Eva O’Leary’s vibrant images engage its viewers in a way that both seduce and challenge common perceptions of mainstream media. One is often left with an eerie feeling that something is ever so slightly off, ominous, disturbing, almost. Growing up in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, Eva was exposed at a young age to the harsh realities of a male-dominated society and its accompanying female expectations.
In time, Eva started working beyond her comfort zone to address questions on feminism, heritage, and personal identity in an attempt to understand the impact that glossy commercial imagery has on these themes, members of society, and herself. In making images, Eva recently told The FADER she has been able to tap into the questions that ultimately drive her artistic pursuit as a photographer.
EVA O'LEARY: I grew up in this pretty intense college football town called Happy Valley, and it was like a hyper-masculine, football-obsessed, violent town of sex where no one ever gets old. As is the case with many college towns, the dominant economic forces were alcohol, sex, and football. There was a lot of pressure there, and in society at large, on women and young girls to look a certain way, to model themselves into these perfect beings.
Growing up in the U.S. with a mom who was Irish and a dad who was American played a big part in constructing my identity. My parents were teachers, so whenever they had breaks we would go to Ireland to visit my mom’s family. At that time, being American was sort of a super embarrassing thing for me. When I’d go over there I would change my accent and become hyper-aware of all these cultural cues and ways to assimilate completely into the culture. Then, when I returned home, the same thing would happen: I would get made fun of for my Irish accent, and become aware of all the things I needed to do to fit in.
When I was 14, I turned into this complete clone. Like, looking back on photographs, I look like a generic, Abercrombie-wearing teenager and it’s actually kind of terrifying to see the influence of all those things and how visible it was on me. I guess it was me rebelling against feeling like a foreigner for so long. I think that influences the work a lot, too — that kind of control, how everything is kind of like unnatural, and there’s this kind of power structure. I guess the easiest way of describing it is when you’re in a culture and you have an accent or something, you don’t realize you have that accent until you go somewhere else.
The constant back and forth between Ireland and the U.S. made me painfully aware of cultural constructions of identity. Mostly because I tried to adopt them. I was really sensitive to the speech and body language of each country. And also painfully aware of the ways I didn’t fit in. I think media has a lot to do with it, like commercial magazines and advertising. The impact of the media and generally the impact of this culture on women is so pervasive and just, like, everywhere. Having experienced it myself, I think a lot of my work has to do with a certain gloss and seduction, but also with things that are considered women's issues. Many of my references come from girl culture online and experiences growing up in a place like Happy Valley.
I’m still obsessed with deconstructing body language, speech, eye contact — it’s an old habit. My way of working draws from my childhood of being a shapeshifter. It comes from a certain obsession with normalcy and the rituals we submit ourselves to in order to pass as normal. I’m especially drawn to the ones I find myself seduced by on some level. And maybe that’s why I make pictures. It lets you isolate and examine human behavior in this really powerful way.
I've mainly been photographing in Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and then more recently I drove across the U.S. and made work in the Midwest. I think it really has a lot to do with the ideas I mentioned earlier, subjects who are from a hyper-masculine culture, and where I can find them in the highest concentration. I also aim to investigate a certain type girl culture. I'm obsessed with identity construction.
I get to know my subjects as I photograph them. Sometimes, they’re someone I already know, but it’s not a requirement. I’m upfront about why I’m making the picture, and all the personal baggage that goes along with it. With a lot of the people I work with, I am drawn to an insecurity I relate to. It’s a process of identifying with someone or something, be it a person in the world or a found image.
In my work I aim to show the surface, the mess. I see this work as an alternative propaganda.
I think there’s something powerful in identifying with another person — it creates a certain intimacy — even if the picture making only lasts 30 minutes. I've been photographing a lot of women over the age of 40 recently. Observing their reactions, their visible insecurities, the way they hide their bodies, their faces. Many women I spoke with were terrified of the camera. These kinds of experiences reinforce this need to keep making work, to answer my own questions about aging as a woman in this culture. The picture becomes some sort of answer for me — not understanding or recognizing something until you see it, making something invisible visible.
Each picture has its own process and comes with a unique set of problems to solve. I’ve always been attracted to a certain type of image, and I think this attraction impacts the way my pictures look. My generation was raised on commercial images — no matter how much I object to their message politically or artistically — I’m totally seduced by the way these pictures create a kind of fantasy. They are everywhere, they get into your head. They shape you, how you relate to yourself and others. As a woman especially, they have a crazy amount of power. They are designed to project perfection and hide the mess that’s underneath. In my work I aim to show the surface, the mess. I see this work as an alternative propaganda, stealing some of seductive parts of commercial photography to get at something darker.
My own experiences are at the center of my practice, and I source many of my images through vernacular photography of women’s daily lives and rituals, which I collect through Instagram hashtags, Facebook albums, homemade beauty tutorials. These images can be simultaneously an imitation of and resistance to the glossy commercial imagery through which women are taught to relate to themselves and one another (makeup, for instance, is at once armor and artifice). Everywhere around me I see surfaces of skin on billboards, cake icing, photographic prints — all of which project fantasies. To that end, my work also aims to address the psychological space in which men and, in particular, women must balance the ever-present reality of imagery that is insistently, but seductively, unreal.
My way of working draws from my childhood of being a shapeshifter. It comes from a certain obsession with normalcy and the rituals we submit ourselves to.
I am always thinking a lot about a certain psychological experience — how to use color/scale/ illusion and perception to make the images read a certain way that has a seductive quality but also repels you a little. I felt like surface was really important to the work when thinking in terms of illusion and surface and about advertising. Like my hometown, Happy Valley, which had this fake, cookie-cutter perfect surface, but underneath everything was so messy and dark. A lot of my work has to do with this metaphor of surface — the desire to project perfection and hide the mess that’s underneath. Many of these images were made with a 4x5 because it has this ability to show a surreal level of detail. The pictures turn into things that you can’t experience by just looking at something. The picture contains more information than your eye can see.
Last year I started collecting these pictures that my friends were making of their children. One friend in particular kept posting these amazing pictures of her son Elijah that were totally weird and strange and beautiful. For one reason or another, I kept coming back to these pictures. I felt like there was something else about them that attracted me — this part of being a mother that was complicated and strange and, at times, pretty wild. I'm so used to seeing these cutesy idealized images of motherhood that trivialize women and the responsibility, complexity, and intensity of raising a human. Once she made this crazy picture of him standing in the middle of the living room, wearing this incredible red scribble costume that he had taped to himself. When I saw it I was instantly obsessed. It summed up so many things I was dealing with in the rest of the work. The scribble costume looked like armor, it was both figurative and an abstraction, it had this strangeness and wildness in it, but was also made with love. I contacted her and explained why I loved the picture. She totally got it, and was really open to helping me re-create it.
I don’t make art because I want to be a political activist; I’m not making work from an equation. I’m making work that reacts to my own experiences, my history, my day-to-day life, my community, the oppressive forces around me. These things can also be political. But photography is somewhat political; it’s a medium that pulls from the world. I think that’s a part of it, but not the full story. There’s a lot of not knowing that goes into being an artist, a lot of trusting yourself when you are attracted to something. It’s the not knowing why you’re attracted to it that can be particularly stressful. But it’s a drive to make something, an absolute obsession and compulsion. I think some of the best work comes from a personal place, and a place of doubt, asking questions about the world and really interacting with it. And trusting that my questions have urgency and value.