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.
Cowin currently resides in Santa Monica, California and teaches creative photography at California State University, Fullerton. Her art has been exhibited in over thirty solo shows. She continues to explore the possibilities of constructing a narrative through images, though she now works with a greater variety of media. Her most recent exhibitions combine photography with videos and textual installations.
Written by Aleedra Price (PO ’10), Getty MUI Summer Intern 2010