Subtle light falls across the comforter where a couple sits with fingers interlaced, the family pets looking quietly on. The figures gaze directly at the camera, unsmiling, with quiet grace. While the scene is tranquil, it feels novel at the same time. The figures are both of the same gender after all, and at least one of the pair sports a military uniform. Until recently under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) rule, the mere public exposure of these personal relationships would have been grounds for discharge. However, these service members still face unequal treatment under federal law due to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Australian photographer Tatjana (pronounced “Tatiana”) Plitt aims to confront DOMA and our collective conscious head-on with candid portraits of loving couples using their dignity to fight inequality.
East City Art doesn’t usually stray far from Eastern DC and the Gateway Arts District; regular readers might wonder why we’re writing about an Australian photographer temporarily based in suburban Maryland. Occasionally, an artist or project comes along whose social or artistic impact we feel transcends our immediate coverage area and deserves recognition- Plitt hits the bulls-eye on both counts. Her tentatively titled Gay Warriors series directly adds to the political dialogue now taking place figuratively (and for some readers literally) “down the block” in the halls of Congress. Plitt recently completed a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign to cover travel expenses, allowing her to crisscross the country visiting lesbian and gay service members in their homes. The completed series of approximately 50 portraits will be transformed into a traveling exhibition to be displayed here in the District and then in galleries around the country.
While Plitt feels strongly about equality for all people, she hasn’t previously strayed into the realm of politics with her art. This body of work builds upon her previous use of couples’ portraiture as bellwethers of social mores. “One of the things that gets my attention,” she tells me, “are the contrasts and contradictions in life and [the contrast of] love and war is certainly one of life’s big contradictions.” In her immediate family, she has an uncle who served in the military and a sister who identifies as a lesbian and she sees this new body of work as a culmination of disparate parts of her life merging together. Social media sites created by gay service members (who have largely been left out of traditional military support structures) provided her first touchpoint to the community, and interest in the project has grown organically in just a few short months.
Her project and campaign have garnered some media attention for what could be called the “activist” aspect of the work but such coverage has not necessarily delved into the artistic underpinnings of her craft. I was curious as to why she thinks photography, and more specifically, candid portraiture is an effective medium to convey a social statement. In her words, photography is a “direct imprint of reality”, imparting a sense of intimacy. While the tableaux are highly constructed (more on that in a moment), the resulting images nonetheless have a sense of immediacy – we could be in the room with them – that isn’t necessarily obtainable with a painting. According to Plitt, “these are real families and being able to see them and make that connection… that is where I see the power laying in these pictures.”
While this project has a contemporary veneer, Plitt has added layers of complexity (and perhaps ambiguity) by deliberately placing her subjects in domestic poses seen repeatedly throughout the history of Western art. In this way the images transcend mere documentation, placing gay relationships squarely within an enduring, larger-scale social narrative. In preparing this body of work, Plitt examined Renaissance and other historical portraiture, studying a 500 year time-span of how artists pose couples to highlight their partnership. According to the artist, these paintings were not only treasured family heirlooms, but in olden times even served as a form of quasi-legal documentation of the marriage, highlighting its legitimacy. In her contemporary spin, Plitt shows that the definition of a loving partnership is not hegemonic, but pliable and able to ebb and flow over time.
With this insight, the viewer begins to notice the subtleties in the images. For example, in Zachary, Marshall, Emma & Taylor, it is immediately evident that placement of the hands is of paramount importance. The intertwining of the mens’ fingers places the wedding band at center stage in the middle of the quartet. The daughters pose at three-quarter profile, hands squarely on fathers’ legs, cementing the bonds between generations. The fathers gently place an arm around each young girl, reflexively protecting them from the outside world. Even the family pet appears as yet another token of domesticity. Compare this contemporary family portrait to William Hoare’s The Pitt Family of Encombe (an historical antecedent from which Plitt drew ideas) painted sometime between 1758 and 1761. Notice the way in which the parents’ fingers intertwine and the way the mother’s hand lays across the young girl’s shoulder, enveloping her into the family unit. Plitt subtly manages to capture the notions of love, care-taking and domesticity that have been valued in our culture for hundreds of years. According to Plitt, “the stories that we tell ourselves about [our culture] impact the way we experience our own lives.” By framing them within a larger, historical construct, Plitt encourages viewers to embrace the commonalities experienced by all couples in their search for happiness.
In our current political climate that embrace is not shared evenly. Plitt knowingly fans these flames by almost always staging the couples in their bedroom. This setting is one of purpose. It is a space that for virtually all couples, regardless of gender, is one of privacy. It’s also a space of emotional and yes, at times, physical intimacy. In explaining her use of this particular setting, Plitt wryly notes, “people have in their imaginations what they think gay couples are like… what their love lives [are] like.” In her portraiture however, the bedroom setting works to ground the couples into a reality to which most viewers can relate- these bedrooms could be our bedrooms. Perhaps there is a common ground after all.
Curious about viewers’ response to her images, I asked her if she’s received any negative feedback. Some online observers have indeed criticized her work, calling it “boring” and “lacking in effort.” She thinks they’re missing the point. The series is meant to be repetitive in nature, with each image working in tandem to support a cogent theme. The subtlety is within the gestures and the minute differences in how the actors touch one another. Instead of taking the subjects to glamorous places or artificially highlighting their gender, she normalizes them in a way that is almost pedestrian, which indeed, is the entire point of her endeavor. The stylized limitations also challenge her as an artist, forcing her to see how creative she can be in manipulating that subtlety across fifty images.
With funding secured, Plitt will hit the road in February on an adventure spanning ten states (and counting) as far west as Hawaii before returning to Maryland to put the series together. The sheer number of couples willing to open their doors to her is inspiring. While these soldiers no longer risk outright dismissal, their public display of their relationships still makes them vulnerable to potential hostility in the workplace. Even though they serve our country with honor, the Federal Government does not honor their relationships. In highlighting her subjects’ quiet dignity above all else, Plitt gives her subjects a voice to ask – no require – that their yearning for love and stable family bonds be honored. Her social message is important and the fact that the message is skillfully expressed with visual artistry demonstrates the critical role art plays in our public life.
More information about Tatjana Plitt’s “Gay Warriors” series can be found on her website. East City Art plans to cover the DC exhibit later in 2013.