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Interview: Patti Levey on Self Portraiture and Healing

Vallecitos, 1991 -- Patti Levey

People are driven to pick up a camera and make a photograph for a lot of different reasons. Perhaps one of the most common of these is to access photography's therapeutic effects. One of the artists included in our current exhibition The Nude – Classical, Cultural Contemporary, is Patti Levey, who has been making nude self-portraits for over thirty years. Levey's process has been one of reclamation, metamorphosis, and healing. The site of Levey's pain and suffering was her own body – and in staging nude self-portraits, she found sanctuary in the photographic process – one that does not discriminate. I asked her to discuss how photography has served as a means of therapy for the women she has worked with over the years as well as herself. Her response is a testament to the powerful and transformational capacity of the photographic medium. –Erin Azouz
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I started doing self-portrait photography at age twenty, when I was a junior at Sarah Lawrence College. In my second photography course I was given an assignment to do a self-portrait and that was it; I have been photographing myself ever since. I’m 52 years old now.

The Awakening, 1991 – Patti Levey
I have always been a self-oriented, introspective person, so it seemed quite natural for me to take pictures of myself, to focus inward, revealing the most intimate and painful aspects of myself. I was initially responding to the incredible amount of denial in my family about their problems and the pressure to maintain the status quo, the family image, at any cost, even at the price of my own sanity. My self-portraits were an attempt to reclaim my feelings, my identity, my body and my sense of personal power, while actually reconstructing my own photographic history. Initially the self-portraits documented my pain more than my process of healing. My original need to photograph myself was not only to see myself, but to have others see me and validate my pain. Showing my photographs, whether to individuals, friends, family, strangers, in a private or public context, has always been an integral part of my process -- even though exposing myself in this way has made me feel incredibly vulnerable and has, at times, been a painful experience.

Besides being a tool for self-revelation and validation, self-portrait photography has always been the most satisfying, fascinating and intriguing form of creative expression for me because it most resembles the process of the unconscious. I usually work without any preconceived idea of what I’m going to do. I cannot see myself through the camera lens until my image is revealed to me in the development of the negatives and prints, much like how what is unknown is revealed in dreaming. Recently, it was pointed out to me that working blindly as I do makes the process as much a kinesthetic as a visual one; I feel where I am in the frame.

Fireplace, 1999 – Patti Levey
My early self-portraits, made when I lived in San Francisco in the late 1980s and early 1990s were done in series that told a story. They were like psychodramas. The multiple exposure technique I used allowed me to represent the diverse and sometimes opposite sides of myself, to have them stand side by side, interact with each other and create integration. I was able to embody feelings of despair, anger, fear, joy and shame, the ways in which I feel crippled, wounded, restrained and to visually shed those dysfunctional self-perceptions, and the cultural and familial roles that have oppressed me. Using props and costumes in my photographs has made them more theatrical and performance-like. The multiple self-images were like characters in a play that have taken on lives of their own, so to speak, apart from my own. I find myself referring to them in the third person.

I have also used self-portrait photography as a way to deal with physical illness. I used to print photographs for a living. When I lived in San Francisco, I was in the darkroom, exposed to toxic chemicals almost every day for eight years. As a result, I have what is called Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome or CFIDS. I was forced to abandon and disassemble my darkroom, to stop working and try to heal myself. In 1995, moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the clean, dry, high desert air, the mountains, the vast open spaces, the peace and quiet and slow-paced lifestyle have helped me to heal my body as well as my spirit. At one point I asked myself: Do I want to pick up my camera again? What would making self-portraits mean to me at this stage of my life? How committed am I to this process? If I let go of ego and self then what is left? How do I capture that on film?

What I came up with is that, for me, creativity is the purest form of connection to God or Spirit that I know and I missed it. In my chosen medium, my body is not only the subject matter but also the catalyst. The work I ended up doing is about inhabiting my body again, and by doing so, going on with my life. Dealing with chronic illness had transformed me. I was no longer afraid of death. I was afraid of living a life without passion, purpose, and meaning. The work that came out of this was a series of nude self-portraits shot in abandoned buildings in New Mexico, titled The Awakening.

Whore 1, 1999 – Patti Levey
As the body is the container of the soul, these buildings are containers of energy and light. Empty buildings, without furniture or belongings, seem to deny the existence of their former human inhabitants. Yet the fact is that people once lived and worked in them. Remnants of their lives remain in the form of energy -- like ghosts. The juxtaposition of human flesh against these crumbling forms and textures to me represents life and death, birth, destruction and rebirth. Oddly, I feel at home here. These spaces have very distinct smells, musty and dank, the smell of old adobe. There are the sounds of birds flying out through the rafters as I enter, wings flapping, cooing. Since there are no windows and doors the wind blows through these spaces, rattling loose pieces of wood and metal. A crumbling roof allows beams of sunlight to filter through, letting in the elements. The inside and the outside have merged. Each building is a kind of wilderness of decay -- a wilderness created by the collaboration between human beings and nature. I am intrigued and fascinated by what is forgotten, abandoned, discarded. I revel in what endures, what is left behind. Illness has taught me that you cannot hold onto anything -- life, youth, health. This idea is best articulated by the Buddhist idea of impermanence. Everything changes, ages, sickens, dies and is reborn and recycled. This world-view is especially pertinent in a culture that denies and detests death and decay -- a culture where consumerism reigns.

I have a masters degree in Clinical Psychology and Feminist Therapy from Antioch University. Also, during this time, I attended a weeklong workshop at The Phototherapy Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia. Phototherapy is a less widely known or utilized form of art therapy, which includes a variety of techniques and self-portraiture is one of them. My master’s thesis project was to help 6 women make photographic self-portraits, as part of their healing process. I interviewed each woman before the photo sessions to find out how they wanted to depict themselves, what their hopes and fears were, what their previous experiences of being photographed were like, etc. Then we did the photo sessions and I developed and printed the photos and I gave them to the women. Then we had another interview about how they felt about the photos. All of the participants except one chose to be naked in their photographs. The photography sessions were creative journeys which started with an idea or plan, sometimes using props or costumes, and eventually evolved into a more intuitive process which ended up in a totally different place emotionally and physically. Only one woman was a photographer, with the skills to take the photos herself; in that session I was more of a witness or coach. All of the other women needed me to load the camera and set it up on a tripod with a cable release.

Large Window, 1999 – Patti Levey
It was through my work as a therapist, my discovery of Phototherapy, and my experience with self-portraiture that I came to develop both a theoretical and practical structure from which this project emerged. It is healing for women to create and see photographic images of themselves, to focus, in a healing way, on their bodies -- to view themselves in ways they have never been able to before, and to give themselves permission to examine themselves in a non-judgmental, non-intrusive context in which they are in control of how, when, and where they are photographed and who is allowed to see them. It is also very important that women are not alone in this process but are assisted both technically and emotionally by a skilled therapist who has experience working clinically with issues.

I believe that what makes photographic self-portraits healing tools is that they act as containers for feelings that may otherwise be overwhelming or debilitating; the photographs are permanent, tangible and visual representations of the self that can be examined over time and that externalize inner emotional and psychic states and processes. Self-portraits provide a safe means for clients to communicate and share difficult feelings with others in that they are one step removed from the client’s actual self; it is easier to talk about or talk to the person in the photograph, as interaction with the photographic image is less threatening. Also, verbal interaction does not have to take place in order to communicate; the photographs themselves are the communication.

The process of photographic self-portraiture enables women to create their own personal set of metaphors and symbols of the self. Ultimately, the goal of self-portrait phototherapy is to generate self-awareness and acceptance as well as a greater capacity for self-empathy. --Patti Levey

View Patti Levey's portfolios on the Photographer's Showcase

For more information please contact photo-eye Gallery Associate Director Anne Kelly by email or by calling the gallery at (505) 988-5152 x202

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