Darkroom desire

Photographer P.J. Boman shoots his wife and muse in dark shadows -- undressing, posing as a prostitute and in the throes of ecstasy.

By David Bowman
Published June 7, 2002 7:03PM (EDT)

The women in photographer P.J. Boman's "Muse: Desire & Severance" look as though they're living in Paris or New Orleans before the war  the First World War. These women undress in the shadows. They wash their hands. We can see that Boman loves a woman's bare back. One of his models smokes alone on a bricked street  a streetwalker's pose. Can whores be muses? Each sequence of photos raises more questions.

Boman, born in Sweden in 1962, explains over the phone from his home in New Orleans that he became a photographer after a youth spent watching silent movies and new wave French films with the sound turned off. Ah, this explains why his photos have the quality of stills from an Erich von Stroheim flick. Boman tells how the pictures in the book were a collaboration between him and his wife, Fiona. The book itself is dedicated to a woman born in 1891 named Audrey Munson, who modeled for many of the statues of the female form that grace the city of New York. Munson perches aboard a chariot at Columbus Circle. Munson stands naked above the entrance to the Frick Museum. She also stands naked in the Pulitzer fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel.

In our conversation, Boman explains how his British wife and Munson and a third, New Orleans woman named Star come together in the seductive images in his book. "The first time I heard of Audrey Munson," Boman says, "I got very, very intrigued with her life story. I started looking into it. Sometime in the late '90s some American journalists put together a book about her. [The book was "American Venus," by Diane Rozas and Anita Bourne Gottehrer.] Audrey posed for all these statues, and then made four silent movies. The first was about a young sculptor who dreams of finding the perfect model to inspire his work. He and his friends search the streets for a woman, and eventually he comes across Audrey. She's a poor, waiflike young girl. She was a muse in the simplest form."

I've read about those films. They were pre-code, and Audrey got naked in them  standing nude posing for the sculptor.

The films caused an uproar. There was this woman, Elizabeth Gannis, who was founder of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity. She masterminded this media campaign against Audrey Munson, claiming Audrey had something to do with a murder in New York. [Munson's former landlord killed his wife in 1919.] Audrey got questioned and cleared, but Elizabeth Gannis hounded Audrey into a mental asylum. I don't think the woman was really crazy. I think she just was depressed. Audrey spent almost 60 years locked up in this psychiatric facility. [She died in 1996 at the age of 105.]

Can we look at your photographs as the ghosts of Audrey Munson?

You could look at it that way if you want to. It's mainly a celebration of specifically women at that time who may have laid a little bit of ground for women of the future. It's also a celebration of my grandmother on my mother's side, who I considered was a very big inspiration to me. And also my wife, who is my muse, who got me to take my art more seriously.

Which woman is your wife in the photos?

About 80 percent of the photos are of my wife. The other 20 percent are of the one other woman.

Just two women? It seems like more.

A lot of people have speculated on how many models I used. Even my publishers.

So what should viewers think about the relation of these two women?

Whatever their imagination tells them. It's completely in the eye of the beholder. The thing I like the most of what's been said about the book is, "God, you love women." That makes me really happy when someone says that.

Where were the photos taken?

I took part of the photos in Paris and here in New Orleans. There are a few shots taken in Arles, which is in the south of France.

Is Bellocq an influence? [Ernest J. Bellocq, 1873-1949, was a mysterious photographer who took photographs of New Orleans whores in 1912.]

Very much. What struck me the first time I saw Bellocq's work was the pride and ease his models had. They had no qualms about being whores. They were very, very proud women. They were a major inspiration for this project. I wanted to celebrate a number of early photographers who always had this kind of faded glory in their photographs.

Are you doing anything extraordinary in the darkroom to get your photographs to have the look they have?

I use a printing method known as lith printing. The simplest way to describe it is "infectious development." You expose a negative onto photographic paper and nothing happens for a bit of time. Then the blacks start rising very, very fast. You have to basically hang over and snatch it out of the developer just before the blacks begin soaking up. You get really deep blacks and really, really white whites, and the shifts in between are a brownish purplish tone like old photographs.

You also take sensuous photographs of statues.

The figurative statues in the book were shot in Paris cemeteries.

I love old statues. Here in New York City, older buildings have these beautiful statues of Audrey Munson on them, but no one is allowed to do figurative work anymore. It's as if some law was struck that says every new statue has to be some ugly, gawky abstraction.

In parts of the Garden District I have seen weird, strange abstracts -- shall we use the word "crap"? -- in people's gardens. And you see them and think, "OK, and this is exactly what?" On Esplanade Avenue there is a guy who has the whole front of his house full of what you and I would call "air-vent ducts" -- I guess he calls it art. That's the beautiful thing about Audrey Munson: She became architecture.

So how did you meet your own personal Audrey Munson, your muse and your wife?

I met Fiona in a bar in London, the Mezzo -- it would be considered a designer's bar. I was ridiculously bored with the crowd and I had this magazine in my hand. I have no idea what it was. Over my shoulder this woman said, "That must be the world's most interesting magazine." We had a very brief conversation that we didn't like this place. We decided to go for lunch at a kind of French bistro on Sunday two days later. At that lunch I knew that I loved this woman long before I met her. We've been inseparable ever since.

Just over lunch?

How do I say this? Long before I ever knew her, I knew I loved her.

Do you have a theory behind that -- like you knew each other in another lifetime or something?

Possibly. Some things are just meant to be. Before her I was completely uninterested in a serious relationship. I had too many things that I needed to do. It wasn't on my mind at all to have a relationship. Suddenly I met her and I met the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. [Pause.] Oh, and a big side story -- her purse got stolen. I'm not kidding you. She went to the toilet and I turned to my right to grab her coat and someone ripped her purse off her chair. That person just grabbed the purse and ran out into the street, smack in the center of London. After that I think I took her home. The next day I had to go to Sweden and sort out some things. I then moved properly back to London and we moved in together after that.

I won't ask any more personal questions beyond this one: Did you sleep with her the night her purse got stolen?

No. It didn't really occur. We had so much else to talk about.

So when did you sleep together -- when you came back from Sweden?

Something like that. I have no exact recollection. Certain things just are the way they are. I can draw you a comparison. My grandparents on my mother's side celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. At that dinner, my grandfather on my mother's side gave a speech to us grandkids and to his kids, and then he turned around to Grandma. And this gigantic man completely choked up and started crying. He didn't have words. At that point -- it's a few years before I met Fiona -- I was thinking to myself, "If I can love someone for five minutes as much as these people have loved each other for 60 years, I can die happy." Since the day I met Fiona, I have that every day. Does that sum it up?

Yes. How was she your muse to take photographs?

She saw something I missed. For lack of a word, she saw the potential. She kicked me in the butt to take photography more seriously. Explore all these different ideas and theories. Put more time and effort into it. It was her decision that, "OK, we will finance this any way we can." I guess here in America you call them "McJobs"? We decided to do whatever we needed to do to have a stable economics for me to develop as an artist/photographer.

Had you started taking pictures of her as a model?

At the point when we made these decisions, I had. She was very happy and willing to participate in the work. Play the parts. Dress up. Act out what needed to be acted out. I often had the finished results in my head, but she might take it in a little different direction.

Tell me how you met the second model.

We met Star in New Orleans, summer of 2000. I was basically kind of finished with the outline for what you see as the book. I knew instinctively when I saw Star that I had to photograph her. She was the missing link. Fiona and I approached her and I said, "I would really like to photograph you." I showed her a segment of pictures, and she jumped up and down, and said, "I love it. Are you sure?" It went from there. We found the right locations and went and did it. Ever since then we've been very, very close friends. We live in the same neighborhood in New Orleans -- six, eight blocks away.

Your wife is never jealous?

Of what?

You and Star.

[Laughs.] You don't understand our relationship. Why would she be that? It's like I've tried to say -- you haven't heard her side of the story -- we were meant for each other long before we met and we're going to stay together long after we're buried six feet under. I have no desires whatsoever for any other women. And she knows that. I can go and photograph any women I like as long as I keep up my good work. Like I said, it was us who met Star. And we're all very good friends. Nope. You're not going to get any nasty yummy yummy from me.

So no yummy yummy. Can I interview your muse now?

Sure. Here she is.

[To Fiona] Do you feel like a muse?

Not every day. When you're getting up and brushing your teeth, you don't think about it. But a lot of time I feel like a big inspiration. Yeah, I do feel it.

Your husband said that you made a breakthrough in his photography, that he had been floundering.

Yeah. That would be true. For the longest time we were searching for a subject for him to shoot, like photographers who shoot flowers or whatever. My harebrained idea of the week was I wanted to act again, so I asked him to do some head shots of me. So we did that. He had them developed. He turned around to me and said, "Oh baby, I found my subject." And that was really it. [Pause.] It took a good long time for the ideas to come. We didn't photograph all the time. It was, "OK honey, this weekend we're going to do some shots." We'd come up with the scenes by reading a lot of books and going into our imagination. We also spent a lot of time going through flea markets and finding the costumes, and then finding the characters. Then I would put my makeup on and go into the character and just play with it. It's certainly not me in the pictures. It's a specific character that I embraced for that day.

So you're not the same character -- that's why people thought there were so many different models.

It's obvious to me if you look at the pictures of me that they are very definitely different people. I've gone into a specific character.

Do these characters have types? Is one the good woman? The bad woman?

Not really. Not good and bad. It was more like, I went to drama school for two years and acted for two years. You'd come up with a character. And let's say you were given a play. You weren't given what the characters did before the play and what they did after the play. You had to picture the before and after, and then construct your character within the play. To a smaller degree I did that for the pictures. I would construct what they were doing before and at the time in the room, and what they would do afterwards. I think when I look at the book I can see that it's me, but I see different characters.

Can you describe a character's narration in a picture?

Not really. It was so long ago.

How long ago were the pictures taken?

1999 and 2000.

That's not so long ago.

A photograph is a moment that's been captured, and I've done my bit and moved on. With a play you can always go back and read the play and be reminded. I guess that we had to forget one character to move on to the next.

Has anyone else taken pictures of you besides your husband?


Think it would be possible?

I have been approached by other photographers, but no. It's not interesting really because to a certain degree I control part of these pictures. I think with a lot of other photographers that is not really the case. They want to control themselves. The photographs in the book are a collaboration between my husband and me. [Pause.] He has photographed other people, but I have most definitely been behind, like when we met Star. It was instantaneous. He and I turned to each other and said, "We've found her." The photos of statues, I was running around Paris yelling, "You've got to see this one. You've got to see this one." It just wouldn't work with another photographer.

When you look at the final pictures of Star, do you think, "Right. You got it." Or do you feel critical?

I think the photos of Star are perfect. Had I been Star I would have done it differently. I guess that's me -- what's the word? -- just projecting how I would have done it differently. But that's not saying it's right for her. The pictures of her are beautiful.

So you remain a muse.

Right. I am a muse.

David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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