NSFW. Fair warning: there is full frontal nudity and whatnot through most of the book. It’s not prurient, or doesn’t seem meant to be: this isn’t a pornographic book.* Think Francesca Woodman rather than Larry Flynt.
Disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to the book.
I picked this up on Jorg Colberg’s recommendation and as part of an attempt to diversify my photobook collection. My collection remains heavily gendered and racist, but so is the land of photobook publishing. It’s getting better, thankfully, but both my shelves and stacks of photobooks, and the catalogs of most photobook publishers are dominated by pale-skinned males of European descent. To be a reluctant photobook collector in the Twenty-First Century and to have some commitment to diversity is to search out and celebrate photobooks by women and other normally-ignored or marginalized groups.
Anyway. Müller’s photographs are sort of timeless, in a way. They could be made today, well, except for the date imprint on some of the pictures. And if they were made today, there would be loads of press on them, I expect. A Part of My Life, though, is curiously absent from the Internets in 2020.
There’s an interview or review or mention of a 2010 book, The Proper Ornaments on ASX. There’s a video of an exhibition of the series at the Centro de Artes Visuais in Coimbra on YouTube. And there’s Colberg’s brief mention of the “…truly extraordinary A Part of My Life….” in a review of a sort of biography of publisher Walter Keller. “If that book were published today, I think it would be widely discussed: it’s such strong work that does not betray its age at all….” which led me to buy a copy post haste.
Edit: Colberg published a well-considered and thoughtful review yesterday… I have no idea how we ended up publishing reviews of the same book in the same 24 hour period… and a 20 year old book at that.
One blurb on the front flap talks about a collapse between public and private, between art and life, and I guess that’s in the work. In the exhibition video linked above, the images look great big and framed and on the gallery wall, like they belong there. It’s different in the book.
There is a narrative, of sorts, a sort of line through the book. There’s Ms. Müller, or part of her, standing awkwardly, bending, twisting, mostly clothed. There’s a pile of clothes on a stool, rumpled bed sheets, blurry closeups of flowers, knickknacks, more flowers, and there here’s Müller again, naked, in what looks to be hotel room bed. I could go on, but then it falls apart. There are sequences of, like, deciding what to wear, trying on different outfits, but then she never goes anywhere. It’s time for another bath, time to wash clothes, check the body for moles or something. After a lengthy sequence of self portraits a pair of hairy legs appear next to Müller’s bare legs, and then she finally goes outside for awhile, there are pictures that remind me of some Antoine D’Agata, but just a few. I think there’s a good bit about just being a western woman, really, and that’s probably enough.
From Müller’s artist statement(?) on the back:
I take pictures at home, on the way to work, while taking walks or traveling. I take pictures of myself, of my dirty dress lying in the bathtub, of the sky, flowers, animals, mountains. I take pictures when I feel insecure or very sure of myself, when something important is happening, or simply when I think something is very beautiful. I also try to take pictures when I’m not necessarily thinking about photography.
Yep. As I said above, pictures about being a western woman, more or less. If I made similar pictures, they’d be about the life of a western man.**
[The pictures] are fragments documenting and investigating my body as a narrative and as a sculpture, subtle shifts in atmosphere and emotions. They explore what it means to be a woman taking pictures at the end of the century; what it means to become part of a long, yet very short tradition by taking these pictures.
And that’s why I have this book in my library, really. I mean, if you read the above at all, you’ll probably understand that I largely don’t get it, but I understand the need for this book and as I continue to buy photobooks, with much less fervor than in previous years, I plan to be mindful of representation, of who is representing and who is represented.
Marianne Müller’s A Part of My Life can be had insanely cheaply, and it’s worth adding to your library, if only to add it to your library. And if you can get something out of it, so much the better! I see some potentials for my own work in this vein, perhaps with less full frontal nudity, but with a similar willingness to see what’s right in front of me, the dirty clothes hamper and the towel rack, etc. Is there any importance in documenting a middle aged white male American’s life? Eh. Hasn’t that been done to death already?
**And there would definitely be absolutely no prurient interest involved.