Seen in fiction and reality alike, some themes such as love never lose their appeal. Stories about love are as old as mankind yet as fresh as last week’s heartache. They have been told and retold since homo erectus discovered words and vocal cords, and chiseled into our history in every media imaginable since then. Yet while the idea of love has been approached from endless angles, there always remains one more chapter that has been left unexplored; is new, yet old; and captures our attention.
Most stories about love center on courtship and the act of falling in love, and end with a prediction of "happily ever after." Other stories narrate relationships that have gotten off course from their happy ending. Photographer Rachel Herman, however, casts her artistic eye on couples who have separated. Her series Imp of Love examines couples who are in the midst of redefining their friendship after the romantic relationship has ended. This can be a long and emotionally bumpy road that sizzles with traces of old arguments. Each image pictures two people committed to remaining friends and their struggle to shake off old baggage.
The couples in Herman's photographs are as real as photography allows. They look like our neighbors, friends, or family members—beautiful, likeable, and quirky in their authenticity. They seem well qualified for the challenge to disentangle their lives and emotions as they work to salvage their close friendship. They continue to spend time with their former partners, although this can be "painful, fumblingly awkward, or confusingly tender," as Herman describes in her artist statement.
Each photograph represents just one freeze frame in friendships and relationships that have usually spanned years. However, each image depicts an actual couple, introduced to the viewer by name through the titles.
As in most portrait photography, core emotions are communicated in a way that leaves it to the observation of the viewer to read and interpret, as gently guided by the photographer’s choice of composition and stylistic decision making. The images and the people seem natural and unposed, while the photographer remains mostly invisible yet ever present in the image making process.
Within the framework of the photographs much is revealed in the body language of the couples. Regardless of the time since the break-up, its aftermath is apparent as these couples renegotiate how to relate to one another physically and emotionally. Their bodies become tell-alls, as each person responds to the other's close presence in their own way. Boundaries of comfort levels are established in a push and pull that hints at their old ways of interaction. Depending on comfort level, the body language is sometimes awkward and self-conscious, and at other times self assured and firm.
The images brim with everyday humanity and display signs of the loss and mourning for the comforts of a romantic love that has ended. Image and subjects, though, refuse to be tragic. Each person is intensely engaged with the other. To make their new arrangement work, they cannot dwell on the past. They cannot vilify, be angry, or too sad about what happened in their relationship. They seem to be listening closely, quietly reflecting, while keeping the peace. They are present in a way that reveals the moment to moment change from ease and happiness to discomfort and frustration.
Each couple shares a private history with details of love, fights, and passions. Through the use of a camera, the photographs communicate traces of this past without details or judgment. Herman gives little direction during the photo sessions, preferring the couples to take the lead. While the couples may direct how they want to interact before the camera, it is Herman who orchestrated the occasion for the meeting itself. The photo shoot with its intensity of the landscape and the bringing together of the couple becomes a catalyst that allows pent up emotions to rise to the surface.
Describing the resulting images, Herman writes, "The gestures are extremely idiosyncratic, but the situation of being in difficult love or of transcending difficult love to arrive at a different place resonates and is, hopefully, instantly relatable to the viewer." Both the awkwardness and the expressed concern for each other make each couple equally familiar and important to the viewer.
While most of the images in the Imp of Love series were taken between 2007 and 2009, the series continues, as do the stories of the couples. Some couples reunited. Some made their new platonic arrangement work, others could not. It is not important for the viewer to know the full stories of these relationships, what happened when, who did what to whom, or how they continued.
Herman has chosen water and landscape—mostly along Chicago’s lakefront—as a consistent backdrop. The content of each photograph is allowed to develop within these settings, which Herman considers "simultaneously mutable and neutral, yet romantic." It is the open-endedness that makes the images universal and fresh from image to image.
Land and water become metaphors for the emotional realm where humanity exists without the distractions of daily activities and man-made life. The use of nature as gentle unifier emphasizes the intense bond between the couple. Whether the camera narrows in on the figures or withdraws to a greater distance that bond remains central. As each person responds to the other through gaze or body language, the presence of the two figures is preserved even when the camera veers off to the side, thereby pushing one of them into the margins or eliminating them completely from the composition. In some images, the other person is reduced to a shadow, a hand, or a smaller figure in the distance. Yet they remain present through body language and facial expression of the remaining figure. These images deviate from the safe observational distance of most compositions and place camera as well as viewer in the midst of the emotional exchange. In its extreme the protagonists are both removed from view, leaving only empty land or seascape. The images nevertheless still reverberate with the recent presence of the couple, and remain dedicated to them in the title.
More than anything else, Herman’s photographs force us to contemplate the most basic act of relating to other human beings. People meet, some bond, others part. While this is an everyday occurrence, given the right person this simple incident can hugely impact our life. We meet hundreds of people before we come across the "one." In this fragile arrangement, it is easy to lose that special someone and for the romance to end, but it is harder yet to keep the other in our lives. Describing these couples, in which she counts herself, Herman writes, "It's more important for them to traverse these emotional hillocks and to try to smooth the rasp than to cut off contact altogether. They have an abiding affection for one another, but an affection that is often loaded, layered, complicated, or unrequited."
Rachel Herman, Artist Statement, 2009: "Edmund Spenser in Canto IV of The Faerie Queene refers to Cupid as 'the imp of love.' An imp can be bedeviling in the form of a demon or endearing as in the form of a small child. Also, a falconer 'imps' a broken wing by thrusting one end of a wet iron needle into the quill of a new feather and thrusting the other end into the quill of the feather to be imped. The process can be painful, but ultimately it's one that allows the bird to take flight yet again." Herman's work and full artist statement can be viewed on her website at www.rachelherman.net.
Contact Sheet is produced by Light Work, an artist-run, non-profit organization in Syracuse, NY. This catalogue can be previewed and purchased at http://lightwork.org/