Reflecting on Eileen Perrier’s Latest series of portraits, I am haunted by the memory of her early image of a blue-haired girl posing in front of a set of luscious, larger-than-life lips at the annual Afro Hair and Beauty Show in London in 1998. Fast forward to Syracuse 2009, when Perrier was a resident at Light Work: inspired by photographs of the late Harriet Tubman, the great African American abolitionist, ex-fugitive slave, and advocate for woman’s rights, Perrier set out on a personal journey following a tourist map of the city’s Freedom Trail.
In the mid 1850s, Syracuse was a key destination for thousands of African Americans on the journey from slavery to Freedom on the Underground Railroad, an informal but established network of anti-slavery activists, secret routes, and safe houses. As Perrier wandered through modern Syracuse, a contemporary equivalent to Baudelaire’s inquisitive flaneur, its places and people became signposts along this cultural landscape, heavily impregnated with history and socio-political relics of the past. Armed with her camera and tripod, as well as a mechanical headrest, British born Perrier found herself an outsider charting a path through the memory of an alien nation, searching for traces of what remains of the Freedom Trail today.
As an artist, Perrier finds her inspiration in premeditated encounters with strangers. Photographing particular places in Syracuse, she was often approached by passers-by, which in turn led to them having their portrait taken. Each location that she visits becomes a stage, and the sitters become performers in the artist’s personal journey of discovery through a visual landscape of memory, identity, and history.
Perrier is a master of the art of the in situ portrait, fascinated by photographing people. With her uncanny ability to create a studio environment in any open space, its very location often represents the missing link that completes the genealogy of Perrier’s work.
Her untitled photographs at first appear to be unrelated juxtapositions. Closer inspection reveals them to be significant sister of interest in the history of the nineteenth century abolitionist movement, such as Rose Hill Cemetery on Lodi Street. Built in 1848, it as once the most prominent burial place for African Americans who lived and died in Syracuse before the Civil War. Another photograph depicts the former Wesleyan Methodist Church at Columbus circle, once a safe house providing refuge for hundreds of freedom seekers each year. The cemetery has been transformed into a lush park, lonely gravestones scattered around the green; the chapel is now a popular local restaurant. Once the histories of the sites are laid bare, these metamorphoses taint a collective memory and highlight the need to preserve a vanishing past.
Providing simultaneous support and restraint, the headrest renders the sitter temporarily immobile during the long exposure. Perrier’s use of the apparatus is ambivalent; in the late nineteenth century, cultural anthropologists and criminologists used it as an aide to catalogue, construct, or fit people’s identity. As a prop, the employment of a headrest dates back to the early years of photography.
A calm sense of uneasy confinement and resignation accompanies the two portraits in profile. Both subjects appear strangely absent yet confidently relaxed, fixed by the mechanical top end of the headrest that almost fuses with the back of their heads.
In contrast, an elderly man with wild, silver hair, also supported by the here invisible headrest, looks startled, a sudden mild shock or alarm dancing in his eyes, wide open and arctic blue. The disconcerting intensity of his gaze conflicts with the idyllic scenery painted on his T-shirt that depicts a group of brown bears fishing in a lake. He appears imprisoned, except that the bars are behind him.
As a series of anthropometric portraits imbued with the aesthetic of a classic mug shot, Perrier’s images oscillate between a state of apprehension and nonchalance, revealing little of the sitter’s personal circumstances. At once compliant and complicit inhabitants of Perrier’s latest body of work, these strangers find themselves literally confined to the frame. Subjected to the politics of representation, they become anonymous characters on a stage with a script that has yet to be written.
Perrier’s new body of work bears silent witness to a key quality at the core of photography’s powers: its ability to resurrect the past and open up the gates to remembrance through visual testimony.