Contradictory as it may seem, absence can be a potent visual tool for addressing representation. Whether exploring a setting devoid of its central subjects or presenting marginalized histories and persons that have been sidelined from the dominant cultural record, Tammy Rae Carland’s photographs can manifest human intimacies and vulnerabilities, sometimes without any body in the image. Central to the success of this endeavor is Carland’s genuineness in her approach. Despite the fact that many of her projects involve staged photo shoots, they avoid any contrived air, maintaining an honest, personal, and sometimes aching tenderness. In many cases, Carland re-performs a previous loss, rendering permanent a visual reminder of individuals and narratives that have disappeared in one way or another…
This commitment to recording the histories and bodies that become consigned to the periphery, particularly queer and feminist histories, has been ongoing throughout Carland’s artistic practice. From 1997 to 2005, she co-ran Mr. Lady Records and Videos, an independent record label and video-art distribution company that was dedicated to the production and distribution of queer and feminist culture. In the 1990s, she produced a series of influential fanzines, including I (heart) Amy Carter. Carland has contributed to the album art of underground bands like Bikini Kill, The Fakes, and The Butchies. She exhibits her work internationally, and her photographs have been published in many books, including The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire and Lesbian Art in America. She is represented by Silverman Gallery in San Francisco and is an associate professor at California College of the Arts, where she also chairs the photography program.
One example of Carland’s apt utilization of absence is her 2002 project, Lesbian Beds. Seen from a bird’s-eye view, a bed fills each frame in this series. Each bed is unique, with their rumpled comforters and sheets of different colors, strewn pillows, a single sock, a shadow from a window above, a book tucked under a blanket, or a cat crawling to where its owner recently slept. The images feel intensely personal and voyeuristic; this is the everyday, fresh-out-of-bed view of a bed. There are no hospital corners or perfectly arranged duvets on display. Identifying these uninhabited quarters as the sites of lesbian domesticity, Carland seems to be representing the dearth of queer representation itself. Viewers are confronted with the home life of subjects who have been relegated to societal inequality because of their choices of people to share their life.
These beds are absent of their partners. Viewers cannot see the women who inhabit them, but we are made intensely aware of the details of the everyday setting of their intimacy. While all this sounds politically serious, one still feels the artist’s playful intervention in the imagery. Centered in the bed of Untitled (Lesbian Bed #13) is a throw pillow bursting out of its coverlet, stretching into a vaginal shape. This is the authentic yet light touch of Carland’s approach: the staged vaginal reference feels lighthearted and humorous without diminishing the import of underscoring the marginalization of lesbian life.
Humor is a regular tool and preoccupation of Carland’s, in particular stand-up comedy and the often-obscured history of female comics. Her 2010 body of work, I’m Dying Up Here, is a series of photographs of bare stages, either vacant or with a lone female performer. All of the images with performers capture their subjects mid-routine: hunched over in a banana suit, face covered with a mop, doing a handstand with cowboy-boot-adorned feet splayed in the air, wearing a paper bag on her head with a hole cut out for her tongue. The subjects also have their faces covered; they are anonymous entertainers on the quest for a laugh. Many of these images are funny, but mostly they are thick with an uncomfortable desperation and isolation. The title of the series points directly to that cringe-worthy moment when the joke has died, the audience has turned, and the stand-up’s efforts are in vain.
Carland has exhibited these photographs along with framed punch lines from famous female comedians like Phyllis Diller and Moms Mabely. Many of these punch lines were of a self-deprecating nature; for those few women in this boys’ club, demeaning themselves was a common tactic to get a laugh. Though comedy was and is a place where gender roles could be made more flexible and societal mores potentially loosened, many early female comedians were discouraged, disgraced, and effaced by their male counterparts. Carland’s photographs re-perform the flailing female comic as both a tribute to the history of these women and as a poignant record of their vulnerability and self-humiliation.
The series’s images of empty stages, with only a microphone, stool, and glittery backdrop, come almost as a relief from the pain of the implied failed routines. The absence of the female performer in these works is the potent reminder of the histories deemed less significant and of the figures who struggle to be seen. The persistence of Carland’s practice is that she not only refuses to give up on the overlooked subjects but she is also committed to reminding viewers of the ongoing ache of this omission.