The exhibition The Truth in the Light mainly features photographs made in 2012 by Elizabeth Bick, but “The Truth in the Light” was also the name of a tiny church in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, photographed by Bick in 2005 shortly before it was leveled by the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina.
Elizabeth Bick’s first body of work, begun in 2003, depicted Spiritualist churches in New Orleans and was essentially documentary photography. “This series marked my beginning as a real photographer and as an artist. This was the first body of work I did” that was not a student project, she says. “It still greatly informs my work—I was photographing moments of divine possession, at the time.” But she realized the camera could transform a subject or a space in the same way a spirit transformed the person it possessed. “The idea of creating a “higher reality” through the camera” continues to motivate her. Today she makes pictures that present a cinematic interpretation of her life and the lives of her subjects. Narrative is created organically through gesture, light and staging, though, not through the technology of the post-production process. “I use Photoshop for printing, but that’s it,” she says. “I don’t want to use it in a dishonest way.”
The Truth in the Light (2005)
In 2005, Bick lost her studio, job and belongings in New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, bringing her series on Spiritualist churches to an end. She received an emergency grant to start anew in New York City, where she was housed in a shared loft with other displaced artists. She also had fellowships in Paris and Santa Fe; traveled through northern India; worked for two years in the south of England; and finally came to New Haven, where she is pursuing an MFA at Yale. She still makes the bulk of her work in New York, however, and she keeps an apartment on Grand Street in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where she stays with two roommates when working in the city.
Bick says the primary emphasis of the Yale program is to “find out who you really are as an artist and how your personal story motivates you in your work. They want you to forget about wanting your pictures to “look” a certain way or about trying to make work that’s going to be popular.” While her tumultuous post-Katrina years have transformed her work and her life, Bick’s graduate studies have helped her see that her childhood continues to exert a strong influence on her work and her world-view. She described one critique panel at Yale where a professor asked her if she used to be a dancer after looking at her portraiture, which surprised her, since he had no knowledge of her ballet background.
Double Walkers and Casting Calls
Bick spent her formative years in Houston. Her father traveled abroad extensively for work, and Bick describes her daily home life with her mother and older, twin sisters as “matriarchal.” She attended an all-girls school and devoted herself to classical ballet for 14 years. As a result, her childhood universe was almost exclusively female–nurturing and sheltered, but also competitive and conformist.
The classical ballet world reveres conformity and physical homogeneity. The ballet masters push dancers to achieve a strict ideal form in their bodies, and the dancers in the corps de ballet traditionally wear identical costumes, their hair and make-up intended to create an impression of sameness. This ideal of homogeneity was reinforced by Bick’s older, twin sisters, always high-achieving and beautiful, her primary role models growing up. “Undoubtedly two significant figures during my formative years were my identical twin sisters,” admits Bick. “My introverted demeanor has been overpowered by a desire to investigate this form of pattern recognition in my works.”
Bick has focused on female subjects, especially ones that resemble her or other female subjects she finds, in her portraiture. “In my photographic life, I am always searching for women who look like other women found through chance encounters. I have found identical twin sisters, women who look like me who are also named Elizabeth, and people who look like other people I know,” she wrote recently on the arts website Undercoat. The artist concedes that her “Double Walker” (the literal English translation of Doppelgänger) series also speaks to a basic human urge to find others in the world with whom we closely identify.
Her current series, Casting Calls, is a more thorough exploration of the photographer’s search for a subject and their ensuing relationship as artistic collaborators. Unlike most photographers, she is not only documenting the stage of her project wherein she chooses a subject, but will also include these photographs in the completed project as an integral part of the work. The portrait photographer’s process of choosing a subject is usually a “black box.” The viewer simply takes the subject in a portrait as a given, and in Bick’s eyes, this privileges photographers unduly over their subjects, or “performers,” to use Bick’s preferred term. (Bick has almost as much disdain for the term “model” as she does for the casually violent term “shoot”—so let’s stop any talk of “shooting models!”) Once Bick finds her performer/ collaborator, she will allow that person’s biography to dictate the pictures they create together. For now, her “Casting Calls” series gives viewers a glimpse into a portraitist’s creative process.
Casting Calls (2012)
Texas, New York Street Scenes and Beatification
By the time she started her M.F.A. program, Bick had spent a few years making pictures in a narrative style, engaging in a voyeurism that consisted of photographing strangers (found in New York on Craig’s List, through chance encounter, or by picking up discarded scraps of paper in the subway and using any contact information she found on them) and allowing them to project their personal stories into her images. “Indulging in scopophilia [by] photographing the world allows for an exploration of new places and people, adapting my photographic vision to new surroundings,” Bick explains. Like many contemporary photographers, she is a shy person who uses the camera as a tool to facilitate her interaction with the outside world; she takes her use of the camera a step further by using photographs as a way to create a more “ordered” and livable version of the world around her.
The themes and qualities of Bick’s work that are influenced by ballet extend beyond femininity and pattern recognition. Performance, gesture and the idea of the stage are central themes in her work. Bick began to incorporate these elements into her work more consciously after her Yale instructor recognized a dance aesthetic in her work. “Coming of age as a disciplined student of ballet, I learned to be a witness to the artistic movements of others both in and out of the stage. I could escape my mundane existence through my “choreographed” version of reality, either as a ballerina or as an observer. Since I have retired from dance and pursued my passion for photography, I have learned the stage can exist in my pictures as it did in my past.”
Texas (2011), a foreboding parking-lot scene photographed outside a derelict shopping mall in Houston, Texas, could be the setting for a modern-day film noir. “I used to stare out the car window at that mall every day for years, before I became a photographer,” Bick says. The photograph is separated into two striking parts: heaven and earth, with a glorious, golden sky shining above the paved-over, man-made world, hinting that something wondrous may in fact hide behind the garage door marked “ENTRANCE.” Such is the case in Hollywood and New York, where dazzling stage sets and sound stages are housed in bleak warehouses in tough neighborhoods. “This picture marks the beginning of my creating the idea of a stage in my pictures,” says Bick. It also captures a time when Bick was struggling to survive as an artist in New York. Her new surroundings were harsh and ugly compared to La Dolce Vita of New Orleans. At her lowest point, she suffered panic attacks every time she rode the subway. But she used her camera to make something “more ordered” out of her gritty industrial neighborhood, just as she used the stage and ballet to create romance and drama in her mundane, sheltered childhood. “I think my work cured me of my agoraphobia,” Bick says.
In New York Street Scene I and II, scenes of pedestrians are arranged in a grid that suggests both the density of urban living and a series of cinematic film cells, or perhaps, to some viewers, a ballet stage. The sameness of the pedestrians’ movements in the daylight grid is a testament to a pattern recognition that comes from years of performing and watching synchronized, choreographed pieces. The night scenes were inspired by finding spaces that looked (by chance) stage-lit. The pictures struck one of her instructors as “a therapeutic exercise for an agoraphobic”—another uncanny critique, since the person giving it had no knowledge of Bick’s panic attacks.
New York Street I (2012)
New York Street II (2012)
Dramatic movement and gesture always find their way into her pictures, as she choreographs her subjects’ movement in various ways. In her Beatification series of street portraits (not included in the exhibition), Bick uses a basic gesture, along with the sun, to unify a disparate group of subjects. “The photographs are [mainly] of women who have lived in East Williamsburg and Bushwick for the last 30 years or more, pre-gentrification. All images are taken on Grand Street, the same street I live. We walk up and down this commercial street daily together. They were all stopped briefly and asked to look up at the sun, and close their eyes if they’d like,” wrote the artist recently on the website Undercoat. While Bick uses the street as her stage and the sun as lighting for showcasing the dramatic gesture of her subjects, her cast—in striking contrast to the strictures of the ballet world, or the world of commercial photography—is the “regular cast of characters” on the street in an industrial, working-class section of Brooklyn, appearing in the pictures as they appear in their everyday lives.
From Beatification series (2012)
At a Yale summer institute in Norfolk, Connecticut this summer, Bick was an instructor for undergraduate art majors. The summer institute was an extremely insular artists’ colony. “We called it The Island,” Bick says. The Norfolk “Island” had many strictures—the demands placed on the instructors were all but impossible, and neither students nor instructors were allowed to leave the premises without permission. But in the artist’s pictures, “I was thinking of an all-female, non-dystopian version of Lord of the Flies. You’re away from normal society, and things like your shoes and your clothes just don’t matter anymore.” Bick idealized the setting, too. While the institute was bucolic, “that place didn’t look like that!” says Bick. “I created an imaginary place by making those pictures.”
Island II (2012)
Island V (2012)
Island VIII (2012)
The imaginary place pictured in Island recalls utopian ideals of the mother of Bick’s closest childhood friend. This woman, herself an artist (Bick calls her “her artist mother”), often said that “in an ideal world, we could all run around barefoot, and no one would have to wear a bra,” and everyone could feel completely unfettered in their creativity. Instead of reverting to savagery and violence like the boys in Lord of the Flies, the all-female utopian society of Island (also a fiction, as the institute was coed) is, like the artist’s childhood world, a safe, nurturing and creative place, minus the pressure to conform or be perfect.
Bick uses the camera to reconcile the outside world she has experienced since leaving New Orleans—which offers romance, drama and even spiritual enlightenment alongside alienation, anxiety and danger—with the nurturing, yet stifling, cocoon of her sheltered youth. Image making, Bick says, gives her the opportunity to create a “personal mythology” out of her existence, “where imagination constantly challenges reality.”
-Margaret Browne, September 2012
 Spiritualist churches evolved in New Orleans over centuries of segregated religious practice in the city, dating back to pre-Emancipation churches where Afro-Haitian and African slaves were forced to practice Christianity, but freely incorporated elements of voodoo into their worship. “They pray to Jesus, but they also invoke spirits, who may possess them. But a lot of the “spirits” are based on Christian saints. It is a complete amalgamation of Christian and West African religious and spiritual beliefs,” Bick says.
 To this viewer, the grid itself, along with the motif of pedestrians walking in intersecting directions, recalls the opening movement of Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces. Adrian Danchig-Waring, a corps dancer in the New York City Ballet, described the opening of the ballet, set to “Rubric” from Philip Glass’ Glassworks, in a NYCB video: “The first movement of Glass Pieces, as it’s been told to us by the ballet masters, is the scene opens in Grand Central Station, and it’s just all these bodies in space crossing and weaving around each other…in this melee, this crazy human traffic.” The stage decoration for the first movement is a white background with a black grid. Bick herself has never seen Glass Pieces.