In the spring of 1940, Russell Lee wrote to his boss at the Farm Security Administration, Roy Stryker, proposing to spend several weeks shooting Pie Town, New Mexico, a small settlement of homesteaders near the western edge of the state. Lee wanted to photograph there because he felt Pie Town represented a kind of hardy, small town community that was disappearing in America. His pictures of the town are tinged with his mythologizing of a difficult way of life and the land-conquering kind of patriotism that's a foundation of the American story. I share Lee's nostalgia. Seventy years later, I am drawn to a similar utopian ideal. I'm filled with a longing to connect with that time and the people in Lee’s images – I've had a lifelong obsession with frontier life. I fantasize about locating myself within those pictures and that time. So in an attempt to make the history I wish was real, I have made over Pie Town to mirror my fantasy.
In this work, I take a selection of Lee's beautifully-photographed body of images and re-imagine, revise, and reconstruct them using Photoshop. The archive I have created resembles Lee's with an important difference – in My Pie Town, the rag-tag community of homesteaders is populated exclusively by women.
In some of my revisions, I have taken male bodies and rendered them to look like masculine women; in others, I have taken pairs of women, shifted their distance and body language, and brought them closer to create a sense of intimacy. In some of the pictures I have created women so masculine, or so ambiguously gendered, that they may not, for some viewers, clearly read as one gender or the other. I’ve also left a few images untouched, allowing for another dimension of re-reading Lee's work.
Though the Pie Town pictures were never widely published as a group, the images have a sort of a cult following. Posted by the Library of Congress on the photo-sharing website Flickr, they attract endless notes and commentary. Paul Hendrickson wrote an article in 2005 for Smithsonian Magazine about returning to Pie Town; David Margolick wrote a similar piece in the New York Times in 1994. And in 2001, Joan Myers wrote a fascinating biography of Doris Caudill, called Pie Town Woman. I believe that part of what makes the pictures so seductive for contemporary viewers is their extreme level of detail. Lee was a very careful chronicler of the details of everyday life. There's also a casualness and an immediacy to Lee's style.
My/Lee's pictures also have the appeal as a body of work that slipped through history's cracks. Because they work so much better as a group or a picture story, and perhaps also because they were made at the tail end of the Depression, Lee's Pie Town images never become iconic symbols of the Depression itself the way that, say, certain images by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange did. I, like Joan Myers, find Lee's Pie Town pictures particularly compelling because they seem so respectful of his female subjects. Of course, gender roles in Lee’s original pictures are fairly traditionally divided, and any hint of sexuality is sublimated, but I could not have made my female version of Pie Town if there hadn't been space and flexibility for my re-reading in Lee's nuanced photographs.
Because the images of Lee's time in Pie Town are available in high resolution form from the Library of Congress, I was able to get close to Lee's images on a pixel level. For me, working with photographs and editing them so closely in Photoshop is a kind of an intimate act. Zooming in and carving a feminine jaw out of a masculine one, or manipulating the touch of one woman's hand on another's shoulder is a way for me to access and merge my desire with figures which would have otherwise remained frozen in time. I've begun to think of Photoshop itself as my medium – I'm fascinated by the fact that it shares qualities with both photography and drawing. This work creates something that reads as a photograph, and is infinitely reproducible like a photograph, but at the same time depends heavily upon the intervention of my hand.
Particularly because my work takes as its starting point a body of images that is Americana, that was made to be a political tool to encourage pride in this country and its homesteading, agrarian roots, I enjoy imagining My Pie Town working as its own kind of (lighthearted) propaganda.