Gabrielle de Montmollin


Secret Lives: An essay on the photography of Gabrielle de Montmollin
© Kate Regan, 1996

Dolls are not child's play in the delicate, devious hands of Gabrielle de Montmollin. There's a stealthy seduction going on in her photographs of Barbie dolls and their cousins. Their activities, their glances, their theatrical self-absorption draw us into a disquiet landscape whose contours have the soft force of dreams. In her artist's statement, Montmollin compares these scenes to "details of dreams I've had which I can never remember."

Anyone who has looked closely at dolls can sense that they have secret lives. In size and function, they are close to icons, idols, puppets and other such simulacra: all present an uneasy sense of independence from their makers. Children may play with them, but adults also worship small, humanoid figures as representations of deities, and the worship, in many cultures, includes lavish dressing of the figures, arranging them in tableaux and offering them special foods.

Children, and some artists, simply have a more direct acceptance of the doll's subliminal presence. The Southern outsider artist Bessie Harvey, for instance, once destroyed a number of her small but ferocious sculptures because she said they were possessed of demons; even though she'd made them, they'd escaped her command. It's the old problem of Frankenstein's monster; or the Golem of Jewish folklore.

Barbie dolls, one would think, could not be farther from Gothic freaks: Barbies are mass-produced, everlastingly perky of face and bosom, so ubiquitous that they have become banal even in the sphere of feminist deconstruction. Montmollin, however, who sometimes speaks of her photographs as folk art, has no interest in the possible political freight of a Barbie. She has uncovered the soul behind the kitsch.

Through the scenarios in which she places them, and through her uncanny use of the camera's transformative eye, she uncovers a hidden life within these creatures. And even though she sets them in a scene, she cannot predict how they will behave in certain conditions of light, or what fleeting expressions a doll's face can seem to reflect. She has shown these static figures to be quite changeable.

"Often I'm thinking of other things than what's actually going on. Then, just as I want more, it happens," Montmollin says. "But what it is, the more that is there, I don't know where it comes from or what it is."

In her 1994 show, The meticulous construction of the tranquil life of Amazons, she placed dolls in natural settings: they were submerged in sand at the seashore, basking within a bank of wild grasses, climbing a tree or frolicking under a waterfall. They have a radiant tenderness; their synthetic skins take on a fleshly glow. Montmollin says matter-of-factly that their plastic bodies "take the light well," but it is she who brings them into the light, using it to illuminate both the vulnerability and playful abandon behind the hard uniformity of her subjects.

Some of the Amazon prints were composed in the studio. Experimenting with dolls in bowls of water, she came up with one of her most evocative images: a life-size head, with glistening painted eyes and a Mona Lisa smile, stares out serenely while snails crawl over and around her forehead, chin, neck.... The doll is transformed into its secret self, a mermaid or a naiad, self-possessed and eerily beautiful. The mollusks sliding across her countenance may make us shudder, but she seems to welcome them as familiars (or perhaps even as mobile jewelry).

Finding that there were, after all, limitations in the fixed expression of her dolls, Montmollin began fitting them with new false faces. In her new series, Leading Ladies, which may be the culmination of her Barbie explorations, she has crafted tiny masks from magazine photos.

Donning these masks brings the dolls into an altogether more ominous realm. Atop the same absurdly shapely Barbie figure there are now the startlingly realistic visages of children, bearded men, ordinary women. They are often lightly seamed or wrinkled in the process of fitting a flat surface to a molded one. The result is both comic and alarming. When one sees these objects in the studio, the masks are obviously distinct from their bodies and the dolls, lying scattered on tables, are quiescent. Through the alchemy of black and white photography, however, the dolls take on a disturbing liveliness. Wizened and alert, their faces are convincingly mortal.

"When I first photographed them, I was almost scared of them," Montmollin says. "They weren't meant to be so sinister, to have such impact. In fact, I have held myself back a bit. I have one mask that's of a child singing but it looks like it's screaming and I've used it only once or twice, whereas I would like to use it all the time. But I feel there's a lot more to them than the element of fright."

Oddly enough, these creatures with individualized faces seem more remote from us than those with the blank countenances of a typical doll. Yet they are also more confidently and blatantly engaged in rituals that they allow us to see. Whereas the Amazons invite a sort of reverent voyeurism, the masked dolls confront us. They are mutant beings, more aggressive than dolls, but too outré to be human. One or two of them do remind me of a famously baroque transvestite in San Francisco of the 1970s, but even he did not have a Barbie body.

Montmollin has worked with dolls, plastic toys and staged settings since "the time I first found my own voice/vision as an artist," she says. Although she briefly did classic landscapes, always in black in white, she concluded that straight photography was not her calling. The "decisive moment" that Cartier Bresson looked for would be a moment she would create, rather than wait to happen.

If she thinks of her work as "photographic folk art," it is perhaps in part because her studio set-up and equipment, she thinks, are rough and primitive by professional standards. She has used the same Pentax manual camera she bought more than a decade ago and her lights are "antiquated." But it doesn't matter, because "you can always do things with simple equipment. I like working within limitations and restrictions because then you just have to be able to get what you want out of something."

Although the sense of narrative in her photographs is strong, so is the mystery: one never knows just what the background story is. Montmollin has consciously tried to avoid obvious symbolism or "any kind of political sense." She is interested in awakening imagination rather than commentary. There is an almost egoless transparency in these works; her subjects, viewed with such intimate and dispassionate attention, step into the light and act out their own mythologies.

Kate Regan who formerly covered dance and the visual arts for The San Francisco Chronicle is now a writer and curator based in Toronto, Canada.