Does anyone remember body art? We do, we do! It was one of the waves of feminism that crashed over the art world back in the 1970s. Men had enjoyed centuries of good fun with the female form ““ chipping nudes out of marble, painting Madonnas and filming bosomy actresses — so women artists decided to have a go at the subject themselves.
You may remember Karen Finley dolloping chocolate on herself or Cindy Sherman posing as a film noir starlet. Or you may not. It doesn’t matter. What did matter, and still does, was that women, who’d been pretty much excluded from the museum and gallery world, were pushing their way into the public eye, only this time, they were taking charge of the lighting, the scenery, the cameras. They were representing themselves.
There’s been a lot of women’s self-portraiture since, so much, in fact, that it’s become a fairly tired trick. What was once political bravado now often just looks like squirmy exhibitionism. Which brings us to Old Shoe Woman.
That’s the moniker of 58-year-old Judy Baxter of Hahira, Georgia. On the internet site flickr, Baxter is carrying out one of the most intriguing and amusing projects in self-portraiture (or “body art,” if you will) that we’ve seen in a long time.
Baxter is actually just one of 4632 flickr-ites participating in 365 Days, a commitment to take and upload online a new photo of oneself every day for a year. Judy’s “set” — seven months in ““ is remarkable on a couple of counts: first, because of the quality of her pictures, and, second, because of all they say about rural Americana. Though she may not have set out to create an ethnography, that’s what she’s done. Baxter is showing us her artful self, meanwhile documenting the religion, foodways, landscape, and customs of Southern Georgia.
“Your nose just gets bigger and bigger the more you times you take a picture of yourself,” says Baxter. So pretty much right away, Judy began to shift herself off to the side of the frame and put her friends and surroundings at the center of the viewfinder. We see the gas pump and Judy, the Dollar Store and Judy, pinch-hitting hairdresser Floyd and Judy (with a new coif), and two slaw dogs with Guess Who’s hand on the attack.
We caught up with Judy Baxter by phone on Friday and followed her in-and-out voice until she could get to the sweet spot in her classroom at Berrien Elementary School. Blue Tooth in ear, she proceeded to talk with us as friend Joe Ann Stafford helped her arrange books and files. In fact, you’ll see that Judy reported on our interview before we did!
“It came to my mind when I decided to do this, it would be a daily journal for me,” Baxter says of her 365 Days project. “I’ve never been good about writing in a journal or keeping a diary. I do better when I’ve got photography in the mix.” A third grade teacher in Nashville, Georgia (pop.4760), Baxter has been taking photos since she was about the age of her pupils. She grew up on a farm in Walton County, between Atlanta and Athens. “My parents got a Brownie Starmatic II when I was about 12 years old,” she says. “A roll of film in it would last for many months, because you had to have cash to develop the film.” Later, she enjoyed taking instant pictures of friends on Sunday afternoons with a Polaroid Swinger, a gift from her high school beau. She graduated to a 35 mm. Yoshika and kept experimenting. “I actually learned a lot about how to use it,” she says, “from the guy at the camera department at Kmart where I went to get the pictures developed.”
Mainly, Baxter learned by doing. During college years at Georgia State, “I was trying to learn about available light,” she says, shooting pictures “of my youth group at church,” then taking a photography course as an elective. “I learned that slides were cheaper than film,” Baxter says, and so she began to concentrate on slides, collecting images from her travels with a mind toward using these pictures in her teaching. After 36 years in the classroom, she’s still doing that, though these days it’s a whole lot simpler: gone digital, she projects pictures from her laptop and can plug straight into her flickr website. Don’t take our word for it.
Baxter’s photography took a giant step in 2004 when, through the Georgia Internship for Teachers Project (GIFT) she earned the chance to work with entomologist Dr. David Riley, of University of Georgia, Tifton. It was in taking macro photographs (super close-ups) of insects that she really bore down, read the instructions to her Nikon Coolpix camera, and learned what it (and she) could do.
With that technical skill and encouragement from scores of friends she’s made on flickr, Judy’s photography has become unleashed. Through her 365 Days project, she’s created a witty and coherent portrait of a 50-something Everywoman in the rural South. There are trips to the Smokies and Las Vegas, tele-evangelist Joyce Meyer on screen, breakfasts at the Waffle House, and mylar balloons on Valentine’s Day. What’s intriguing about Judy’s photographic “diary” is that with its heaping helpings of cultural stereotypes (right down to the Wayne Newton souvenir t-shirt), her technical skill, wit and respectfulness make the world of her pictures fascinating and new. Isn’t this what realist art always manages?
The longer we look, the more we see magic glimmering within this expected world. The intent faces of Baxter’s choir at “The Rock” (the first integrated church in Valdosta, Georgia), a huddle of teachers in conference, a last birthday, verses of Scripture uploaded onto Judy’s iPac, the morning when winter in South Georgia trades places with spring.
Baxter’s photographs look “real,” also, because generally her friends and neighbors have stopped mugging. “They get so used to me and my camera,” she says, “they don’t pay attention.” But what about the photographer? Has her project in self-portraiture changed how Judy Baxter sees herself?
“You have to not be too self-conscious,” she says ““ and shown with a hippo, half-asleep, and from the pale thighs down, Baxter is obviously having fun with the facts of middle age. “I guess I’m more aware of how I’ve changed- physically,” she says. “How did my mother’s neck get in this picture?”
Old Shoe Woman’s photographs are strange and fresh. She serves up unapologetically all we would expect of a rural schoolteacher in South Georgia — the silver crosses and Christmas sweaters, steering wheels and hamburger buns, motel rooms and beauty shops. And then there’s that big, knowing smile at the edge of every frame, presiding over all that passes for ordinary.