Jessie Eisner-Kleyle is a Madison based fine art photographer and educator who's current exhibit Nutria Queens is showing at the Steenbock Gallery in Madison until July 30th. Jessie began her journey back home to Louisiana to photograph these past pageant queens in the summer of 2008. She was first drawn to this subject matter as a series when she recalled reading an article about a Nutria Skinner Champion who was also the Fur and Wildlife Queen in Louisiana when Jessie was growing up. Remembering this article Jessie wondered what this woman and other official pageant queens like her were doing today? The subject matter also raised other questions for Jessie as she describes it in her artist statement on her website; “This project explores the off stage lives of former queens and the particular regional femininity in which I was raised.” Jessie was able to locate and connect with the Nutria skinner champion and many other past queens from a variety of pageant titles. Her exhibit captures these women in their current surroundings.
First of all you may be asking yourself what the heck is a Nutria? Embarrassingly the only reason I know what a Nutria is comes from watching the program Billy the Exterminator on A/E. A Nutria is a large rodent/beaver like animal that lives in and around water in the southern states. The article that sparked this series was of interest to Jessie because she was curious how this woman, “balanced such an extreme feminine activity as pageantry with something so decidedly un-feminine as Nutria skinning.” The exhibition consists of 26 photographs of eleven different queens in a variety of sizes from 13”x8.65” to 22”x32”. The exhibit has a nice flow to it with photographs that candidly capture the past beauty queens in their environments as well as portraits that appear to be more organized and posed. The collection of photographs are displayed in a way that fills the intimate space of the Steenbock Gallery with a visual rhythm moving in and out of the selective larger images and the more numerous smaller photographs.
What you find as you follow these woman through the selected captures Jessie has chosen to display are eleven women who live pretty ordinary lives like the rest of us. A few of the queens show their old flair by how they posed for the camera but the majority seem to have left their pageantry days behind them and although they still retain all of or signs of their past beauty days they seem more interested in raising a family or having a career. What I like about this series is that the photographs allow the viewer a glimpse into the current lives of these past queens. I see this series having some similarities to the Wounded in America series by Robert Drea and Stephanie Arena which shows portraits of gun violence survivors but offers a deeper look into their psyche by offering a brief written narrative of each survivor. Dawoud Bey comes to mind as well with his portraits of high school kids and the added dimension that the narratives written by each student photographed offers the viewer. Not that an artist should provide a photographic narrative or series in a nicely wrapped package for the viewer to digest but with the stereotypes of pageants and the complex lives of individuals I do yearn for a little more information than the photo's create.
Jessie has captured the confidence, strength, compassion and independence of these beauty queens. I can only imagine that participating in such an event once in a life time or numerous times is not for the timid. The portrait of Adrienne sitting on the back of a Jeep with a gator by her side is a beautiful color portrait of a queen that is still close to nature. Her long blonde hair blowing in the wind along with her confident smile displays some of the beauty the judges probably recognized many years ago when they crowned her Louisiana Fur and Wildlife Festival Queen. For what it's worth as a male I can't help but notice she isn't wearing a wedding ring? What is her life story?
This is my favorite of Jessie's portraits. Kate, 1990 Water Festival Queen. This is not a posed photograph. It's so perfect it looks staged. The one son standing in the sink gazing at the camera. The younger son holding onto his sisters toe while dad is carrying the daughter piggyback. Kate stands both proud and in seemingly control of a chaotic and somewhat surreal environment. You have to wonder if the frantic pace and experience of being on and in control of your emotions and actions in a pageant setting didn't help prepare her for moments like these.
Bronwyn, 2000 Patterson Cypress Sawmill Festival Queen caringly comforts her daughter. You don't know what has upset her young daughter but you do wonder if this is only one of many times mom will use her pageantry experience to console the hurt feelings of her daughter if she too becomes a contestant and possible future queen?
Nissa, 1991 Job's Daughters Miss Congeniality. This photograph and the other one in the show of Nissa makes me laugh. In this photograph Nissa appears to be anything but congenial. Is she bored with her current life? Was winning Miss Congeniality the highlight of her life so far?
These photographs and many more of the twenty six images in this exhibit invite you into the world and a little bit the minds of these former queens. Jessie has done a marvelous job capturing the strength of these women. You can see this exhibit through July 30, Monday through Friday 8:30am – 4:30pm at the Steenbock Gallery in Madison, Wisconsin.
original post from Milwaukee photographer William Zuback's blog, June 29 2010