Conceptual photographer Suzanne Heintz has spent the past decade in the company of mannequins in the hope of subverting the expectations placed on women by society.
Heintz began photographing herself with her mannequin ‘family’ 14 years ago when she became tired of being questioned on her lifestyle choices and why she hadn’t settled into ‘the norm’ – marriage followed by kids. I must add, that she began her work long before the “selfie” craze had hit. In fact her work is more relevant today than ever, in an age when we upload filtered photos to instagram in an effort to impress our followers.
Suzanne Heintz’s photographs depict the idea of a suburban American family straining to capture the perfect Kodak moment. Heintz portrays a remarkable range of emotions in her work, alternating between crazed smiles to quiet moments of desperation. Her work suggests that nothing is as perfect as it may seem on the surface, and that the notion that that women must adhere to the social rules of previous generations is somewhat outdated.
Her work gained notoriety in Europe when Heintz brought her ‘family’ to Paris for a photoshoot. The adventure was captured for a documentary which is being released in chapters, the first of which will be uploaded to Suzanne’s website this Summer, so stay tuned.
Where were you born and raised? Where are you now based now?
I was raised in Yonkers, New York, the youngest of 4 red-blooded American kids, and the only one to not marry and have children. My family was your classic suburban family, and Mormon to boot. That provided the frame of reference for my work. Although I was quite young (13) when stepped away from being a Mormon, the social expectations of the church did leave a mark.
My father was blue collar and supported the family with his auto repair shop. My mother began as a housewife, but joined the workforce in the 70s to help support the family, and ultimately was the breadwinner, after he passed away. She did quite well for herself, and eventually ran the Benefits Department for Elizabeth Arden. All this while raising four kids. She eventually met and married my stepfather, who took us all on in our teenage years. What a trooper. I’m now based in Denver, Colorado, and am totally hooked on the Rocky Mountains. It’s about as polar opposite as you can get to where I was raised.
Have you ever come close to getting married and entering the life you satirise?
I have, yet clearly it didn’t work out. It wasn’t the right arrangement for me at the right time. It’s not married life I’m satirising, but the judgement passed on people whose lives don’t reflect traditional expectations. I think married life is a great way to live for those who actively choose it, and continue to choose that commitment on a daily basis. I am satirising the societal conformity of living by rote as opposed to choice. What I’m driving at with this project is that these traditional expectations we all are somehow subject to, shouldn’t be the defining factor determining whether or not we feel successful in our lifetimes. I feel that with or without a wedding ring and a baby carriage, my life can be equally as successful and fulfilling.
You’ve been working with mannequins for over 10 years, have you ever found yourself becoming attached to them?
Absolutely not. I trash them quickly because of the outrageous things I do with them, like skating and skiing, and have no problem ordering a new clone for my next shoot. I do not imbue them with any human qualities, They aren’t substitutes for real people – they’re just props, nothing more. They are simply metaphors for the positions of husband, father, and child. I have real people in my life that I can shower my affections on.
Were you always comfortable putting yourself in front of the camera?
No, but I got over that quickly, because no one can take my place in my photos, I cannot hire a model to play me – it’s all based on my own experience. And putting myself through the experience is part of the process and the message. I think that is why people can connect with my work easily. I am really there, really doing what I’m shooting. This makes the still images easier to relate to and it makes it easy for people to come up to me when I’m shooting in public spaces. I’m on display and put myself out there for others to directly connect with, I think that’s why it is so effective.
The range of emotions you portray in your work is quite vast, do you find it difficult to play the different parts?
The emotional range is very easy for me. I can go from one to another in a minute – I think it’s because I got very facile with covering emotions or feigning happiness in my own life. I was a quiet but very observant child, so I watched grown ups do that all the time. Not much was said, but everything could be read.
What are some of the most interesting reactions you’ve gotten while shooting with the mannequins in public?
Everyone laughs, points and stares here in America, but what shocked me was that in Paris, many people didn’t bat an eyelash when I passed by them with a mannequin on my shoulder. It made me think ‘do Parisians see that kind of thing a lot?’ Another one is when parents steer their children away from me. That makes me laugh, as if I’m a dangerous nutter – now that’s funny, I couldn’t hurt a fly.
How important do you feel fashion is to your photography? The 1950s style clothing you choose for the family is very distinctive.
Not only do I use fashion for its color and stylistic impact, but it is essential to my message. What I portray when I wear vintage clothing, is that even in the 21st century, our image of how our lives should look has got its feet firmly planted in the last century. Why haven’t we moved on? Traditional lifestyles like that of the Ozzie & Harriet generation are no longer relevant, yet we still stubbornly cling to that ideal.
Why did you choose to bring the ‘family’ to Paris for Life Once Removed? It seems an unusual choice as a bohemian city to make a statement about traditional values.
Paris is the city of romance. The city of light, culture, beauty, pleasure, dating back hundreds of years. It’s an ideal place to go on vacation. Plus, it’s the total opposite of a family vacation in the US. I’d never taken my family-quins out of the country before. If I was going to make the effort, it was going to be good. Paris is the ultimate vacation destination. Just the word Paris sparkles when you say it.
I read you left your ‘husband’ on a street corner in Paris, have you found his replacement yet?
I left Chauncey (yeah, he’s got a name) in Paris over the cost of return shipping. It was going to cost thousands to ship both Chauncey A and Chauncey B (standing and seated versions) back to the States. When I found that out, I decided to dump him. I could have a clone made for less than half the cost. I’d had the heads of the mannequins molded, so in case they were lost in shipping, so I had a back up plan.
I did have another Chauncey made just recently. Chauncey 2.0. I cracked him out of the box and took him out to photograph a romantic tandem bicycle ride for two, and ended up falling and breaking his leg. He didn’t even last 24 hours! I’m pretty hard on my mannequins.
I need a new one made soon for our ‘renewal of the vows’ shoot that’s coming up in June. I’m working out with a mannequin manufacturer just what kind of mannequin body the next Chauncey should have. Articulated joints might be nice this time, but that also makes the mannequin heavier and harder to wrangle. Or I could go for the usual 1 pose or even a foam body style. I’m finding that I need a small army of clones to meet my needs. It’s great that I don’t share a bank account with anyone. It’d be hard to explain where all the money is going.
What can people expect from the vow renewal project you have planned with Chauncey?
It just might turn out to be the wedding of the year! It’s going to be part photo shoot, part documentary film shoot, and for all intents and purposes, a real wedding, aside from the fact that I will walk out of there still a single woman. My family is actually attending. It’s a satire and a way to comment on the commerce and fantasy, as well as a critique of wedding as the height of image crafting, or presenting a “curated self.”
Aside from that, it’s going to be a very strange day for me, personally. It’s going to be a work day, shooting the photos, but it will also, I imagine, feel a little too real, and a little too fake. Like I’ve always said, this is a personal project meant for public consumption.
Tell us about Playing House
Playing House is the title of my documentary film on the project. It will be released in 3 chapters on my website, SuzanneHeintz.com, as well as a feature length film compiling all the chapters with additional content. The first chapter addressed our trip to Paris, and spoke to the differences and similarities between cultures with regards to traditional expectations.
The 2nd chapter will focus on the wedding, and the 3rd Chapter will focus on the next generation. It will feature Mary Margaret, the Mannequin Child, among her living peers in a school environment. It will begin with a photo shoot, but then I will be filming an interview with her ‘classmates’, to get their take on how they see their own life path. Seeing how our expectations, with all its mixed messages, are influencing young children. In addition, I’ll be trying to find out how image crafting through social media is shaping their self image and the expectations they have for their own lives.
A what can we expect next from Suzanne Heintz?
What? A movie and a book isn’t enough? I can’t handle all these expectations!
Just kidding. LOL.