My first encounter with the work of Chloe Fay Worth Smith came in the form of large mounted color print of a mattress stained with menstrual blood. In a group show at Sarah Lawrence College, the work was magnetic and alluring, its uncomfortable subject matter elevated by its aesthetic beauty. The vision, so ordinary in the context of girlhood humiliations, became unfamiliar through her lens, emerging like the mysterious remains of some remarkable event. The image remained emblazoned in my memory, alternately unnerving and liberating me from the abashment that stirred within.
Two years later, Smith has created an unflinching body of work that neither fetishizes nor glamorizes the female experience. Her images of the bared bodies of her partner and friends, preserve those incidental, yet profound, moments of affection that develop from those rare bonds of trust. Her subjects are complicit in the image-making process, allowing the camera access to their deepest confidences. Ultimately, Smith’s work is an unrelentingly honest exploration of the pains and joys of womanhood, one that pulls acceptance from discomfort and understanding from chaos.
I spoke with Smith about her work, feminism, and what motivates her to pursue such innovative work. Some of the following images are NSFW.
What inspired you initially to pursue such intimate themes in your work?
"When I first started making photographs, I was staging these elaborate shoots with my former girlfriend. In college, I studied with photographer Justine Kurland, who laughed when I first showed her my work. She was the first person to tell me that my pictures were forced or cliché, and suggested that I strip away all the excess factors. I took her advice quite literally. I remember asking my girlfriend to take away layers and layers of clothing until she was naked, and in that moment something clicked. Even though I was fully clothed at the time, I felt completely naked and vulnerable, yet extremely honest. For the first time I felt like I knew what I needed to say to the world and my relationship was the medium I needed to use to say it. I shot like a maniac. "
What was it like collaborating with your significant other in this way? Your friends?
"At first, it can be difficult to collaborate with the people I'm close to. Some are completely open; others are more timid. When the camera is involved in these moments, an empowering scenario occurs for both me and the subject: we both know the moment is being documented, so everything is heightened. I see them in a certain way; they want to be seen a certain way. There is this play between objectification, documentation, and empowerment — desire, pleasure, and repulsion. Ultimately I have found that the people I collaborate with have an enormous trust and faith in me, and are willing to put themselves on the line with me."
How does being a feminist inform your photography?
"I don't shoot with the view of making "feminist photography," though I am a feminist. For me, it comes through in that feminism really solidified the need for making the personal political, which I strive to enact through honest, even crude representations of female bodies and sexuality. I'm pushing back against the traditions of the so-called "male gaze" in art and photography and turning the tables through my own exploration, voyeurism and point of view. "
Are these moments mostly candid, staged, or somewhere in between?
"It is definitely a mix. There are times when, for example, I would be inspired by an article of clothing I would dress someone up in and then the shoot would take an entirely different direction than what I had expected. There are other times when I'll watch a moment unfolding and run to my camera to document it. Most of my captured moments are like that; I would be in the midst of a playful or difficult time and I'd catch something so bizarre or personally profound that I needed to record it. "
You mentioned to me that the graphic nature of your work sometimes keeps people from showing it. What motivates you to continue to produce such courageous work?
"From an early age I was taught that my body was something to be kept secret; every stain from period blood was to be immediately bleached. I went through my early teen years constantly feeling ashamed and embarrassed, like most teenage girls. Creating pictures of blood, cum, and naked bodies lets me feel pride and joy. There are normative standards of what is beautiful, ugly, attractive, or repulsing. I refuse to compromise to make "good pictures" or show "good sexuality." I believe it is important confront these themes and in doing so, urge viewers to confront the nature of their own attraction and repulsion, and ultimately shame and celebration of their own bodies and sexualities."
All images © Chloe Fay Worth Smith
For more, please be sure to visit Smith's website.