Twelve years ago, a woman snapped a roll of 36 shots of Amy Adler inside and outside a Mexican villa, in and out of her black, sleeveless, crew neck T-shirt and linen pants. 'Once in Love with Amy' documents a narrative divestiture: Amy fully clad, standing in front of the viney stone entranceway of a villa; Amy looking sullenly into the camera while stripping off her clothes; Amy naked and supine in front of the hearth; and, finally, Amy splayed on her back across a Mexican table. This story of implicit seduction enlists the ambiguous status of the snapshot as evidence of experience, and transforms the photograph into a stage on which a narrative of desire is played out.
In Amy Adler's series of Cibachromes, all identically titled Once in Love with Amy, the evidence has been explicitly tampered with. Replacing her own figure with pastel drawings that look like paper doll cut-outs, sometimes eliminating elements of the original scene, and outputting them as Cibachromes, Adler creates an innovative hybrid of media and genre categories. Turning the erstwhile portraits into self portraits, the literal trace of Adler's hand on the photograph renders suspect their veracity as autobiographical documents.
Self portraiture has been an important genre for challenging prevailing assumptions about identity - from Valie Export's photographs of herself punctuating public architectural spaces, to Hanna Wilke's lifelong investigation of her own image, and, more ubiquitously, Cindy Sherman's film stills and historical portraits. Adler follows suit, taking up her position in front of the camera, although with two significant differences. Using old snapshots taken by someone else elicits the chimerical presence of the older woman from Amy's past and, by literally working herself back into the seduction narrative, Adler repossesses her own image. The knowledge that the photographer was a woman may skirt the sexist baggage associated with erotic images of women in the history of photography, yet Amy's often brooding expression and the specified age of the photographer in the artist's one-line description of her work instills a shadow of a doubt that begs a question. Does the sentiment spelled out in the title settle the question? Perhaps not. Nevertheless, this bit of information points to the conundrum of lesbian visibility while ironically outing Amy (for those who are not already in the know) and inspiring a perusal of lesbian signifiers there for the taking. However, inevitably invoked are the viewer's assumptions about lesbian desire.
Harbouring ambiguity at every turn, the roles of the voyeur and exhibitionist are interchangeable. As psychoanalytic theories of fantasy have exposited - fantasy is the mise-en-scène in which all positions can be simultaneously inhabited. Propelling theories of representation beyond the polarisation of object and subject, this understanding of fantasy also provides a way of seeing how the self portrait contaminates the discrete entities of model and viewer. Adler brings this contamination to the fore by re-investing and re-tooling her own image with a combination of paper-doll innocence and exhibitionist bravado. By shifting the variables of the original snapshot, she casts herself narcissistically as both voyeur and exhibitionist.
Most explicit are the five images taken from different vantage points of Amy spread-eagled on the wooden table, arms back, head hanging over the edge. It is a posture of absolute vulnerability and yet the stiffness of the drawings belies submission. While this sequence sustains a disquieting eroticism, the elision of photographic information offsets the balance between real and iconic. Voiding the real setting transforms the Mexican table into an ominous S&M prop and enhances the circular motion of the camera as it stalks its subject. However, the scene gains momentum at the expense of the original context, which is key to the tensions at play in the work.
The dimensionality of Adler's work relies not only on photographic authenticity but on the autobiographical story behind the pictures. Without this information, the images fail to conjure the prurient gaze of an older woman or even a seduction narrative. And it is this textual adjunct that confounds our awareness of the image as self portrait. Both narrative and genre connotations depend on the viewer's willingness to engage with the work beyond the picture plane. With this in mind, when looking at 'Once in Love with Amy' the viewer is drawn into the place of the older woman and faces an equivocal seduction, cautionary in its enticement and submissive only in posture.