For Women Only: Re-imagining Russell Lee’s Pie Town

Debbie Grossman—Julie Saul Gallery
Debbie Grossman—Julie Saul Gallery
Doris Caudill

Using digital manipulation, Brooklyn-based artist Debbie Grossman takes Russell Lee’s photographs of rural homesteaders in New Mexico, taken for the Farm Security Administration in 1940, and creates her own utopian village, My Pie Town.

The artist came upon the project after reading Joan Myers’ Pie Town Woman, the story of Doris Caudill, a woman heavily documented by Lee. Left with the sense that Doris’s husband, Faro, had been more of a burden than anything else to his wife, Grossman took Lee’s portrait of the couple and erased him from the photo. Taking a look at Doris on her own, Grossman became intrigued. “What if,” wondered the artist, “the whole town was filled with women?” For the next year, Grossman worked on her own fantasy version of the town.

Russell Lee—Library of Congress

Faro and Doris Caudill, homesteaders, Pie Town, New Mexico

In an interview with TIME, the artist discusses how she pushed the envelope with Russell Lee’s images:

What do you love most about this project?

I like that viewers can look at the images and see a world that appears real, but that didn’t actually exist. More specifically, I like that viewers can see a very contemporary kind of family—two married women with kids, for example—as if it has a precedent in the past, and as if it were part of the American historical archive.

You seem to enjoy blurring the lines of reality and fantasy. Why?

Some things can only happen in fantasy, or with imagination. One thing I love about Photoshop is that allows me to create something imaginary that seems real, so you could, at least for a second, even if you knew something was fake, experience looking at it as if it were the real thing.

How would you respond to traditionalists who don’t believe in altering photos beyond what it originally stands for?

I do think it’s funny when so-called “traditionalists” don’t realize that manipulation and compositing photographs for the sake of art has been a part of photography since the invention of the medium. I can see why, though, some viewers might be more upset by a project like this, which takes documentary images from the American archive and changes them. And that’s why I like to be very clear that, yes, these are pictures I have changed to create my own fantasy of the past. Viewers don’t have to share my fantasy.

Why Russell Lee?

I just loved the pictures of Pie Town. And I think he had a really large number of pictures of very strong-looking women, which I liked very much.

If Lee were alive today, how do you think he would react to your project?

I have no idea! I’ve read as much biographical information as I could find, but I don’t really have a sense of whether he would think it was fun or funny or absurd or horrible. But he was originally a chemist and very interested in photographic technology, so I do think he would have been extremely interested in the digital process and in Photoshop.

Can you describe how you made the images? 

[These] images were all made in more or less the same with—with slow and painstaking transformations in Photoshop. To turn a man’s face into a woman’s, I needed to change the scale of the features, the bone structure, and the texture of the skin. Figuring out how to remove stubble was a challenge, as was trying to reshape the jawline. I would often have to go back in and add shading as well. To change a body, I’d have to re-mold the pixels to make the shape of a woman. It just took days and days to do it. I’d often come back to a picture realizing that I hadn’t gone far enough.

Debbie Grossman‘s series, My Pie Town is on display at the Julie Saul Gallery until May 21, 2011.

Related Topics: , , , , , , , , ,

Latest Posts

2014.  Gaza.  Palestine.  Schoolchildren head to class at the Sobhi Abu Karsh School in the Shujai'iya neighborhood. Operation Protective Edge lasted from 8 July 2014 – 26 August 2014, killing 2,189 Palestinians of which 1,486 are believed to be civilians. 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 civilians were killed.  It's estimated that 4,564 rockets were fired at Israel by Palestinian militants.

Inside Gaza with Photographer Peter van Agtmael

What photographer Peter van Agtmael encountered in Gaza changed the way he worked.

Read More
WASTELAND PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated December 2014 and exclusively in conjunction thereof.  No copying, distribution or archiving permitted.  Sublicensing, sale or resale is prohibited.     REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM.  Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing.        Mandatory usage requirements: (Please note: you may select 5 branded images for online use and 3 images for print/unbranded)1. Include mandatory photo credit with each image2. Show the December cover of National Geographic somewhere in the post (credit: National Geographic) unless using only one image3. Provide a prominent link to: the top of your piece, ahead of the photos 4. Mention that the images are from "the December issue of National Geographic magazine” GOWANUS CANALNew York, New YorkPollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead, copperYear listed: 2010Carved from a tidal estuary 160 years ago, the Gowanus Canal is Brooklyn’s industrial artery—and a deeply polluted waterway. Even so, it’s frequented by herons, seagulls, crabs, and canoeists. Defying local fears of economic stigma, the EPA listed the canal as a Superfund site in 2010. It hopes to start dredging contaminated mud in 2016.

Photojournalism Daily: Nov. 24, 2014

Mideast Israel Palestinians

The Best Pictures of the Week: Nov. 14 – Nov. 21


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 19,241 other followers