FEATURE ARTICLE by BLAIR BEUSMAN…
Traditionally, art and the divine have always been closely associated. In classical antiquity, artistic inspiration was seen as a state of ecstasy in which a god, typically Apollo or Dionysus, would overtake a mortal, using him as a conduit to convey ethereal truths to the earth-bound. Elizabeth Waterman’s work embraces and expands on this concept by depicting artists as transcending the mundane through their own creative potential. To accomplish this, she divides her photographic portraits into categories of the conscious, the subconscious, and the superconscious – the archetypal realms in which life’s experiences unfold.
Waterman can pinpoint the moment she became aware of art’s revelatory qualities. At seventeen she began taking photographs with black and white disposable cameras. “I got images back from the pharmacy, and they were so mysterious; they insinuated a dark, poetic world … I was thrilled,” she recalls. “I could finally show how I felt.” She moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to pursue a degree in Fine Art at the University of Southern California, where she made a formal study of photography. Waterman had always been drawn to artistic self-exploration; as a teenager, she wrote a series of books documenting her journey through the same levels of consciousness that appear in her photographs today. “A lot of my early work was exploring transformation in myself, and I got to a point where that was no longer interesting,” Waterman explains. “I asked myself how I could show it in other people.” Portraiture gave her the means to those ends.
After graduating, Waterman moved to Brooklyn and opened a boutique photography studio. Deeply inspired by the vibrancy of the art culture there, she began to document its visionaries. This culminated in The New God, a product of three years’ effort that includes 150 subjects. Aimed at capturing the creative gifts and potential of her peers, The New God is a bone-deep documentation of the millennial generation. Waterman focused on a single aspect of each subject’s psyche, depicting him or her as embodying one of the three realms of consciousness. The subjects in the first group deliberately and consciously present themselves to the world, gazing unflinchingly into the camera. Those in the second are metamorphosed by makeup and masks, representing the various dimensions of the subconscious, and those in the third illustrate a superconscious state of openness, made both vulnerable and free by their exposure. The result is a living collage of an emerging culture, with its diverse personalities, moments, emotions, and visions.
Waterman has delved further into this paradigm in her most recent project, a series of triptychs. As in The New God, Waterman focuses on creative pioneers, from performance artists to muses to art collectors. With the triptychs, however, she portrays the passage of each individual through all three of the realms. Waterman presents her subjects alternatively stripped down and dressed up in different tropes of portraiture, ranging from highly polished studio shots to more candid and extemporary images. When viewed from left to right like a text, the succession of images shows the subject confronting his or her visceral self and emerging transcendent. Although each photograph in the triptych is distinct, it acquires its full meaning only through juxtaposition with the other two. The viewer must consider them collectively – as dimensions of the whole.
Triptychs have a long tradition as a religious art form. They originated in Eastern Orthodox churches during the early days of the Byzantine Empire and enjoyed immense popularity well into the Renaissance. They often adorn the altar as the focal point of the chancel, and to the faithful, they are resplendent illustrations of church doctrine. Triptychs are unique in their ability to present discrete planes of reality simultaneously. Often, the side panels provide context for the scene illustrated in the center, offering alternative perspectives, allegorical symbols, or asynchronous events. The format gave artists a device for making plain the mysterious workings of the Divine. These painters, like the artists and poets from ancient times, created a palpable link between the corporeal and the celestial.
Waterman’s triptychs, similarly, reveal the abstract nature of truth. However, she inverts the traditional process; through her portraiture, she extrapolates from what is singularly human to what is universal and divine. In doing so, she undergoes a remarkable “joint transformational experience” with her subjects. “When I guide someone through the three realms of the triptych, I go through them by association and see myself through him,” she explains. This, Waterman believes, constitutes the power of her archetypal realms. The distillation of a person into three essential categories is at once intimate and expansive, and the triptych, by focusing so deeply on a subject’s multi-dimensional nature, becomes both a microcosm and a symbol of the human experience.
The transformative alchemy of the triptychs then extends to the viewer, but it is not merely a vicarious experience. More significantly, one is challenged to consider one’s own passage through the realms. In this way, to observe the images is to become a participant in constructing their meaning. One sees that every individual can be so divided; beyond the conscious self, there are a myriad of unspoken impulses and latent possibilities. This illuminates the interconnection between us all and holds a mirror up to the viewer, as all important art must. Each self revealed becomes a lens through which all selves are revealed.