Book Review: The Outsider by Elizabeth Heyert
Written by Miabelle Salzano
Book published by Damiani Editore
Like preparing for sleep, it is a ritual to set up a photograph; like getting ready to present yourself to the public, it is an obsession to snap pictures; like every funeral has some sort of schedule or structure, the confines of a camera lens has a certain composition every amateur photographer tries to capture. Elizabeth Heyert has explored death, sleep, bondage, and self-perception in her various photography projects. What these subject all have in common are the characteristics of ritual and obsession that make them up. Her new book, The Outsider, published with Damiani Editore, focusing on Chinese amateur photographers taking pictures of each other on family outings, is no exception. Heyert captures photographs of chinese people taking pictures of each other during four separate trips to China. She uses a vintage Leica and Tri-X to capture moments between strangers in black and white film in “a country where film is not longer even sold,” as she states in her introduction.
Heyert’s passion for photography began when she was sixteen and led her first to the Royal College of Art in London where she studied with Bill Brandt, then back to New York where she now lives. After a successful twenty-year career as an architectural photographer, Heyert was able to retire from the commercial photography industry and pursue more personal projects.
She named her new book The Outsider because of her inability to communicate with the strangers she photographed and her search for authenticity between these strangers. She states in her foreword to the book that this rendered her “a spectator to the photographer/subject relationship.” The themes explored in this book are similar to the themes of ritual and obsession explored in her other projects because it documents the efforts that the amateur photographers go through in order to get shots.
The Outsider reimagines family photography and portraits by allowing us to see what family photography says about the people taking them. Family photography offers a perfected image of how the family wants to be perceived. Instead of seeing only what they want us to see, we see the artificiality of the process of achieving this perfection and the effort to change in order to fit an ideal. Looking through Heyert’s photographs, we realize how forced these memories are and how desperate people are to preserve them. The subject of each portrait is not the smiling person, but the beautiful backdrops behind them. The proof that something has happened is what these images are trying to memorialize. Their black and white coloration erases the background and leaves us with the posed, forced moments that these amateur photographers come away with, leaving us to question what kind of moments these photographs are capturing. In the introduction, Heyert comes to the realization that she has no idea why the people are taking these pictures. At first glance it looks like they are simply capturing happy memories, but Heyert forces us to question whether the smiling faces in the photographs just a mask they put on for their lenses in an attempt to depict an artificial happiness, and even what sort of memories we are trying to preserve when we take these types of photos of ourselves.