Most of the time, she is the lone figure in the photograph.
There’s Michelle lounging in her bathing suit; Michelle dressed up for a night out on the town; Michelle visiting tourist sites in Asia; and most abundant of all, boudoir shots of Michelle in various states of undress. There are studio portraits, casual snapshots, class photos, and glamour shots. For decades, apparently, Michelle duBois obsessively documented her life. And yet, she is almost entirely a mystery. In fact, she may never be knowable.
Here’s what we’ve been told: Michelle duBois grew up in Oklahoma and graduated from high school in 1967. After a failed attempt to become an airline stewardess, she landed in Guam in 1971. She spent the better part of the next two decades in Asia—Guam, Taiwan, and finally Japan—working as a prostitute to fund her travels. She married and divorced six times. Those brief yet redolent bits comprise the full extent of what has been revealed about duBois’ life. Thousands of photographs depict duBois from her teens to her late thirties. One of the many remarkable aspects of this collection is the lack of editing; duBois seems to have saved everything, whether or not they are well composed, properly developed, or present her in a flattering manner. She seems to have had a pathological need to be in front of the camera. The photos are unquestionably diaristic, despite the fact that, presumably, the majority of the images where shot by unknown photographers. Today, the entirety of duBois’ collection is in the hands of a 37-year-old artist based in Los Angeles named Zoe Crosher.
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Crosher presumably received the entire cache of duBois’ photographs, dating from the 1960s to the 1980s, in the late 1990s. Since 2004, Crosher has repurposed these photos as raw material for a series of exhibitions and publications, collectively presented under the umbrella title of The Michelle DuBois Project. Among the manifestations the project has taken are a series of exhibitions held at various galleries, alternative art spaces, and museums in Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York, including a showing at the Museum of Modern Art. Another component is a four-volume set of print-on-demand books released by Aperture Foundation in New York City in 2011 and 2012. No two exhibitions or books are identical; each presents a new grouping or configuration of the photographs, so that some images appear more than once. To bring other voices and perspectives on the photos, the books contain various texts, each unpacking a diff erent aspect of the work. The volumes also carry their own individual titles: The Reconsidered Archive of Michelle duBois, The Unraveling of Michelle duBois, The Unveiling of Michelle duBois, and The Disappearance of Michelle duBois. With her selections and regroupings, Crosher assumes a role akin to—but not exactly mirroring—an editor, curator, or archivist. Every time Crosher reshuffles the deck, using organizing principles with varying degrees of apparentness, she choreographs different reveals of her raw material.
Crosher’s handling of the archive is neither documentary nor investigative; she never intended to use the photos to give an accounting of her subject’s life. Quite the opposite; Crosher is deliberately tight-lipped about details she knows about duBois, including where in Oklahoma she was raised or currently resides. Crosher claims that duBois was a friend of her aunt’s, that duBois gave the archive to Crosher personally, and that she is still alive. Crosher’s imprecision is not merely a device to keep an air of mystery surrounding her project, but is in accordance with her remarkably elusive subject. DuBois constantly reinvents herself, as evidenced by the remarkable shifts in her appearance in the photos. At times, her hair is brown, red, or blonde—she often wears wigs—and she is prone to wearing costumes. She adopts various aliases, and Crosher subtitles each book in her four-volume set with aliases/nicknames: “Kathy,” “Alice Johnson,” “Cricket,” and “Mitchi.” Given the highly slippery nature of the woman depicted, is it any surprise to discover that “Michelle duBois” is in fact also an invented moniker? Or that Crosher’s entire project has elicited a great deal of speculation about whether or not duBois is a total fabrication? Some have even suggested that Crosher herself posed for the photos, citing a physical resemblance between the artist and the subject. Crosher revels in the potential confusion. “Often, people think that I am Michelle duBois and that she is me,” Crosher stated in an interview with Artillery, a Los Angeles-based magazine. “I like that our identities appear to have merged; that people think we are one and the same. This is part of the work—how the details of a story are revealed or not revealed, how it all unfolds—and the blurring of boundaries of identity and understanding.”
All of this potential confusion and suspicion is in keeping with a woman who seems determined to make herself unknowable at the same time that she obsessively documents herself. These tendencies, seemingly at odds, tease the viewer in a seductive manner. DuBois offers herself up freely, but ultimately cannot be possessed.
Sexual seduction is the thrust, so to speak, of all the photos. The images range from flirty to trashy. DuBois has a penchant for dressing as archetypal seductresses such as sexpot nurse, belly dancer, hula girl, even 1930s screen star Mae West. She is often in the company of men (Crosher has described this male harem as “husbands, johns, boyfriends, and strangers”) and appears to be ever aware of the male photographer/viewer/consumer. DuBois’s commanding sexuality and willing self-objectification are in evidence throughout her life, from her teen years through middle age. While some of the individual photos unquestionably titillate, many of them fall flat in their attempted seduction. In fact, looked at collectively, the often awkward body of work sabotages the view of duBois as a master manipulator of her own image.
Taken over the course of decades, the photos document the passage of time. Th is is most evident in the parade of changing fashions sported by duBois: makeup ranging from black cat-eye liner in the ‘60s to frosted blue shadow in the ‘80s, as well as hairstyles stretching from beehive to Dorothy Hamill’s wedge cut. But it is also apparent in duBois’s aging, with its inevitable weight gain and sagging. There is a great deal of uneasiness looking at these images; each phase brings a new level of discomfort for the viewer who is confronted all at once with the awkwardness of youth, the fleeting nature of beauty, and the compromise of growing older. Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspectof bearing witness to duBois’s imperfections is that the subject herself displays no awareness of them. She strikes the very same poses as a middle-aged woman as she did when she was younger. Time and experience do not seem to have affected duBois’s behavior; the photos
don’t suggest any gaining of maturity, wisdom, or self-reflexivity. As Crosher has pointed out, these absences leave duBois extremely vulnerable.
DuBois’s anonymity arguably makes the works more interesting. Had the archive illustrated the life of a celebrity or public figure, its social or historical import would be inherent. But part of the intrigue here is in the lack of details about the person depicted. It is because we don’t—and can’t—know her that she is so fascinating. She is a blank screen for projection of our own imaginations. Among the most captivating images are the most banal: the geeky school girl, the cap-and-gown high school graduation picture. There is something at once disturbing and comforting in the familiarity of those images. They make us wonder about when and why did duBois resolve to live a life that was anything but ordinary. And the ways in which reality may have failed to live up to her fantasies. Crosher repeatedly refers to duBois as an “amateur,” and while that primarily refers to her lack of photographic training, that term is loaded with connotation. Both as photographer and in life, duBois seems to be a person who perhaps wasn’t guided or instructed so much as making it up as she went along.
Crosher’s The Michelle DuBois Project is an exercise in conceptual art, one that is equally about identity, photography, and memory, one that continuously loops back on itself in a cycle of self-references. It is difficult to get a firm grasp on an undertaking that is, as one writer described it, “Presenting someone else documenting herself performing herself.” Many critics compare Crosher’s work to that of Cindy Sherman, an artist who has become internationally celebrated for her chameleon-like transformation of herself for the camera. Sherman has been mining this approach for over thirty years, perhaps most famously in her Untitled Film Stills series of the late 1970s in which she posed as various feminine cinematic tropes, such as the ingénue and femme fatale. But there is a key diff erence between Sherman’s explorations and Crosher’s; Sherman (and many other female artists since) acts as both producer and model, working both sides of the camera at the same time. As some writers have noted, it is more accurate to compare duBois herself to Sherman, a fact that Crosher has acknowledged in one of the project’s components: an installation of twelve photos titled The Cindy-Shermanesque, But She’s the Real Thing (2005).
While the use of an archive as raw material for an art project may seem unorthodox, it has important precedents in contemporary art. In fact, visual artists have been engaging creatively with archives for decades. The photographic archive in particular has been fertile ground to elicit historical events, social and cultural mores, race and gender identity, and personal biography. Among
the many examples are Andy Warhol’s use of headshots of the NYPD’s “Most Wanted” fugitives and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s use of journalistic images of gunshot victims. Christian Boltanski uses found photographs to refer to lives destroyed during the Holocaust; Zoe Leonard creates an extensive photo archive investigating the life of a fictional 1930s lesbian actress named Fae Richards; Lorna Simpson re-stages vintage photographs of African Americans that she finds at flea markets and on Ebay. While some artists re-present found photos in a documentarian manner, others create new images and weave invented narratives around them, deliberately confusing fact and fiction.
One of the things revealed by Crosher’s work with the archive is the changing nature of photography. We now live in a digital era, in which photographs are invisible bits of data that exist in an electronic realm. Over the years duBois employed a wide range of formats—mostly extinct—including prints, slides, Polaroids, 4×5’s, and disc negatives. These photos are not solely images; they are tangible objects that can be held in the hand, put into albums, and show the wear and tear of their age. Crosher emphasizes their analogue nature by emphasizing their physical properties. She photographs the backs of prints, the envelopes the developed prints were delivered in, and the covers of some of the albums they were put into. She shows us duBois’s handwritten notes, sometimes scrawled on the backs of the snapshots, sometimes in the form of little scraps of paper clipped to the fronts. We also glimpse handwritten and numbered lists apparently made for Crosher’s benefit to help her navigate the plethora of images. These annotations mostly indicate places and dates, but a few include brief proclamations such as, “Only pair of overalls that ever looked good on me,” or the comically superfluous, “Me.” Modest messages that expose a peek into duBois’s own experience of looking at the archive along with us.
Crosher’s work with the inherited photos goes beyond simply presenting them. At times, she performs acts to “activating the archive;” moving from passive recipient to active collaborator,
playing a role in their transformation. For example, in some images, Crosher has used a marker to black out male figures who accompany duBois, leaving the prints resembling a top secret file that has been redacted by the government. Crosher eradicates the identity of these men based on the assumption that, to duBois, they were barely known and infinitely replaceable. In other works, Crosher has crumpled original prints, only to smooth them out and rephotograph them. Additionally, she has printed some of the images over and over again, progressively fading them until they are washed out, directly linking duBois’s literal and metaphorical overexposure. In yet other works, Crosher has added dust to the surface of the prints before rephotographing them. All of these manipulations are deliberate violations of the proper tenets of archival presentation and preservation of photographs, in which fading, dust collection, crumpling, and tearing are anathema. Such care-taking itself is somewhat anachronistic, as these traditional photographic “problems” have been eliminated by digitization.
In 2012, Crosher announced that her work with the duBois archive was complete, having reached its planned conclusion. And yet, the artist finds that her source material keeps suggesting new avenues of exploration. Crosher is planning to create a fifth volume to the book series, prospectively titled The Disbanding of Michelle duBois. Crosher believes this last installment, which she terms an “analogue epilogue,” will be the final step in what has been an epic exploration. This volume will depart from its predecessors in two distinct ways. First, the emphasis will shift from portraiture to landscape. Not every photo in the archive depicts duBois; a small percentage are dedicated to other subjects, including landscape. Among these are a handful of images of duBois’s native Oklahoma, and a larger number of landscapes shot in Asia. Second, Crosher intends to incorporate more of her own photography into the mix by travelling to sites in Oklahoma described to her by duBois and shooting them using old cameras and obsolete photographic techniques, ranging from slides to large-format negatives. The book will not distinguish between the photos shot by duBois and the ones shot by Crosher, thereby “conflating the real and the imaginary, taking away the question of specific authorship, collapsing us even more.” This shift from working solely with images that already exist to creating new ones is conceptually significant but not outside the parameters Crosher has set for herself with this project. All along, she has been questioning the very notions of authenticity. As she has stated, “Even though it is from the archive of a real person, this is about fantasy. Both her fantasies and the fantasy of photography itself.”
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 7. April 1, 2013.