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Eileen Cowin, American, b. 1947
Untitled, 1981, 1981
Chromogenic color print on paper
19 in. x 23 3/4 in. (48.26 cm x 60.33 cm)

Object Type: Photography
Technique: Chromogenic Color Print
Credit Line: Gift of the Yarema Family Trust
Accession Number: 2006.4.4

"Eileen Cowin’s work in the 1980s explores the depth of narrative that mise en scéne photography can convey to a viewer. Mise en scéne photographers exert a control over their work that is similar to an auteur’s command over a movie-set: they both have total mastery over every detail. Cowin begins each of her photographs with a concept, which she turns into a sketch. Then she devises the wardrobe, color scheme, lighting, and gestures for her actors. After such meticulous planning, taking the picture becomes a matter of realizing the scene as she envisions it. She uses images in a way that tends to be more suggestive than representational. Her photographs and videos tell open-ended stories, forcing the viewer to resolve the conflicts she depicts with little guidance.

Untitled (Woman in Red Shirt) is one of several photographs in Cowin’s critically acclaimed Family Docudrama (1980–1983). The key players in the series are Cowin’s twin sister, her husband, her stepchildren and herself. Each photograph shows a realistically staged scene depicting an emotionally charged situation. The themes are wide-ranging—parenting issues, sibling rivalry, marital romance—but all occur within the boundaries of the family. The photographs complement each other: each one is capable of standing alone, but they may also be interpreted collectively. The series as a whole serves as a critique of the contemporary American family, while each photograph portrays one of the myriad challenges that women face as they try to fulfill their roles as wives, mothers, professionals and more.

In (Untitled) Woman in Red Shirt, a woman clothed in a red blouse stands facing another woman who wears a purple robe and sits on an unmade bed. A man with his eyes closed—appearing to be asleep—lies beside her. The man pictured is Cowin’s husband, and the two women are probably Cowin and her twin. Like the other photographs in the series, Woman in Red Shirt, suggests a narrative that raises more questions than it answers. Why does the woman in the bed appear to be distraught? Do these two women represent the same person? What is the woman in the red shirt—whose back is turned to the viewer—communicating to the woman in the robe? The viewer is left to draw his or her own conclusions."

Written by Aleedra Price (PO ’10), Getty MUI Summer Intern 2010

After a night out, two friends say a groggy goodbye. A woman confronts her sister, who spent the night with a man she picked up at a bar. Stuck in a motel room, two women discuss their plans. A woman walks in on her lover sleeping with another woman. In Eileen Cowin’s Untitled (Woman in Red Shirt) (1980), the ambiguous narrative of the scene portrayed plays against the deliberate composition of the photograph. A contemporary of the Pictures Generation photographers, such as Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons, who made work that directly engaged popular culture, such as movies, television, advertisements, and iconic art works, in the 1970s and 80s, Cowin makes series of photographs and stand-alone images that appear to illustrate stories. Much like Sherman and Simmons, Cowin carefully stages her photographs and, as in Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), imbues the scenes with a drama familiar from movies and television. Family Docudrama, of which Woman in Red Shirt is a part, exemplifies Cowin’s work in the apparent careful configuration of each photograph. In Woman in Red Shirt, the titular figure dominates the image, forming with the other two figures a receding triangle that enhances the illusion of depth and anchors the scene. Precise form contrasts obscure content. In Family Docudrama, as in other of Cowin’s series, figures and objects recur, but Cowin does not make a narrative explicit with text or by ordering the photographs. The photographs that comprise Family Docudrama portray, for example, a couple dancing in front of a white sheet tacked to a wall, opposite a camera tripod; the couple in eveningwear embracing against a car, parked in a garage, as a boy looks on from a doorway; and the same couple in bed—the man, on the phone, leaning away from and looking down at the woman, who sleeps facing him. The figures’ unexplained and exaggerated gestures heighten the theatricality of the photographs, making them familiar according to media tropes but otherwise meaningless. Zoe Larkin ‘09 Wilson Intern, 2008

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