80 Millee Tibbs

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Born Huntsville, AL, 1976 / BA, Vassar College / MFA, Rhode Island Institute of Design

A photograph is a powerful object—it carries the assumption of truth like no form of image-making ever has. Like the bards of old, it confirms our truth by telling and re-telling our stories. Like the ancient myths those bards repeated, photographs carry hidden messages that draw difficult, paradoxical truths out of our shadows.

The photographic work of Millee Tibbs examines the dark reflection of such fairy tale tropes as girlish innocence, wild landscape, and unicorns. Identity, memory and place are, in Tibbs’ images, composed not of real truths or events but of images that stand in for, and claim to be evident of, those truths and events that define our worldview. Tibbs’ work argues that the images we turn to for nostalgia, grounding, and beauty index times and places that, in fact, never truly existed—or at least, not as we, aided by the breadcrumb trail of documentary images, recall them.

Tibbs recalls the young adult onset of her discomfort at being in front of the camera as presaging an awareness of the photograph’s uncanny trickster power, and a growing curiosity to harness it. In “This is a Picture of Me,” a body of work made in 2006, she staged a collection of photographs of herself in early childhood with her adult body. These tart, compact diptychs are identical down to the smallest detail except for the age of their subject. Child and grownup Tibbs float in a bathtub, talk on the phone, and embody various touchstones of personal history in arresting, flashbulb lighting. They spring open a Pandora’s box of uncomfortable questions and truths—about the photograph’s uncanny state of fabricated reality, the absurdity of their title’s claim (What is a picture? Who is “me?”) and the way our identity becomes more complicated, and difficult to look at, as we move through life.

Every photographic exploration of Tibbs’ has a similarly dark, humorous, unflinchingly raw paradox as its kernel. In the body of work “Virgin Land,” Tibbs unpacks her childhood obsession with unicorns alongside the mythical creature’s descent through Western culture from a grand, deeply holy icon to the kitschy ground of Trapper Keeper covers and little girl’s treasure shelves. The undeniable phallic symbolism of the unicorn is an awkward truth—yet it is, somehow, as Tibbs puts it, “A phallus that feminizes.” Its power has come into the hands of young people as a projection of latent sexual desire. Tibbs’ placement of makeshift “unicorns” into iconic, drippingly sentimental Western landscapes reveals a similar paradox to that of the unicorn—the strange way in which we, aided by images, tend to gender and empower landscape. Our most iconic American landmarks, the vast mountain ranges, deserts and prairies found in the western states, have come to illustrate American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and the promise of unbridled freedom that is problematically foundational to American identity. Like the unicorn, these symbolic flashpoints in the landscape are quite masculine. Like the unicorn as well, they are cocooned in curiously feminine descriptors. The word in which the indices of the unicorn and the western landscape dovetail is “virgin.” The virgin woman, solely capable of luring the unicorn from his forest lair, is essential to the unicorn’s myth. “Virgin” land, or land untampered with by human settlement, follows and is followed by every image we associate with the American West.

Images that provoke a sentimental response are a special interest of Tibbs’—even she is not immune to their seductive pull. Her recent work makes a sharp break from the frankly conceptual, “smart-assed” (her words) photographs she’s been known for hitherto. A new group of images, titled “Mountains and Valleys,” examines the essence of the visual sublime—famous mountainous landscapes from the American West. These images are the beloved childhood photographs of our culture—they index the ideals of beauty, space, and power that can take on a deceptive “innocence” the same way our small, personal pictures do. The ease with which she manipulates the physical surface of a photograph into elegant folds, then photographs the folded photograph, incorporating illusionistic shadows and delicate stratifications of cracks that straddle the creases, echoes the easy manipulation of emotional response wrung by photographers of manifest destiny. As Tibbs’ ideas take on more visually communicative forms, her process becomes more physical. Her new work is developed in the darkroom using traditional, analog techniques to twist familiar landscapes into undulating, geometric forms that do not allow the eye to rest. Giving the eye no place for rest is Tibbs’ forte. It’s a good thing—our eyes need wakening.

Clara DeGalan, October 2017

Copyright Essay’d 2017