In reflecting on the deeper meaning in the images of the “Villetta Series”, a consideration of the phenomenon of Occult photography is particularly fruitful. The relation of the past (personal and historical) to the present, the potential and limits of the attempt through photography to make present what is irretrievably gone are integral concerns in this project. It is of relevance to the history of artists working at Byrdcliffe and to my own personal history as well.
The “Villetta Series” was conceived during my first night as a resident at Byrdcliffe. Because I had arrived between sessions, I was the only guest in this vast, historic house. It was rainy and windy outside. As night fell, my plan was to settle into the safe, contained space of my small room. I soon found I was unable to relax. I was alone in an unfamiliar place, I didn’t know the origins of the many sounds I was hearing, I was fearful that a menacing man could appear suddenly in a window or at the door. In other words, this was the quintessential setting for spirits to make their presence known. These thoughts made my heart race. In an attempt to stop my imagination from wandering further, I forced myself to come out of my room to witness what was real. What I discovered was the perfect opportunity for picture taking. The stage was set. Wearing my nightgown and a mask I found tacked to the kitchen wall and drawing on my fear and imagination for inspiration, I started taking pictures.
Ironically in posing for the portraits, I enacted the spirit or the stranger who suddenly appears. I became what I was afraid of seeing. In the earliest Occult photographs, the subjects were entertainers, actors who transformed themselves into spirits. In keeping with this tradition, my vampy boots, ghostly mask, white dress, and the representational use of my body deliberately reference a clichéd depiction of a spirit. Yet my sense of the photographs is that they emanate an aura of authenticity, as if unwittingly, I had in fact channeled and captured the presence of spirits in the house.
Another aspect in the tradition of Occult photography is that spirits were unknowingly captured and later revealed through the development process. Similarly, the process of my developing the “Villetta” prints unexpectedly brought narrative meaning. Finding many interesting images in the contact sheets, I started printing quick test images in a small format and making stacks of each printed image of the different exposure tests. As the stacks began to grow, I realized how integral they were to this project, how much they captured the essence of a spirit. The small format and ripped paper edges reference the snapshot, an image taken quickly and spontaneously. The stacks represent movement and fluidity, repeated sightings.
The final presentation of the “Villetta” series is also layered with meaning. The box which holds the photographs is symbolic of the psychic role the buildings of Byrdcliffe play as a container for the history and mystery of all that has taken place there.
Isabelle Lumpkin (Brooklyn, NY) grew up African-American and Jewish in an academic family in La Jolla, CA. She received a BA in Afro-American Studies from Brown University, after which she moved to NYC to pursue a career as a professional dancer. Lumpkin trained at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and was selected to perform with the professional company in Memoria, one of Ailey’s seminal pieces. For the past decade, Ms. Lumpkin has shifted her creative focus towards visual arts and has participated in studio residencies at The Center for Book Arts, the Whitney Independent Studies Program, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her works has been included in solo and group exhibitions throughout New York and San Francisco including Interpreting Utopia at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz in summer 2007, and as a member of the newly formed art collective Freundeskreis a group based in Berkeley, CA. Ms. Lumpkin’s artwork has also been featured in the pages of Mother Jones, the “L”, Flyer, and Honey. Recently, Ms. Lumpkin has begun performing live again, integrating her experience as a professional dancer with her visual and commercial art practices. Upcoming performances will take place at several venues in NYC this Fall, including Deitch Projects, The Kitchen, Galapagos, and Spiegeltent. Ms. Lumpkin lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Lumpkin was an Artist-in-Residence at CPW in 2006.