Photographing in costume

Anja Niemi - Words by Max Houghton

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearance.

Oscar Wilde

The startling and immaculate costumes worn by the characters in Anja Niemi’s photographs first entice, then seduce, the viewer into judging by appearance. In their elaborate theatricality, they suggest a gendered role and an era. The flat plane of the photograph is the perfect vehicle for this apparent superficiality. Beguiled into a sense of seeing everything at once, of being overwhelmed by sight, the viewer becomes trapped within a frame at once familiar and unsettling.

With her purposeful mise-en-scenes, Niemi invites us to consider the construction of the female both in society and in its mirror image – film. The excessive femininity of her women, with their coiffed hair and pristine dresses, poses as many questions as statements. Is she vulnerable or powerful? Desirable or deadened? Real or illusory? The outfits themselves are contradictory… is that a bride or a showgirl? The character of ‘The Wife’ from the series Starlets is sartorially demure, without expression, yet is on the verge of obliteration in an act of extreme domestic violence. ‘The Mistress’ wears scarlet, but is engaged in that most mundane pastime: checking one’s hosiery for holes. Whether in a domestic environment, or at work, like the disembodied receptionist, the woman is always in character.

Of the three series collected here, Do Not Disturb uses the anonymous location of a hotel room to explore the free expression of fantasy. The room gives the impression of being pristine, but its former inhabitants remain. We understand the illusion. Niemi´s multiple roles, comic and abject by turns play out to perfection in such a space.

The most recent series, Darlene and Me, continues the doubling theme, which featured in some of the earlier Starlet images. The relationships portrayed between the character and her other self in this Lynchian California desert are complex. One reads languorously; her double is absorbed in a determined act of looking through binoculars, and in so doing, returns the gaze back on the viewer herself.

A brief sequence of images with a covetable convertible suggests a body-in-the-boot murder, before it returns to familiar filmic freezeframe of two women heading towards certain freedom. But, wait, one of them is slumped back in her seat. Who could survive a confrontation with oneself? The well known aphorism by Wilde, used as an epigraph here, is followed by a lesser-known sentence: ‘The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Anja Niemi was born in Norway in 1976, studied at the London College of Printing and Parsons School of Design in New York, She works alone, She is the photographer, stager, model and director of all her pictures.
Max Houghton is Senior Lecturer in Photography, London College of Communication
All pictures © Anja Niemi / The Little Black Gallery
Anja Niemi is represented exclusively by The Little Black Gallery London.