Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

Unraveling the Narrative: A Conversation with Photographer Eileen Cowin

Eileen Cowin in her studio, 2011

Eileen Cowin in her studio, 2011

In the exhibition Narrative Interventions in Photography, opening October 25, contemporary photographers Eileen Cowin, Carrie Mae Weems, and Simryn Gill present works that explore the subjectivity of storytelling and the slipperiness of truth.

Cowin’s large, color photographs pair images—including one of a woman pressing a fork against her tongue with one of a mutilated book—which suggest that words in all forms can deceive. Cowin talked with me at her Los Angeles studio about I See What You’re Saying, her series of photographs in the exhibition, as well as her love of film and books, both fiction and non-fiction.

I See What You're Saying (torn book and fork) / Eileen Cowin

I See What You're Saying, Eileen Cowin, negatives, 2002; prints, 2005. Inkjet prints, each image 36 x 46 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.53. © Eileen Cowin

You said a radio program inspired you to create I See What You’re Saying?
I’m so interested in lying in every possible way, on a personal level and on a political level. I had just heard a piece on National Public Radio about lying, and there was a teacher at Mount Holyoke College who was lying to his students. He said he served in Vietnam and lied about being on the football team and catching the winning pass. I can’t believe the things people think they can get away with. I deal with this in my video Pants on Fire.

Video courtesy of Eileen Cowin. © Eileen Cowin

Do you think people sometimes don’t even know they are being untruthful?
People somehow don’t start off thinking that they are going to lie. They just get caught up and they can’t separate fact from fiction and soon they believe it themselves.

Doesn’t the fact that memories fade make it hard to determine if someone is being intentionally deceitful?
Right. Lying is so ambiguous because you may remember something, and someone else might remember it in a different way. I love the idea of people telling a story from different points of view. One of my key movies of all time is Rashomon. Is it about lying or memory or a reliable witness? Who is telling the truth? They all are.

I See What You're Saying (book with torn pages and open eye) / Eileen Cowin

I See What You're Saying, Eileen Cowin, negatives, 2002; prints, 2011. Inkjet prints, each image 36 x 46 in. Image courtesy of the artist. © Eileen Cowin

What are you reading now?
I read a lot of fiction. Right now, I am looking at books about the events of 9/11 to see how writers like Don DeLillo and Helen Schulman were able to deal with these events that are so heartbreaking. I am in awe of people who can write amazing books.

Besides being a voracious reader, you also use books as props in your photographs.
Some of the books I’ve used in the piece I See What You’re Saying are about fairy tales, because I’d just done a video on the relationships of fairy tales to family history. It was called “…and the daughter married the prince.” People wish life was a fairy tale, but fairy tales can be horrific.

I See What You're Saying (table with book and closed eye) / Eileen Cowin

I See What You're Saying, Eileen Cowin, negatives, 2002; prints, 2011. Inkjet prints, each image 36 x 46 in. Image courtesy of the artist. © Eileen Cowin

You talk about not wanting to appear “hokey” in your work. What do you mean?
I’m not trying to solve a problem in my work. It’s not, “here’s an equation and here’s the answer.” I don’t want to be hokey, corny, or melodramatic. I heard Tom Robbins lecture a long time ago at UCLA. He said there’s a line—and you want to get right on that line. If you don’t get close enough, there’s a disconnect. If you go over, it’s exaggerated and silly and obvious.

Your work is very, um, hairy. In I See What You’re Saying, a book is sprouting hair and a mustachioed man is eating a cupcake.
Victorians used to make sculpture out of hair and braided flowers. You look at it and you’re repelled, but also fascinated. I wasn’t interested in the beauty of the hair. It’s about a history coming from the book.

I See What You're Saying (hairy book) / Eileen Cowin

I See What You're Saying, Eileen Cowin, negative, 2002; print, 2011. Inkjet print, 36 x 46 in. Image courtesy of the artist. © Eileen Cowin

I See What You're Saying (book and man with cupcake) / Eileen Cowin

I See What You're Saying, Eileen Cowin, negatives, 2002; prints, 2011. Inkjet prints, each image 36 x 46 in. Image courtesy of the artist. © Eileen Cowin

As a videographer, you’re also interested in storytelling in film?
You know when you go the movies and the ending is just tied up in a little package, and how disappointing that can be? On KPCC’s FilmWeek on Air Talk, a critic said he had no qualms giving away the whole story in his review; another critic said he didn’t want to do that because people say they don’t want that. I don’t want that. Sometimes I’ll read the first paragraph of a film review and that’s all. I don’t want to know the ending. I want things to be played out, unraveled. I like unraveling.

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  1. Posted October 11, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Very inspiring work, thank you !

  2. Posted October 12, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Smashing work…mysterious and curious and long lasting in the emotional being considering relationships of all kinds. Draws one into dreamland; sometimes mildly disturbing!

  3. Buzz Spector
    Posted October 26, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Smart, sensuous, and ultimately troubling. You’ve always aimed your camera at situations of questioning, where human interactions assume qualities of the theatrical, even when the players don’t know they’re playing. The distressed books resonate for me (of course!), but to juxtapose what’s happened to those pages with eyes in motion away from the camera is to regard one reading as being read . . .

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      Olympian Census #4: Aphrodite

      Get the stats on your favorite (and not-so-favorite) gods and goddesses on view at the Getty Center.

      Roman name: Venus

      Employment: Goddess of Love and Beauty

      Place of residence: Mount Olympus

      Parents: Born out of sea foam formed when Uranus’s castrated genitals were thrown into the ocean

      Marital status: Married to Hephaestus, the God of Blacksmiths, but had many lovers, both immortal and mortal

      Offspring: Aeneas, Cupid, Eros, Harmonia, Hermaphroditos, and more

      Symbol: Dove, swan, and roses

      Special talent: Being beautiful and sexy could never have been easier for this Greek goddess

      Highlights reel:

      • Zeus knew she was trouble when she walked in (Sorry, Taylor Swift) to Mount Olympus for the first time. So Zeus married Aphrodite to his son Hephaestus (Vulcan), forming the perfect “Beauty and the Beast” couple.
      • When Aphrodite and Persephone, the queen of the underworld, both fell in love with the beautiful mortal boy Adonis, Zeus gave Adonis the choice to live with one goddess for 1/3 of the year and the other for 2/3. Adonis chose to live with Aphrodite longer, only to die young.
      • Aphrodite offered Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman, to Paris, a Trojan prince, to win the Golden Apple from him over Hera and Athena. She just conveniently forgot the fact that Helen was already married. Oops. Hello, Trojan War!

      Olympian Census is a 12-part series profiling gods in art at the Getty Center.


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