[text] Merry Alpern

Merry Alpern

by Dörte Zbikowski

When she sets out in pursuit of subjects Merry Alpern takes a hidden camera with her. She captures absolute strangers in intimate situations. Her quest is the unadulterated, immediate moment and not a pose struck by someone aware they are being photographed. The persons captured in her camera’s viewfinder do not become suspicious, nor do they later discover their role in Alpern’s photographs. But then these are not portraits or photographs of persons but rather pictures of actions. Alpern’s final shots are such that her subject’s face – and thus identity – remains concealed. The only face that occurs now and then in her Shopping series is her own. Yet she regularly has to face charges of breaking taboos and producing voyeuristic, illegal photos. »I don’t go out looking for something in particular,« comments Alpern. »What you see are things that just happen. In the way, you can view photography as maybe voyeuristic - and I guess by extension I am, too. But that is not my intention. For me, it is isolating a moment in time that will never happen again. A photograph allows you to examine that moment without any distractions so that maybe you can understand what is happening just a little better.« [1]

For her Dirty Windows series [1993-4] Alpern took up a fixed observation post. For weeks she sat behind a darkened window in Wall Street watching the goings-on in an apartment opposite where a short-stop hotel had recently opened. Looking through a vertically divided, dirty window she was witness to such intimate scenes as undressing, kissing and sex, counting money and taking drugs. Alpern’s photos convey an excitement, a sense of being an initiate of something private or even forbidden combined with her constant fear of being discovered. However, the pictures also exude a specific elegance: the grainy black-and-white film, the sectional shots, the blurring induced by the dirty window imbue a certain tenderness. Not least of all the symbolism and aesthetic attached to viewing through a window heighten the enigmatic quality, which ultimately eludes us behind the window, and only ever hints at the story.

Her next series, Shopping [1997], consists of video stills for which Alpern used a hidden camera. Her own shopping experiences provided the idea. At the time she relentlessly hunted through one fashion store after another, without being able to decide on a single item of clothing. The realization that she no longer knew what she wanted to look like after having tried on so many garments, made her wonder what special attraction shopping holds for women. In spring 1997 she began to record her own shopping habits. By fastening a small surveillance-type video camera into a handbag made of eyelet lace, she was able to film both herself and other women in the fitting rooms. This method produced arbitrary, unplanned shots, some via a mirror. They show shopping as an experience, but the scenes are at odds with Alpern’s own recollections. The handbag perspective is also unusual and roughly corresponds to that of a child.

This voyeuristic observation of others made Merry Alpern think a lot about male-female relationships, but above all to question her own behavior. She sees the morally reprehensible compulsion to look at something which is forbidden as a basic human weakness. Ogling is an attempt to understand oneself better. As regards how she sees herself she says: »I had a totally different perception of myself in the [Shopping] film: my expressions, my body, my ageing skin – somehow I had always seen myself quite differently when I looked in the mirror. Suddenly, I no longer knew what I really look like.« [2]

Alpern’s work has a sociological background. As a student of sociology [1973-7: Grinnell College, Iowa], she had already wanted to explore her environment and her study topics by taking pictures. In 1987, she produced her first series of photos in which she realized this concept from the perspective of an artist. She accompanied and took photographs of two young homeless people, got to know and understand them. Not least of all the friendly relationship the pictures reflect makes them so immediate and moving.

In violating the private sphere of total strangers, as well as her own, Alpern seeks to expose the concealed aspects of everyday actions. She is interested in the way the camera can isolate a moment and the photo then convey a new image of this moment. The coarse-grained soft focus, on the one hand, and the cropped quality of her pictures, on the other, leave much scope for our imaginations to create the stories behind the pictures.

1 Merry Alpern, quoted from: Pat Willard, "When No One is Watching,” in: Brooklyn Bridge, Februrary/March 2000, p. 72. ^

2 Merry Alpern, in: Versteckte Kamera mal anders; quoted from: http://www.allegra.de/extracts/archiv/1999/october/special/merry.html ^