You might be forgiven for mistaking Elizabeth Hibbard’s meticulously composed and often carefully staged photographs as stills taken from arthouse movies. Drawing on a number of influences in cinema, the plastic arts and performance art – the films of David Cronenberg, the sculptural, neo-expressionist paintings of Anselm Kiefer, second-wave feminist performance, film and photography – Elizabeth crafts shots that focus on the interplay of textures, surfaces, people and objects.
Having grown up in Silicon Valley, Elizabeth pursued her artistic studies at UC Santa Cruz, where she experimented with a range of forms and mediums – film, oil painting, printmaking – only seriously incorporating photography into her practice when she embarked on her graduate studies. Her wide-reaching artistic interests remain fundamental to her work as a photographer. As she tells us: “Formally, my obsession with cinema is inextricable from how I compose an image, and how I choose to arrange photographs in a series; I’m always thinking about storyboarding and editing as I’m assembling a series of images.”
Beyond her visual references, Elizabeth looks to literary and theoretical texts, and her own experiences with psychotherapy, for conceptual inspiration. She says: “I often start with an image that’s been jogged by something I’m reading, or a dream, or something I saw in the real world that I want to recreate.” The images themselves simultaneously compel and repel the viewer, blurring the border between what is visually appealing and what is abject. An egg leaking a viscous reddish substance; a plaster being pulled from skin; a hole cut into the head of a mannequin; two women grappling on a bed, calling to mind the awkward body-struggle of two characters in a Yorgos Lanthimos film.
Speaking of the concepts at play behind some of her images, Elizabeth states: “The question of how people who have been socialised as women define themselves as subjects has felt, for me, rooted in a process of bodily expulsion; the sensation that I must remove something ideologically and emotionally, from my literal and figurative body, from my subconscious, to know what comprises self by what is left afterwards. Whether anything corporeal is left at all, whether gender even exists for me beyond this process, is very much in question. Can I exist outside of female socialisation? What does that look like? Author and theorist Monique Wittig comes to mind, in trying to decide on the function of the term ‘woman’ and if it holds any purpose for me anymore – whether I can dig out the whole root of that, while keeping what I want to keep.”
This notion of expulsion becomes apparent in the highly physical quality of the photographs, through which Elizabeth examines her understanding of herself, as well as her external perceptions, via her own, her subjects’ and her viewer’s interactions on a visceral, bodily level. Of the way she works, Elizabeth says: “I’m working on it, but I’m terribly shy, which often results in me trying to use myself in as many images as I can get away with. If I am not shooting myself at home, it’s most likely someone I’m close to. I don’t know very well how to photograph people I don’t have a pre-established intimacy with, and I’m not sure I want to.”
Like in the making of a film, Elizabeth’s photographic process demands a lot of “takes” – acting out her ideas to see what works and what achieves the desired effect. She tells us: “I shoot almost exclusively digitally now. I find that the limitations of shooting analogue, both financially – and in terms of the time between executing and having time to process my ideas – to be inhibiting to my process at this point in time. I work out ideas by shooting, and although time is definitely essential to how I may eventually come to make image selections, I don’t currently benefit from that gap of not knowing what I got, as processing film entails.”
Elizabeth’s images, which pull us in and make us want to examine them closely at the same time as inciting the urge to look away, question what we find beautiful, what we find visually appealing. As she continues to consider the social and psychological factors at play in subjective experience, Elizabeth states: “I’m looking to expand my range of focus beyond my own body and my own specific relationships to larger social instantiations of the desire to expel something invisible that occupies space in the body, psychologically.”