When Susan Borowitz was growing up, she saw a commercial for Wind Song perfume: “a beautiful woman’s face seen through a misty window of a steam train, her handsome suitor looking on from the platform longingly, while a tenor sang, ‘I can’t seem to forget you; your Wind Song stays on my mind…’” Looking back, she describes herself as a “love-sick adolescent.” At the time, she wanted to be the woman in the ad.
As girls and young women, we’re surrounded by these kinds of images–pictures that show us what life “should” be like when we’re grown up and have everything all figured out. In Locked-In, Borowitz presents an alternative, posing in self-portraits that express the real-life frustrations of being human–and more specifically, of being a woman in a society shaped, in part, by patriarchal structures.
Those frustrations come to life through physical performances: the artist vacuums on a beach, plants a garden in the desert, sits in a car going nowhere, and finds herself in a pool without water. She’s Sisyphus rolling the boulder or Tantalus reaching for fruit. In one photograph, she riffs on Norman Rockwell’s Triple Self-Portrait; while Rockwell’s bespectacled eyes are wide open in his version, Borowitz is blindfolded in hers.
Locked-In started partly as a way of visualizing the pressures of aging in a world that idolizes youth, but Borowitz has since found that it resonates with younger women too. In hindsight, she believes that she might have been subconsciously drawing from her experiences with clinical depression in her thirties and forties.
While the photographs themselves represent the feeling of being trapped, they were, in fact, made all over the globe. When Borowitz got to the other side of that depression, she traveled–a lot. In real life, she’s not stuck. During the making of the project, her friends and contacts tipped her off to locations that might be of interest; some are photographers who run workshops on abandoned places. Sometimes, the place itself inspires the story she tells, and other times, it’s just the opposite.
The first photo was Stalled: after finding a car graveyard in a village in Kazakhstan during a photo workshop, Borowitz hopped inside. She made Stilted after discovering, by chance, a house being renovated; “it had pilings bolstering the upper floor as the bottom floor was gutted and razed,” she remembers. “I had been wanting to make an image of a woman returning ‘home’ with luggage only to find an empty lot, but I realized this was far better.”
No Vacancy brought her to another kind of location entirely: the remains of Belchite, an old town destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. In all, the photographs feature locations spread out across Kazakhstan; Spain; Romania; Mongolia; India; Thailand; Vietnam, and several states in the US, including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
Borowitz’s work combines the deadpan humor of Buster Keaton with the cultural critique of Cindy Sherman in the Untitled Film Stills era, with the latter having embodied various feminine archetypes inspired by movies from the 1950s and ’60s. While Borowitz admits that her persona in Locked-In represents a kind of “everywoman,” one key difference between Locked-In and Sherman’s Film Stills is that Borowitz is still, essentially, herself. She’s playing a role, but she’s also being honest about herself.
Locked-In is funny because it’s also painful. The creation of the photographs was joyful, but it was also arduous. While some of the more impossible scenarios were brought to life in post-production, she actually did bring a bike into the ocean. Her friend stood on shore, ready to push the shutter button, when the artist was swept up by a wave. She lost her footing and was left clinging frantically to her bike, fighting an undertow that threatened to pull her out to sea. Her friend still laughs every time she sees the picture.
When working in an abandoned trolley car, Borowitz cut her leg on a broken nail; in other cases, she braved freezing temperatures or stood on an abandoned staircase that could have crumbled at any moment. To create Bottomless Cup, she had to walk a mile by foot, toting all her heavy gear in a wagon across the forest terrain. Many of the shoots were group efforts, made with friends, so while they might have brought challenges, she looks back on them very fondly.
The picture she made in the trolly graveyard was one of just a few that didn’t spring spontaneously from the artist’s imagination. That one, as it happens, was inspired by that Wind Song perfume ad that captivated her decades ago. “I finally got to be that woman,” she tells me. “But the train is abandoned, overgrown with vines and gnarly bushes.”
In Locked-In, the central character is foiled at every turn. I understand why so many people relate to her, but more than that, I admire her. Even when nothing goes her way, she keeps trying, in the steadfast hope–and belief–that someday, somehow, she’ll get to wherever it is she’s going. The odds are stacked against her, but she’s relentless in the pursuit of her goals. Sure, she’s not the idealized feminine archetype of perfume ads, but maybe she’s even better. She’s still, in some essential sense, aspirational–someone we can all strive to be.
All images © Susan Borowitz