Updated: Jan 28
Ever wondered why mirrors are considered creepy? There is an element of inexplicable eeriness associated with them. We’ve all felt it at some point. And the writers of some of the most successful horror plots would agree.
The highly polished surfaces provide crystal clear reflections of our immediate reality, and yet the contents can be easily manipulated. Natalie Angier of the New York Times calls them “little pieces of dreams, both hyperreal and profoundly fake.”
Photographer Angela Strassheim— in creating her highly controlled and carefully constructed photographs that capture the reality of everyday mundanities—works on a similar tangent.
And much like the seemingly unassuming mirrors in our favourite horror movies, her photographs too leave you feeling oddly on edge.
Unsettling beauty. Sinister perfection. The oxymoronic qualities that Strassheim’s scenes embody turn them into intriguing works of art that linger in the back of your mind, long after you’ve looked at them.
Murder, She Wrote.
Take a look at the image below. If it sends a chill down your spine, you can blame it on Strassheim’s interesting past as a forensic photographer, and her experience of photographing crime scenes, as well as taking forensic and autopsy pictures. When she made the shift into artistic photography, Strassheim applied the same style of clinical precision and detached documentation to create her uniquely composed artistic photographs that are relatable, yet psychologically fraught.
Her unnerving series Evidence, is an ode to her professional past, where she creates hauntingly stark images by using Blue Star® solution (used in forensics to reveal blood stains on surfaces) to recreate violent crime scenes.
What's especially interesting about this series is the few shots of houses that are peppered in the mix. Here, like she often does, Strassheim plays with your perception and intuition. Just by association with these disturbing images, the otherwise ordinary houses take on an ominous ambiance.
Snapshots of a Life That Once Was…
As captivating as photos of gruesome murder scenes are (if you’re into that kind of stuff), some of Angela Strassheim’s most interesting photographs are part of her 2005 collection, Left Behind.
This collection of photographs features real people (at least seemingly real), humanizing them, and in turn making them more relatable. They explore human intimacy, connections, and our interaction with the world around us. But strangely enough, this added human element only amplifies the ominous eeriness of the scenes.
As you flip through it, the collection almost feels like a family scrapbook. They tell the story of her childhood; an album made up of Strassheim’s memories of growing up in a mid-western orthodox Christian household. And like any memory, they are distorted and composed in a way that makes them ever so slightly removed from reality.
The brightly lit and vibrant domestic scenes of families constructed in Strassheim’s signature sharp and clinical style make this exhibition a tightrope walk between sweet and disturbing, which might be a reflection of her memories of her own childhood.
About this Strassheim says, “ it was a way to grapple with memories of my past that confuse me and have always disturbed my conscience.”
What makes these photographs all the more personal is that they not only tell the story of her life but also feature members of her family.
At first glance, Untitled(father and son)is a scene familiar to most of us: a parent combing their child’s hair. And yet, right off the bat, there is something unsettling about it. The carefully constructed picture tips over from the merely sweet to the evocative as Strassheim uses the archetype of a father combing his son’s hair to represent the weight of a parent moulding their child in their own image.
The picture was inspired by Strassheim’s memories of her father’s interaction with her younger brother while growing up. The fact that the scene is recreated by her now grown-up brother and his young son is, in many ways, symbolic of her deeply personal connection with these works.
Just as artists paint to process their emotions and experiences, so does Strassheim seem to ‘create’ these photographs for catharsis.
The playfully innocent, yet oddly melancholic, Untitled (Savannah on Window) is an almost autobiographical picture. It portrays a primly dressed child precariously standing on tiptoes, clutching the windowsill as she longingly gazes at the world outside that she is deprived of.
The scene is based on Strassheim’s own experience of growing up with strict parents who wouldn't let her go out and play with the other kids. The sublime scene captures the tragic yearning of a lonely child’s desire to explore the outside world.
...And the Lives That Never Were.
Yet, other pictures in the series leave us with more questions than answers. Strassheim says “Much like a painter constructs a painting, everything in a photograph is there because I decided it would be there,” creating intrigue about the presence of some of the elements in the pictures.
Like why is there a random floating doll in the pool? One can’t help but wonder about the little boy and his pet moths, or the bespectacled grandma in a casket; is she saved, or is she left behind?
Strassheim’s ongoing exhibition Brief Encounters (November 16 – January 16, 2021) is in many ways an extension of Left Behind, featuring similar carefully composed, methodically dissected narratives with emotional and intimate undercurrents that strike a chord with the viewer and yet leaves them unnerved. Like the quiet of something sinister lurking in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to pounce on its prey.
What does the camera mean to a photographer? Read here about the different ways in which fine-art photographers from two contrasting generations of time and space have expressed themselves through photographs.