In films, books, plays and works of art, one item can become piled high with layers of meaning; Desdemona’s handkerchief, Matisse’s apple, Dorothy’s ruby slippers. In Lucy Hilmer’s photography series Birthday Suits, one pair of white pants comes to stand for more than itself. Baring almost all, Lucy stands before the camera; sometimes defiant, sometimes distressed, most often smiling. There’s something deeply personal and poetic about these pictures which made me want to learn more about the woman – and the pants – at the centre of them. So over to Lucy, who answers a few of my questions.
Did you know when you took the first photograph that it would be the start of a long-term series?
In 1974, when I made my first Birthday Suit self-portrait, I had no idea it would become a life-long series. I’d just started studying photography in San Francisco, and went to Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, CA on a lark, and as a kind of homage to Antonioni and his film about the counter culture. I set out to make a picture of myself in my “birthday suit” in Death Valley because in those days the saying was you couldn’t trust anyone over 30. In 1974, when I turned 29, I figured I’d immortalise myself on the last good year I had left.
Why are you topless in the photos?
Of all the photos taken on that first shoot, the one that caught my eye on the proof sheets was the one in my underpants. I recognised that person more than the skin deep girl posing totally naked in the other frames of film. She was vulnerable, open, awkward… she was me.
The settings of your photos vary from the seaside to your house; how much thought goes into location for each picture?
Every year I decide at the last minute where to take my self-portrait. Each Birthday Suit reflects wherever I really am, both outside and inside myself.
Why are there some years missing from the series?
I have images for every single 22 April from 1974 to the present. For a few years, I’ve chosen two images to tell the story. I plan to reveal them all at once when my book comes out.
It must take some guts to turn the camera on yourself. Have you ever regretted making your personal life and appearance the subject of your photographic series?
It took me until I was 60 in 2005, to bring this series out of my closet into a more public setting. I made the self-portraits for myself, to mark myself in time as I really felt each 22 April. It’s family history, family photography, but with a twist.
If you could journey back in time to just one of the photos, which one would it be?
I suppose the Birthday Suits that mean the most to me are those I made at the most difficult times in my life. Because I made my Birthday Suits to document myself in time, I can journey back just by looking at them whenever I like. But now at almost 70 I work hard to live only in the present.
Can you tell us a bit about the film you’re making to do with the series?
I have the great good luck of being able to shoot my home movies with a pro – my husband, Bob Elfstrom. I’ve been accumulating footage for decades for my personal film whose working title is “_Stopping Time_. It’s about a photographer (myself) who’s obsessed with stopping the time of her life in still images.