightforward, one-to-one feel of the images so far.
Questions regarding exhibition: What might people see of themselves in these photographs? Identify, deny, or further reflect upon? Who will see these photographs and read these interviews, and where? A small exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem or El Museo del Barrio or The Museum of the City of New York might bridge communities. I love the idea of a smart, slim coffee table book circulating around LA.
Allers, Kimberly Seals. “White Women Make Work-Life Balance Possible by Relying on Women of Color.” Slate Magazine. March 5, 2018.
Altieri, Charles. The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetic of the Affects. Cornell University Press, 2003.
Archibald, Sasha, et al. At the Mercy of Others: the Politics of Care. Whitney Museum of American Art, 2005.
Aronson, Judith. Likenesses. Lintott Press in Association with Carcanet, 2010.
Aviv, Rachel. "The Cost of Care: The lives of the immigrant women who tend to the needs of others." The New Yorker. April 11, 2016.
Bloom, Ester. "Maid's in America: The Decline of Domestic Help." The Atlantic. September 23, 2015.
Brody, Lauren Smith. "When the Nanny Needs Maternity Leave." The New York Times. December 27, 2017.
Chen, Michelle. “The Care Gap.” Dissent Magazine. Winter 2016.
Cole, Teju. "The White-Savior Industrial Complex." The Atlantic. March 21, 2012.
Collins, Lauren. “The Home Front: Leïla Slimani’s dark explorations of our most intimate taboos.” The New Yorker. January 1, 2018.
Feeney, Mark. "Judith Aronson Captures Her Subjects' Likenesses." The Boston Globe. October 9, 2010.
Gutting, Gary, and Nancy Fraser. “A Feminism Where ‘Lean In’ Means Leaning On Others.” The New York Times. October 15, 2015.
Johnston, David Cay. "The Nation; The Servant Class Is at the Counter." The New York Times. August 27, 1995.
Kathrens. Great Houses of New York, 1880-1940. Vol. 2. Acanthus Press, 2013.
Krementz, Jill. The Writer's Desk. Pomegranate Calendars & Books, 1997.
McKenna, Rosalie Thorne. Rollie McKenna: Artists & Writers. The National Portrait Gallery, 2001.
Miller, Claire Cain. "Mothers Are Paid Less (Even in Scandinavia)." The New York Times. February 5, 2018.
Moeller, Robert. "Social Practice for Domestic Workers: The NannyVan." Hyperallergic. May 23, 2014.
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard University Press, 2007.
Ruiz, Michelle. "Where Are All the Nannies on Instagram?" The New York Times. November 11, 2017.
Stern, Robert A. M., et al. New York 1930: Architecture and Urbanism between the Two World Wars. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1987.
Stewart, Matthew. “The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company. May 16, 2018.
Toy, Vivian S. “Maid's Rooms Make a Comeback.” The New York Times. April 28, 2011.
Reference portraits of artists and writers by Jill Krementz, Susan Meiselas, Rollie McKenna, Alfred Eisenstaedt (1950-80s) and Judith Aronson (1990s). The last four double portraits are by Aronson, who is interested in the ways that a partner, friend, or family member can animate her subjects.
I am getting increasingly familiar with the Mamiya 7ii. Christine Schutt, novelist, mother, grandmother, and former employer of caregivers and I will meet at her old apartment again for another photography session in June (thanks to Christine and current owners, art collectors Allison and Robert Weiner).
1) Live/Work is a related project involving the children of women that took care of me. In two parallel slideshows, their family photos run alongside my family's photos. Marcia Chin and Lorna Magnus stayed at my parents' home for six months out of every year for 20 years. At the time, Lorna's son Donovan was the same age as me, 6 - 26. In one iteration of this project, Donovan's photos of his mother at home with him in Kingston, Jamaica run alongside my photos of his mother with me in Manhattan and Connecticut. Our pictures never appear projected at the same time. One slideshow is dark while the other lights up in saturated color snapshots characteristic of the time in both countries.
2) The photos below picture women working as caregivers taking care of my siblings and me. My siblings and I are usually the focus. And After These Things pictures these women and their homes in various parts of the world today. In remaking one of the opening scenes of Alfonso Cuarón's Roma (2018), in which the camera tours the house, floating up and over the staircase, looking into the surrounding rooms (like a drone or camera in outer space), and eventually landing on the main character at the base of the stairs, a domestic worker or live-in housekeeper, as she turns down the lights for the night, I am filming the homes (in Kingston, Jamaica, for instance) of women that took care of me, as well as, on occasion, the women that currently take care of them and their homes.