10 May 2016
10 May 2016 - Written by Laurence Cornet
In a book conceived as a triptych, Ilona Szwarc features 23 sequential portraits documenting the transformation of her doppelganger by herself. While she becomes both the subject and the maker of the series, she offers another variation around the theme of identity as a continuation of her previous works.
© Ilona Szwarc, from the book I am a woman and I feast on memory
“This body of work began with the idea to organise a casting call for my doppelgangers, and that came from my interest in typologies. In the past, I have completed bodies of work that take up groups of women as subjects. I was an outsider looking in and therefore I was defining myself by who I am not. Here I wanted to invert that process and decided to look for American women, who look like me”, Szwarc explains. Among hundreds of submissions, she chose one woman whom she exposed to a physical transformation worthy of Hollywood. At first the model grows wrinkles and grey hair, then gains 40 pounds, and in the third transformation gradually looses her femaleness and identity to become an androgynous mythological character.
The process follows a strict narrative in which the doppelganger arrives at Szwarc’s studio in what seems to be her own clothing. Here, she is photographed as a police suspect - two profile portraits and a frontal one – before the makeup session starts. Slowly, under Szwarc’s intervention, the model changes and takes on kitsch and grotesque features.
© Ilona Szwarc, from the book I am a woman and I play the horror of my flesh
“I project my own consciousness onto the character; I am reversing the process of my cultural assimilation onto her.” Some hints at Szwarc’s Polish background are spread throughout the book, such as the flowery scarf chosen to cover the aged doppleganger. “She is dressed like a babushka – an Eastern European elderly woman. By doing so, I let my doppelganger reclaim my cultural heritage”, Szwarc adds.
She also claims her identity by including herself in each series, which is in each case the occasion for a quirky scene. This creates for the viewer a visual illusion, confused whether they are looking at Szwarc or not. “I am questioning where self-portrait starts and ends”, she explains. In the second book, the aged model stands in a baroque room in progress. Above her hangs a mask – the same that is used to shape the androgynous double-faced character of the third book.
© Ilona Szwarc, from the book I am a woman and I cast no shadow
The mask enhances the uncanny duality of the whole project. “At some point her identity is completely obliterated and we can't pick up any clues about this character. In this transformation I am producing a newly formed face of my own and of my kind. The final photograph, in which I am looking at the two-faced character, a Janus figure, is a metaphor for me looking at both my past and my future. This series is a meditation on the process of becoming, and it deals with the relationship between identity and appearance", she concludes.
I am a woman and I feast on memory by Ilona Szwarc
Designer: Michela Povoleri // Editor: Ilona Szwarc // Printer: Magcloud
Publication date: September 2015 // Edition: 500 // Softcover / Perfect-bound
20.95 x 27.30 cm // 36 pages - 23 images // $60
Ilona Szwarc is an American/Polish photographer and artist living and working in Los Angeles. Her work explores ways in which female identity is constructed in current cultural contexts. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.