A Constructed Truth
Jamie Diamond’s photography series Life in Fiction uses the skewed lens of memory to examine not only the falsity within the construction of family, but also the truth about identity that emerges from this façade. Using actors, costumes, and makeup, Diamond creates 19 different photographs and one video, all of which are recreations of her memories from the year she was thirteen.
The series begins with relatively “realistic” imagery, showing an older woman wearing a shower cap and swimsuit, floating in a pool, straddling two pool noodles. The photographs progress through different scenes at a country club, introducing us to new family members — an older man with long, curly hair, a teenage girl resting on a diving board, a young boy playing tennis. The style of the photographs appears to emulate photographs that would appear in a family photo album: they show seemingly “everyday” scenes, with the same people appearing multiple times throughout the series, representing a relation between the people within the photographs, as well as a relation between the people and the country club setting.
However, after examining the images more closely, one can begin to dissect the different elements of the photographs, and the photographs appear to, in fact, be exaggerated and posed scenarios. Each person is a model with stage hair and make-up; the country club, a designed set. In the seventh photograph, Diamond shows a girl dressed in a lacy, cream–colored dress with ballooning sleeves and a frilled collar, white nylons, and white heels with toe-topped bows. Her hair is curled and pulled back with a floral headband. She stands alone in a home library, the walls covered with books, the floors hardwood. She is looking off to her left, arms floating just by her sides, her left foot lifted slightly from the ground and leaning inwards, pigeon-like, as though she was in the middle of taking a step. It’s as though we are seeing this girl frozen in time, a still from the film that is her life. And, while similar, it’s not the same as when you take a photograph a moment too soon, catching someone off guard. This image is too candid, eerily false. Her hair and make-up are too perfect, her body unnaturally posed, and the lighting of the photograph makes her skin and hair look waxy. It’s as though we are staring in a diorama at a history museum.
Then, in photograph 15, Diamond’s mother sits on a beige, commercial, ballroom chair. She wears a pencil skirt, a black and white psychedelically patterned blouse that reveals hefty cleavage, a large gold chain link necklace, and large, sculpted hair. The table is covered in a beige tablecloth, and the table is piled high with cucumbers, Italian salad dressing bottle, and plates of chicken nuggets. She sits with a white, fluffy, stuffed animal dog on her lap. The carpet is beige, the walls are beige, the curtains are beige. She is heavily made-up, her skin oily, and she stares at the camera, scowling. The following image then shows Diamond’s parents sitting together at the same table in the ballroom: her mother, wearing the same clothes and makeup as the previous photo, while her father sits naked, wearing blue-tinted aviators, with a plate of chicken nuggets in front of him that also hosts a set of false, crooked, costume teeth. They stare off into space, but their glazed-over eyes suggest that they had been sitting there, staring for hours.
The hair, make-up, and setting of these photographs are all exaggerated to the point of unbelievability. The subjects’ waxy-looking skin, her father’s nakedness (save for the blue aviators), her mother’s brightly patterned shirt and bold cleavage, the young girl’s almost-wedding-dress style frock, the cucumber and chicken nugget table setting all push these photographs past the point of realism. Diamond makes minimal effort to try and hide the fact that these photographs are staged, recreations based on memory.
The body language of the models, too, gives these photographs away as a hoax. At first, the subjects seem candid, captured in time. The ninth photograph in the series shows a boy in a tennis polo and white shorts, perched on the edge of a lawn chair outside. The mother is sitting on the lawn chair, but the photo is cropped so all that we see is her shins and feet. The boy sits with his legs facing left, but his body and arms turned right, to woman’s legs, and he is applying lotion to the legs. He faces towards us, but is looking down, so that we mostly see his black, helmet of hair, and not his face. There is a pair on men’s legs on the lawn chair in the background. Like the seventh photograph, this photograph is also seems to have caught the boy purely in the moment, as though, at first, there is nothing posed about it. His hands rest so gingerly on the woman’s feet, covered in a thick layer of white lotion, like he was mid-rub. However, it’s as though he is resting his hands too gingerly, like he was given instruction, like he was posing. It is a frozen moment in time.
The position of the boys hands and the too-much lotion on the feet in photograph nine, the girl’s floating foot in photograph seven, the mother’s stiff body position in photograph 15, and the mother’s and fathers’ prolonged stares in photograph 16 all emphasize the fabrication behind each image, the falseness. These bodies aren’t captured candidly; rather, they are manipulated into each position, a recreation of a pose that was remembered. These all work to indicate that this photography is a hoax — a hoax, in the sense that, while we at first perceive them to be photographs plucked from a family photo album, it is actually entirely fabricated.
However, the most bizarre, and most explicit detail that gives the photographs away as false, is the stuffed dog. Although everything within the photographs — the models, the setting, the props — are recreated, they are all “real,” in the sense that they are actual living people, actual locations, actual food that are simply acting. Yet, the one detail that is entirely false is the dog. The white, life-size, stuffed animal dog appears twice in the series: on the lap of Diamond’s mother in photograph 15, and tethered to a ballroom chair by its leash in photograph 19. Why would Diamond use a fake, stuffed animal to represent the dog, and not mannequins to represent the people? Perhaps, the dog is a representation of herself, sitting on her mother’s lap, inanimate, tethered to these people who are considered her “family.”
All of these elements of the photographs — the set and make-up, the body language, the stuffed dog — cause the viewer to question the interaction between the family-photograph-form and the reconstruction of places and people. Diamond includes these details, practically drawing big, red arrows at them, as though she wants us to view the photographs as false recreations. However, from the beginning, Diamond is overt about the fact that, while these photographs do begin to resemble your typical family photographs, these photographs are staged, recreations of memory. As you view the gallery online, Diamond includes a statement, explaining explicitly that “this fictional version of reality depicts a specific place and time and revisits actual events from my childhood” (Diamond).
By being so explicit about the fake-ness of the photographs, and of the familial scenes, Diamond challenges The Family as a construct, and as a truth: essentially, The Family is just a collection of people constructed not only socially, but also through the distortion of memories. At first, this may seem as though Diamond is disregarding The Family and memories as a way of understanding the self and identity. However, by recreating, exaggerating, and distorting the reality of the family, Diamond actually uncovers truth about family, and the identity that can be found within it. By acknowledging the façade of the family, she also validates it.
As the images progress, they become more surrealistic, the selectivity, and inaccuracy of memory becomes more apparent. While the images seem to become more dreamlike, Diamond is actually representing the way our memories are not, in fact, direct representations of our past, but rather representations of what our subconscious remembers. Diamond’s inclusion of these details of crooked costume teeth, a table piled high with chicken nuggets and cucumber slices, the fake dog, the too-much lotion, the girl all alone in the library, her father’s nudity, the distant stares of parents, the ballroom empty except for the table and chairs, causes these photographs to become symbolic exaggerations of Diamond’s identity within her own family.
The country club setting, the tennis, the excess of foods on the ballroom table, the mother’s extravagant makeup and clothing all become symbolic of the excessive lifestyle within Diamond’s upper-class suburban family. Combined with the way most models are represented alone in the photographs (and, when together with other models, they are represented with distant, disconnected stares), the lone table in the ballroom, and the disembodied, lotioned feet, these photographs speak to the isolation and pervasive loneliness within not just Diamond’s family, but also in The Family as a general construct. The heavily processed chicken nuggets become symbols of the façade within the family, the cucumbers a manifestation of the coolness, the sterilization that occurs within familial relationships. Her father’s nudity becomes a physical representation of vulnerability, an almost emasculation of this big, broad-shouldered man who wears only sunglasses to cover his eyes: a false front, a façade of strength and power. And her mother, with her revealing neckline, becomes a hyper-feminine symbolization of the female power that acts as a foil to the father’s thwarted masculinity.
And, while these photographs all embody the way the self and identity is represented as an integrated part of the family, Diamond also speaks to the exchange that you have within yourself, as you experience a negotiation between the self and the family. The twentieth and final piece of the photo series is a video, which shows the same person playing tennis against himself — the son who applying lotion to the mother’s feet in an earlier photo. The screen is split, so that on the left side, the boy hits an imaginary ball with a tennis racquet, and then on the right side, the same boy, hits back the imaginary ball. There is a loud airplane flying overhead. The video runs for about two minutes. But what exactly does this imaginary ball represent? Is it actually a ball? Perhaps, it is a representation of the volley that occurs within the family, the inner struggle that must be played out throughout childhood and adolescence, and through the memory of the different events of your life. While Diamond herself is represented within the stuffed dog in photographs 15 and 19, her struggle is manifested here within this imaginary battle. In fact, perhaps that is what this photo series also represents: a negotiation of Diamond and her memories, a culmination of the identity that she found within her family.
These symbols of her memories and herself, and the loneliness and unacknowledged vulnerability within The Family that these symbols represent, reveal both a critique on the American family, as well as her own family, but also how Diamond — and, humans as a collective — find identity within the family and within memory. Because, while we can view these photographs as all false, skewed — even “untrue” — representations of memory and of identity, really, it is these symbols and this inaccurate representation that reveals the truth about our identity within the family, and how we understand our identity in general. These photographs show that our identity is based upon memory, and what our subconscious chooses to fixate on. And, these memories and symbols that she fixates on uncover the truth about her identity through her memories — the details she includes represents the façade of the upper class American family, the isolation of suburbia, the isolation that can occur within a family.
And, while Diamond uses this series to speak to the falsity within the family and the truth within memory, she may have amplified the meaning of the piece even more by playing with different levels of ambiguity within the work. Diamond is very obvious about the fact that these photographs are recreations of memories, a view of her family through the lens of the past. However, by including this statement at the beginning of the series, it leaves the viewer no room for constructing their own interpretation about the series. The photographs already have a variety of elements that cause the viewer to question whether or not the photographs are true or constructed; by prefacing the entire series with the context and intention, Diamond leaves little gray area within the interpretation, gray area that could, perhaps, add to the ambiguity of family, memory, and familial relationships.
Yet, despite the lack of ambiguity and room for interpretation about her series, Diamond cleverly equates the concept of photographic truth with the distorted truth within memory, bringing form (photography) and concept (identity within the family through memory) together in a series that both questions and validates The Family and The Self. Through Life in Fiction, Diamond confronts and dissects what it means to find identity within memory. By considering the ways that memory is, in fact, the truest form of identity, your memories become symbolic manifestations of what is significant, meaningful, and formative to your understanding of yourself. Through memory’s manipulation of the truth, a new truth about identify is revealed.
Diamond, Jamie. “Life in Fiction.” Jamie Diamond. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2015. <http://www.jamiegdiamond.com/index.php>.