At first, one is taken in by the charm and vivid composition of the girls in Angela Strassheim’s work, but after longer examination one gets a kind of eerie feeling that there is a dark side to this perfectly groomed facade like one gets from watching The Stepford Wives.
Angela Strassheim was born in 1969 in Bloomfield, Iowa to a born-again Christian family where her mother frequently reminded her that her soul was damned. Whether consciously or not, her strategy seemed to be to watch things from a safe distance, never putting her fate in the hands of others. Photography lends itself well to this position of detached observation and she avidly pursued this craft to technical perfection. First, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Media Arts in 1995 at the College of Art and Design in Minneapolis; then she became certified in various forensics applications and pursued her Master’s Degree in Photography at Yale University in 2002. With this kind of drive it is not surprising that she quickly won numerous awards, has many exhibits on display and will probably continue to do so. She divides her time between New York City and Minneapolis where she maintains studios. Her latest project has her in Israel to do research on women in the Bible.
All the images give the initial impression of candid intimacy, but everything is too polished, with not one hair out of place. Strassheim’s staging is careful and on indoor scenes she pays particular attention to solid color which appear in bold swatches.
Two of her series prominently feature little girls: Left Behind and Pause. Left Behind is also the title of a book published in 2007 by Grinnell College. All the images are untitled but have unofficial descriptions which I will use here for easy reference. The first five images are from Left Behind. The implication of this title is that these are the souls still left on Earth. The first is the one used on the cover of her book and evokes the feeling of being left at home while the world goes on outside.
“Yellow Tub” struck me because this older toddler is impossibly clean and neat and posed so perfectly on the chair.
“Horses” gives us a sense of a girl’s inner world as she displays her collection of figurines. At first, this scene seems somewhat spontaneous except for the need to place the horses, but then one notices the children on both edges of the frame, as though they’re trying to stay out of the shot.
“First Haircut” is loaded with meaning. It first seems a candid event in the girl’s life, but there is the suggestion of violation and loss as she displays her severed lock. Given the kind of Christian household to which the girl belongs, it would have been inappropriate for her to have undue pride in her natural beauty.
Here is a beautiful girl in a beautiful shot with the requisite roses, which can have a kind of double meaning here. In pagan symbolism the rose represents femininity and the female connection with nature. However, in a strict Christian household, the rose would have associations with the Virgin Mary and white roses particularly denote the virtue of the girl’s virginity.
The next three images come from Strassheim’s series Pause. The first is an impressive accomplishment as shooting a white scene can cause a number of technical difficulties. The artist makes good use of mirrors in some of the images in this series.
“Amy Reading a Book” gives a clue that this series makes more use of outdoor scenes while Left Behind was largely interiors.
“Hoola Hoop” shows how Strassheim began to be more at ease with expressing the natural beauty of her subjects. The hair out of place gives this girl a relaxed charm.
There are many more interesting images from these series and I recommend you view them on Strassheim’s official website. Another series called Family Study has some of the same feel of the other two, but as it features mostly boys, none of its images are shown here. Her early work included a project called Evidence in which she shot cleaned up scenes where homicides of domestic violence took place. It feels as though the ghosts of the victims still haunt the images. She began this project before all the others but needed to wait to collect enough images for her presentation. She also has a series called Hearts which is literally pictures of removed hearts, the metaphorical seat of the soul. These two series are a sign of Strassheim’s artistic development, as when Sally Mann was collecting her material for What Remains.