Jessica Lange Has a Thing For Clowns: Behind An Actress’ Passion for Photography
Her pictures are of dramatic moments, but the Oscar-winning actress says she doesn’t want her photography to be intrusive.
Two unknown figures sporting a pair of rather terrifying clown masks—distorted, burned, and revealing razor sharp teeth—lean casually against a battered concrete wall.
The black-and-white portrait evokes everyone’s worst nightmare—but the frozen moment is anything but horrifying when you realize you captured it.
It seems Jessica Lange was curating her own collection of Freak Show-like imagery long before she signed on for Golden Globe nominated performances in American Horror Story as Elsa Mars, the sadistic yet motherly ringleader of a small-town circus of human abnormalities for Season 3: Freak Show.
These demented clowns, faceless bodies and children dressed as carnival creatures are only a few of the subjects she’s captured throughout her life.
And now, over 150 images from her personal collection are going on display for her latest solo exhibition, “Unseen,” at the Arts Santa Mònica Center in Barcelona.
“Jessica sees photography as a kind of introspection,” Anne Morin, the exhibition curator, told The Daily Beast. “It’s a moment she’s alone and she can walk in the street where it seems like nothing is happening or in banal situations that could be very boring. But she always finds something very strange—unseen things, which are to disappear.”
The two-time Oscar-winning actress began studying art and photography in 1967 when she enrolled at the University of Minnesota.
However, it was short-lived—Lange ditched her college education, and with her boyfriend-later-husband, Paco Grande, moved to Europe and made documentary films.
When the pair returned to Manhattan the future actress immersed herself in poetry. Then, there was a brief moment in Paris where she studied mime and acting.
In 1976 Lange’s big break, King Kong, won the star her first Golden Globe. Then there was Tootsie (1983), for which she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and the same for Blue Sky (1995). She’s been nominated for countless other projects throughout her forty-year career.
Sometime in the early 1990s, Lange’s former partner, Sam Shepard, gifted her a Leica M6 and the mother of three began capturing life at home as a way to document their lives. Soon, she was packing the tool for trips around the world.
“It was great,” Lange told New York Magazine in 2008 of her return to photography, noting how she would sneak down to the basement after putting her kids to bed to develop the film.
“It’s a great counterpoint to filmmaking because it’s such a private, solitary experience. It’s like writing or painting; it’s something you can do on your own. Acting is a co-dependent art form, and the actor is not in control,” Lange explained, adding that she’s typically “drawn to situations with a dramatic feel to them as far as lighting or backdrop or people’s presence, the way someone stands.”
Then, in 2008, with some encouragement from an art world friend, Lange stepped out of the shadow as a photographer and began putting her work on display. Her first solo exhibition was held at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City.
Since then the images from her archives have traveled to cities from Moscow, Russia to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and Lange has released a monograph of works titled 50 Photographs by Jessica Lange 1992-2008, to accompany an exhibition by the same name at ROSEGALLERY in Santa Monica, California.
The images within span the globe—Africa, Romania, Russia, Finland, Italy, and France—as well as her family at home and some rather hauntingly beautiful scenes from her time Mexico, which she has candidly spoken about being drawn to.
“There are very few places in the States where I find that kind of vitality, that kind of life that’s lived on the street, in front of you,” she said about photographing in Mexico. “There was something very human and accessible and I find that more in Mexico than I actually find anywhere else, except when I’m photographing my own family. And I think it has to do with there still [being] a spirit that exists.”
One image from Mexico’s Dia de Muertos celebration depicts a man dressed in a horned wig and hairy top, which starkly contrasts against his strikingly dark features to create an almost demonic presence.
There’s someone dressed as a witch and a young boy walking the street as a skeleton with sunken cheeks, hollowed eye sockets and a massive grin exposing a set of painted on teeth.
“I try very hard not to be noticed by them so I don’t generally engage,” she said at the Moscow opening of “Unseen” last year. “It’s a different way of photographing. Some photographers engage the subject and that’s just not the way I work. I’m usually sneaking around trying to get a photo before they notice that I’m there.”
Had these photographs been exhibited today without any context, you’d think they were snapped on the set of her most recent television blockbuster, American Horror Story: Freak Show, which centers on a small-town circus “freaks” in rural Florida.
The sometimes-grainy effects of the black-and-white images create an eerie stillness to an otherwise loud and celebratory moment.
“The first time I saw her work, I did not understand anything,” Morin said. “I saw the pictures and thought there were so many photographers within the same series. The photos were all so different,” adding that her relationship with specific places causes her to approach her photography in various ways. Mexico seems to be the prominent force throughout her work.
Therefore, the current exhibition, “Unseen,” is heavy on the Latin country and divided into three sections—‘Mexico,’ a documentary series she made in Chiapas about the ritual of the Mayan calendar, and everywhere else, including Europe and her home state of Minnesota.
Often times the images are taken at dusk or well into the night, capturing hidden moments and hiding faces—a little girl whose features are covered by a ball, a one-legged man hiding his face as he tips his hat, and a graveyard statue with a missing head.
“I would be really hard-pressed to pick up my camera and point it at somebody if I sensed that it would be intrusive or embarrassing,” Lange told The Times-Picayune of her exhibition at A Gallery For Fine Photography in New Orleans.
“I just could not do it.… I think I’m just, at heart, too timid. I would never want to capture somebody in one of those really personal hard situations. I think it probably has to do with my own shyness, but also understanding how intrusive the camera can be, having been on the other side of the camera.”
Yet, at home, she’s able to get up-close and personal to the people she cares about most. And Morin finds that the intimate images of her family are the most striking and beautiful.
In one image, a young girl with short blonde hair covers her face as she holds the hand of a man slightly in frame. A lone windmill stands in a field behind her. Another captures her granddaughter bravely holds a wild snake in her hand.
“For me, the best photographs are the ones of her granddaughters,” she said. “They are beautiful portraits that seem very delicate. There is something else in those photographs that are not in Mexico or in other places. There’s love and something very poetic.”
And just like she can play multiple roles in front of the camera, the same seems to apply when Lange steps to the other side. Whether capturing creepy things lurking in the dark, or her family happily bonding on a summer day, the photographs she produces are genuinely startling and captivating.
Unseen is on display at Arts Santa Mònica Center in Barcelona until June 28.