Fig 1. The Kitchen Table Series. Untitled. 1990
American photographer Carrie Mae Weems is well known for her evocative images usually depicting everyday life in African American culture. Following her studies at the California Institute and the University of California, Weems has since become a major influence in the contemporary field of portraiture in which she explores tense subjects involving race, sexuality and identity. Her success has brought her to exhibit across America and she has won various awards including the Macarthur Fellowship Award in 2013.
One particular series which I find captivating is ‘The Kitchen Table’ series produced in 1990. This series sees a series of images that follows the relationships of a black woman in which the scene is set in the small space of a low lit kitchen. We firstly see several images where the woman develops an engaging relationship with a lover and within these first few frames, the woman possesses a seducing character as she reveals her confidence through her body language and gives the audience the impression that she is in control. However, one frame following these images almost certainly confirms the end of this first relationship as she sits at the table alone, cradling herself and hiding her face. Particular frames such as this intrude throughout the series as Weems intends to show a more fragile side of this character. Following this first relationship, we then see her relationships with friends in which the images appear more casual. I feel this part of the series sees a mixture of emotions as in some images, she appears happy and relaxed while in others she once again appears quite sorrowful. Later in the series, we also see a intense images of her and her children in which she appears to have difficult relationships and then towards the end of the series, we see the woman on her own.
Throughout this series, there appears various aspects that contribute strongly within the narrative. The objects are one thing that is a noticeable change as in the beginning of the series, we see objects including a mirror, smoking cigarettes and drink. These objects bring emphasis on the care free life that the woman experiences with her first relationship, however as this part of the series draws to a close, the central object presented is a newspaper which may suggest the male dominance of her partner as the relationship ends. Later in the series, the mirror returns but we also see books and pieces of paper in which the leading woman brings a more concentrated character as we see her discipline her daughter. In the last few frames of the series, there are no objects until the very last image in which we see the leading character at her most vulnerable. This series presents a variety of narratives in one story and this engages the audience to consider the various possibilities that come about in social situations. The low key lighting gives a brooding atmosphere that suggests how damaged the family is. The appearance and reappearance of objects brings an unusual twist in the series as this leads us to notice the direction in which the family is taking potentially in financial terms. For example, when the lover disappears, there is a change of furniture; the birdcage is gone (although this returns later in the series) and the images on the wall also change, hinting at the time period the series is set (a Martin Luther King image is seen at the beginning of the series).
Reflecting on this work, I find it very gripping and intense as it plays out quite a dramatic turn on events where the audience is not given the complete story straight as Weems intends for us to follow it through to see what happens similarly to a soap opera. I find this very influential towards my work as it brings a strong example of how narrative can be given in small doses as a way to create a build up for the story. Weems does this very well and I am keen to explore this aspect further in my own practice.
Jack Shainman Gallery (2015) Carrie Mae Weems [Online] Available from: http://www.jackshainman.com (Accessed 29/12/2015)
Carrie Mae Weems (2015) The Kitchen Table Series [Online] Available from: www.carriemaeweems.net (Accessed 29/12/2015)
I. Pauli. L et. al (2006) Acting the Part – Photography as Theatre, Ottawa, Ontario, Merrell Publishers, p. 79