The women in P.J. Boman's photographic essay Muse: Desire & Severance are mysterious, dark, soft, spontaneous and, invariably, isolated. In Boman's grainy, black-and-white images, they can be found in emotional states ranging from melancholy to ecstasy. They lounge about on antique furniture, in the streets, often looking away, eyes closed -- their bodies barely covered by slips, bras, boas and shadows. Often their images are set against opposing pages of religious icons, old buildings, or blank white pages. While these images sometimes recall E.J. Bellocq's portraits of Storyville prostitutes, Boman's women seem to have even more mysteries to conceal.
"A lot of it," Boman says, sitting across from his wife at Rue de la Course on Decatur Street, "is in the eye of the beholder."
Boman, a native of Sweden, moved to New Orleans with his English wife, Fiona, to complete what became a four-year project. His book is a photographic narrative inspired by three muses: Fiona, a long-ago and long-forgotten model named Audrey Munson, and his maternal grandmother. Shot throughout France and in New Orleans, Muse was published by Zurich-based Edition Stemmle last fall to critical acclaim; The magazine named it one of the best books of 2001, while prints have been featured in exhibitions in New York, Paris and London, as well as in magazines such as The New Yorker, Black & White Magazine and British Journal of Photography (Journal editor Sarah Brown wrote the preface for Muse). Boman is represented locally at Bassetti Fine Art Photographs, which plans an exhibition at the beginning of 2003.
And for good reason: rarely has eroticism so casually seeped into an artist's work. Boman, 39, explores the notion of a muse in many different ways, not the least of which was with his wife, one of two models who grace the pages of this book. He also credits her with helping him find the photographic style and narrative form he'd been searching for: "Fiona saw something that I didn't see -- me being very self-critical -- she saw something and really kicked me and said, 'Come on, move forward with this.' What could be any more of a muse than that?"
Boman also drew inspiration from turn-of-the-century women such as Bellocq's prostitutes, and especially Audrey Munson, a model whose image is embodied in the "Angels" stained glass window in New York City's The Church of the Ascension, and "Peace" at the Appellate Court House. Munson's story is rife with tragedy; after appearing in a handful of silent films, often nude, she eventually was caught up in a murder scandal and wound up in an asylum at age 39, where she languished until she died in 1996 at the age of 105.
"Everybody has a muse somewhere, and I think especially looking at Audrey Munson's destiny ...," he says with a thoughtful intensity that's heightened by his sharp features and nearly shaved head. "It came a lot from her life, to be cut off from something and end up all lonely after having done what she did. At the turn of the century, women and a whole bunch of men played muse parts for artists and they were completely separated from the fame and recognition that some of these artists achieved. They were never accounted for or talked about.
"I guess that's how I came up with the title," Boman says in between drags off a Winston cigarette and shots of espresso. "And I think that a lot of these people that ...." His voice trails off as he gazes at Fiona across the table. "Well, not in my case, where long before I ever knew her and long after I'm 6 feet under, I knew we're always going to be together."
Muse: Desire & Severance began with several pictures of Fiona taken in the south of France. The couple had already settled on more locations in France to complete their work -- but yet another muse beckoned.
"We were sitting in a coffee shop in London. For some reason, Fiona had bought a guide book to New Orleans, and I said, 'Honey, we're going to a part of France that we haven't been to. Shouldn't we have bought a guide book about that?' And she said, 'Yeah, but this one just jumped out of the shelf. I had to have this one.'" Moments later Boman turned to her and said, "I think we should fly to New Orleans. We have to. I know we can't really afford it." Fiona smiled: "You don't have to worry; I thought about it all day as well. We've got to go to New Orleans."
The city also served as the perfect place for them to get married -- in the old courthouse in Algiers Point. More kismet came when, while discussing the possibility of a second model, they met a woman named Star at the Maple Leaf Club during a ReBirth Brass Band show. They were struck by her features. "It was as if Betty Page had walked out of a Parisian cafe in 1902," Boman says. "I looked at Fiona and she looked at me and we were like, it's her. We've gotta have her."
Star signed on the very next day, and the trio scouted for locations and settled on some hotels and bed and breakfasts along Esplanade Avenue. They already had found all of their period clothing in French flea markets, and were thrilled to find matching interiors.
Fiona, a former drama student, says the photos were an opportunity to play several characters in a story -- the editors at Edition Stemmle even thought Boman had used far more than two models. "It's not really a type of character," explains Fiona, 29, who with her glasses and straight, flowing mahogany hair, scarcely resembles the women she portrays in the book. "You put yourself into a scenario and you react to that scenario. It's not quite as simple as creating the good girl or the bad girl or the nudie girl. It's putting someone in a situation and getting them to react to the situation."
Many of the photos barely suggest an erotic moment: the women are hunched over a chair, walking away, gazing into a mirror. Even in moments of frank sexuality, there's more going on than initially meets the eye. In one particular shot, Fiona stands outside a doorway in a slip, a boa, medium-height pumps and thigh-high stockings. Shot from the neck down, she is facing the street, pulling up the hem of her slip to expose herself. Her shadow is preceded by a stain on the wall that resembles an angel's wing.
"I remember that that shot started ... with me saying something along the lines of, 'Just give me, "Hey, look what you're missing" to a john. Like, "f--k off."' She started playing around with that, and I saw the shadow, and let her move, and I moved with it, and poof, there it is."
Using a Mamiya RZ67 "PRO II" camera that is so huge that "it will force you to think about what you are doing," with 180mm and 110mm lenses and only natural light, Boman creates magnificent shadows that convey an eroticism almost coincidentally -- but one that is palpable nonetheless. "That darker, grainier quality allows much for you to expand on your view," Boman says. "There are many more questions, ambiguity, definitely more emotions lurking in the shadows, for lack of a better expression. So many times, the viewer can be made to feel like a voyeur without necessarily feeling like a pervert."
Fiona jumps in, finishing her husband's thought: "If you see something from a keyhole, in the shadows, the highlights and the lowlights, it's like, 'Did I see that?'"
- P.J. Boman from Muse: Desire & Severance
- P.J. Boman (right) with his wife and muse, Fiona. 'Long before I ever knew her and long after I'm 6 feet under,' he says, 'I knew we're always going to be together.'