Growing up in the Chicago suburbs during the 1950s and ’60s, photographer Patty Carroll lived in a homogeneous, harmonious bubble. By way of cookie-cutter houses, rigid gender norms, and midcentury notions of perfectionism and civility, Carroll came to know the suburbs as “fabricated places of solace,” as she writes in her artist’s statement for “Anonymous Women,” currently on display at Schneider Gallery. The exhibit is the culmination of a photo project that Carroll has been working on since the mid-90s.
“Anonymous Women” distorts photographic portraiture in three distinct variations. In some photos, a woman’s torso is visible, but dishes, plants, or other household accessories hide her face. One series features women completely costumed in drapes and other pieces of home decor; they’re covered from head to toe, but the contours of their body stand out against the background. And in the third setup, the subject and the backdrop are covered by heavy curtains and fabrics—the format creates the impression that the women are built into the backdrops of their living spaces. By disguising the face and body of each woman and essentially deeming her a decorative prop, “Anonymous Women” addresses both female anonymity and many housewives’ obsession with their homes during the 60s.
The exhibit draws on the contrast between women in the private and public spheres. Carroll describes this split as the “dichotomy of domesticity,” a phrase alluding to the way the home can function as both a relaxing refuge and a restrictive prison for women. “The domestic interior of the home is a place of comfort, but can also be camouflage for individual identity when the idealized decor becomes an obsession, or indication of position or status,” Carroll says via e-mail. By wearing elaborate garments that match their surroundings, the women in the photos achieve the same status as that of their illustrious home decor; at the same time, they lose any sense of personal identity.
For example, in Mixer, the woman in the frame is almost entirely unidentifiable. She’s concealed by a heap of heavy, patterned drapes—the outlines of her body are barely visible until you notice electric mixers, grasped in each hand. The relationship to domesticity is especially clear in this photo, which reduces the functions of a woman’s hands to those of a kitchen utensil.
However, life in the public sphere can be equally inhibiting. Historically, many women who hoped to find professional success have been forced into anonymity. This pressure has been especially relevant for writers. For example, all three of the Brontë sisters initially wrote under fake male names: Acton for Anne, Currer for Charlotte, and Ellis for Emily. Mary Ann Evans famously spent her entire career writing under the pseudonym George Eliot, and J.K. Rowling quit writing the Harry Potter series under the name Joanne Rowling after publishers told her that little boys wouldn’t pick up a fantasy book by a woman author.
Fortunately, women today generally have more professional freedom and are less subject to the oppressions of domesticity. But Carroll maintains that the images presented in “Anonymous Women” remain as relevant as ever. “Women’s issues will never go away,” she says. “In fact, the more we work in the public arena, the more home and family become an important part of the dialogue.” v