Jonnie Andersen: The States Project: Nebraska
Jonnie Andersen spoke to my Advanced Photography class in 2003 when I was a student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She is a UNL alumnus and had just finished her first year as an MFA candidate at Yale. Most of the discussion was centered on her graduate school experience up to that point, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but her talk would have a dramatic impact on the trajectory of my life. I will be forever indebted to her for showing me that the implausible is possible. I really admire Andersen’s ability to express a shared vulnerability with her subjects. This is personal work by every definition and her desire protect it as such is admirable.
Jonnie Andersen (b. 1976) is a graduate of the MFA program at Yale University. She has a BFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Andersen has taught at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Hastings College, College of Southern Nevada and the Art Institute-Las Vegas. Andersen’s work has dictated her living and work life. She’s lived in Las Vegas, Nevada working for corporate casinos, the Clark County School District, for celebrity chefs and in dive bars, photographing in each position and making connections through them to create photographic work. Andersen interned for Martin Parr in London and has also created work in New Orleans, New Haven, Austin, and rural Colorado and Nebraska. Andersen’s project, The Little Chapel of Esoteric Cosmetology, glamour portraits of streetwalkers in Las Vegas, was featured on the cover of the Los Angeles Times in 2008. Jonnie currently lives and works in rural Nebraska in a renovated one room schoolhouse.
HANG IN THERE…
I attribute my love of photography to just one image, a poster that I associate with every job I had growing up, whether it was at a truck stop or an office: a kitten dangling from a tree, and what is that look on its face? Fear? Anger? Torture? Or is that kitten at a loss, as I was, as to why so many people identified with a scared kitten hanging from a tree branch with the simple slogan beneath? Hang in there. I realized much later that nobody really wanted to inconvenience that kitten, that no kittens had, in fact, been harmed in this photographer’s desire to describe the nature of life. We’re all that kitty; these models are that kitty.
For the last three years I have bartended at a country/western bar in downtown Las Vegas befriending the hustlers, the addicts, and occasionally the hooker with a heart of gold. I began photographing them by renting a room at a local motel, redecorating the whole place as a tiny fashion/glamour shoot, then finding and occasionally paying the women for their time. Guy friends hang outside to watch pimps and “boyfriends” while we work inside to make over our models, cleaning faces and doing makeup, teasing, curling, straightening hair or fitting wigs.
Each shoot costs approximately 6 shifts of tips and hourly wages from the Bunkhouse Saloon, a week of organizing, cleaning, washing, and boxing the sets, costumes, makeup, etc for the shoot, at least 5 people willing to forego a night of partying to hang out at a shady motel which never gets quite to temperature from the box a/c hanging out the window. At least one of the five is a hair and/or makeup professional as I have no patience or talent for that sort of work, preferring to spend all of my time there photographing and talking with the women.
It plays out as a camp-like atmosphere, discussing boys and gossiping about other women. The men I would describe as pimps are always respectfully referred to as boyfriends; the women delight in wearing the wedding dress I always bring to shoots from my own failed attempt at love and forever. They watch themselves in the mirror and I thrill at seeing myself, if a less jaded version, in this daydream of life. They almost always open the door wide, look out at their boyfriends as if presenting themselves, and we are all disappointed at the response of a man whose face registers more ‘deer in the headlights’ than joy. I found out quickly that I musn’t let them do it until after the photos are taken; it shakes the confidence we give them in the makeover.
Down the streets most stripped of the bling and glamour of Vegas’ image and certainly its image culture we do as the tourists do: we pretend; we play dress up; we have a fantasy of ourselves for a few moments or a few hours, and then go back to our dread real lives.
Whereas the tourist experience is mediated by social contracts, obligation and fear, our delusions of grandeur are boundless. Groups of people who would normally not come together in this familiar way find themselves together, having intimate conversation all under the guise of the camera’s desire. I’ll never know what photography means to the project, how much of it is actually performance art, but that the camera provides the tool to make it possible. The camera functions as an excuse to hang out, to smile, to pretend. That’s what makes photography great; somebody told me once that photography is “dead.” Ah, shit, I thought, have we really had the last of the good times?
But I realized then what the kitten photographer had already known: everybody’s just trying to crap on your parade. You study photography? That’s so over. You’re going into dentistry? Look out, the robots gonna replace you then what will you do with that huge school debt? Hang in there; help’s on the way. Look at the photos and play along. It’s meant to be funny, ridiculous, beautiful and heartbreaking, and we’re all in on the joke; no humans were betrayed in the making of this album.
Note the abrasions of desire and telltale signs of self-mutilation. Watch, if you will, the nature of self-loathing that sets one to seek out merciless chemicals that ravage a body and destroy the teeth, turning them to powder so that they simply begin to vanish. After the first act the body starts the process of vanishing as well, flesh loose with the lessening of fat and muscle to protect brittle bones.
Finally take comfort in the knowledge that we’re all so very much alike: we wish to be seen, cherished, to be loved for our selves, because of and not in spite of our extraordinary flaws.
The term “esoteric cosmetology” comes from the term esoteric cosmology. It almost always deals with at least some of the following themes: emanation, involution, evolution, epigenesis, planes of existence or higher worlds (and their emanation and the connections between them), hierarchies of spiritual beings, cosmic cycles, yogic or spiritual disciplines and techniques of self-transformation, and references to mystical and altered states of consciousness. Such cosmologies cover many of the same concerns also addressed by religious and philosophical cosmology, such as the origin, purpose, and destiny of the universe and of consciousness and the nature of existence. For this reason it is sometimes difficult to distinguish where religion or philosophy end and esotericism or occultism begins. However, esoteric cosmology is distinguished from religion in its more sophisticated construction and reliance on intellectual understanding rather than faith, and from philosophy in its emphasis on techniques of psycho-spiritual transformation. (thanks Wikipedia!) Um, yeah, so that’s what we’re doing but we’re discovering it through superficial beauty products and “tricks of the trade.” I know, I know, that’s soooo over.
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Rana Young: The States Project: NebraskaMarch 20th, 2016
Larry Gawel: The States Project: NebraskaMarch 19th, 2016
Walker Pickering: The States Project: NebraskaMarch 18th, 2016
Shelley Fuller: The States Project: NebraskaMarch 17th, 2016
Jonnie Andersen: The States Project: NebraskaMarch 16th, 2016