Poems, music honor female photographers
"The Testing Field," a performance piece, includes these photos by Clover Adams (from left), Margaret Bourke-White and Alexandra Boulat.
‘The Testing Fields’
Gorilla Tango’s Skokie Theatre, 7924 Lincoln Ave.
9 p.m. Friday, March 29 and 5 p.m. Sunday, March 31
(847) 677-7761; www.gorillatango.com or www.testingfields.org
Updated: March 21, 2013 10:30AM
Three female photographers from the past are the focus of a new multimedia piece called, “The Testing Fields.”
The world premiere of the work written, produced and directed by Gaspard Le Dem, with lyrics by Elisa Sutherland, will be performed by Sutherland at Gorilla Tango’s Skokie Theatre on Friday, March 29 and Sunday, March 31. The production features piano music, performed by Nate Raskin, as well as electronic music and projections.
“The original impetus was a set of poems written by Elisa,” Le Dem said. The two met at Northwestern University where Sutherland created the poems for an undergraduate thesis. (Sutherland majored in both creative writing and music as an undergraduate. She is currently working on a graduate degree in opera at Northwestern.)
“I started to feel some sort of kindred spirit with these women,” said Sutherland, who wrote about a total of nine female photographers. “In a way, by exploring their stories I was able to find something out about myself as an artist.”
Sutherland agreed to collaborate with Le Dem on this show because they had worked together before. “He knew my voice. He knew my artistic style,” she said. “And I was very familiar with his musical aesthetic.”
A year and a half-ago, Le Dem set one of the poems to music and Sutherland’s performance of it was well received but they felt something was missing. “We decided we wanted to make a performance piece out of it,” she said. “There’s only one character but she gets transformed into three different characters.”
The pair concentrated on three of Sutherland’s subjects — Clover Adams (1843-1885), Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) and Alexandra Boulat (1962-2007).
“We’re doing interpretive portraiture of these three photographers who are from completely different eras,” Le Dem noted. Sutherland’s character, who isn’t given a name in the piece, “goes back and relives the experiences of these photographers and their subjects through three specific photographs.”
The photo used with the poem about Adams shows a well-dressed 19th century woman holding a dog. “She is not looking into the camera,” Le Dem said. “There is a very oppressed aura about her. She seems very introspective and refined — obviously a thinker but there’s something about the photograph that screams repression.”
Le Dem reported that Adams’ husband wasn’t very supportive of her photography career. “She got very depressed and decided to drink her developing liquid,” he said. “That’s how she ended her life.”
“The whole idea of overexposing a photograph became a metaphor for a life that was overexposed,” Sutherland said.
The portion of the show about Bourke-White doesn’t delve into her personal life, concentrating on the image instead. “The photograph is a picture of a man in a field holding a parachute,” Le Dem explained. “It was taken at a parachute factory testing field a little bit before World War II. When you’re testing parachutes, you’re risking your life. We focus on the tension. These men aren’t yet ready for war but they’re preparing for it. I think that was what Margaret Bourke-White was trying to capture.”
“A photograph is passive by nature but you have this action happening,” Sutherland noted.
Boulat’s photo is of a hand. “She was a photographer during the third Balkan War,” Le Dem said. “She took this amazing photograph of a dead woman’s hand surrounded by leaves. Her body had been lying there for a long time. It could seem like a shocking photo but instead it’s really beautiful. You feel this connection that she had as a female photographer with her subject.”
“We chose those three [photographers] because there seemed to be a sort of natural progression between them,” Sutherland said. “And at the same time, they’re all very different.”