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It is one thing to make portraits and another thing entirely to make self-portraits. Photographer Sage Sohier has done both, simultaneously, and it is in the charged field between the two that she draws a magnetic narrative of three generations of women. In tracing the arc of a star that is her mother, Sohier reveals a storied cultural history, with subtle hints, innuendo and questions left hanging, in “Witness To Beauty” her solo show and accompanying monograph at Carroll and Sons in Boston’s SoWa gallery district through April 1, 2017.
Sohier has been an astute cultural historian for decades, casting her inquisitive eye toward that unquenchable place in people that thirsts for respect, if not recognition. Seemingly possessed of a sixth sense, she keeps bringing us enlightening versions of those whose lives have often been perverted by society, such as her incisive and empathetic “At Home With Themselves” (Spotted Books, 2014), about committed gay couples during the AIDS scourge and hysteria of the 1980s. For the past twenty years or so, Sohier has turned the camera on her own witting mother, an aging and boldly glamorous woman, along with her sister and herself – and therein the plot thickens. While Sohier’s images explore what it is like to grow up in a fashion model’s shadow, they are equally riveting to anyone who has in one way or another felt eclipsed by a parent – in other words, most of us.
That enthralling whiff of an exquisite scent trailing someone who’s just exited a room is the sensation that impelled me through “Witness To Beauty”, both in the creatively installed exhibit at Carroll and Sons and in Sohier’s newly released book of the same title (signed copies available at the gallery). Dedicated to Sohier’s grandmother, an absent beauty whose spirit pervades the home in which most of the interior shots are made, the photographs reference a maternal line with tactful intimacy and affectionate probing. Many of the photographs are made in bedrooms and bathrooms. Cross-generational references, like paintings and vintage photos throughout the elegant, dated décor, couch Sohier’s images in a decidedly feminine palette from a more genteel time and place. As their charm draws us in, they lead us headlong into questions of what separates us and what bonds us to our parents.
Realizing early on that her mother’s aptitude for posing would hijack every attempt at an offguard shot, Sohier took a collaborative path instead. Interestingly, I think these unabashedly controlled scenes actually balance power and multiply impact. With her mother occupying the emotional center of every photograph, Sohier and her sister serve to both absorb and reflect, magnifying the mother-daughter dynamics at play. The images are pleasingly arranged, replete with symbolism in the many mirrored surfaces and bodies of water. Many mimic rituals from Sohier’s youth, like summer swims, bleaching hair, trying on gowns and jewelry at home or shopping together. Her mother’s cultivated beauty extends to the realms of home and garden. Flowers abound.
An impeccable aesthetic defines every photograph: color, composition, line, everything. But the real depth and beauty in Sohier’s work springs from the portrayal of her subjects as multi-dimensional. Her mother wins our sympathy and admiration for her willingness to reveal an aging self, her energetic and long-term collaboration on this project, and her old-fashioned belief in soldiering on. Sohier and her sister admit to an obvious solace in their mother’s glow, even as they wrestle as adults in their evolved childhood selves, a place all former children crave and eschew. Sohier’s light touch avoids cliché and allows viewers to enter her rarified world with equal parts wonder and recognition. Her aim is positively stunning.
For more information about this exhibit, go to: http://www.carrollandsons.net/exhibitions/index.php
Feature Image: “Mum and I in bathrobes, Washington, D.C., 2000” (Detail) from the book Witness To Beauty by Sage Sohier (courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston).