A moment of stillness in a busy restaurant as a woman gazes downwards, head bowed in contemplation. An incongruous, green, thumbprint-sized stain marks her pale pink shirt. Sour-Puss The Opera is a photography series that presents the moments in which a person slips away from the frantic bustle of life and into the intense world of private rituals and ruminations.
Sour-Puss The Opera is a fascinating collaboration between Jessica Mitchell, a psychotherapist, and Image Maker Diogo Duarte. They have worked together over the course of two years as friends and colleagues to create the series. Duarte’s passion is clear: he notes that he is “driven by an urge to expand the boundaries of traditional representational photography to expose a person’s internal reality”. The intimacy of their close friendship and ongoing conversations between the two has produced a series of deeply personal psychological portraits that touch on universally human themes. In this series, Jessica’s body is the vessel for their joint exploration of gender, ageing, sexuality and alienation.
Duarte specialises in psychological portraits that engage with the inner world of those he photographs. He says that his desire to make inner worlds ‘outer’ stems partly from his experiences of growing up gay in a conservative part of Lisbon. “I hated having to hide throughout my youth, never having any role models – no one seemed to be having the experiences I was,” he says. “Jessica and I share so much of the same life history. We’re all humans so even though this series is told through a feminist lens, we hope that people can relate at a universal level.”
In a photograph from Act I, Sour-Puss’ reflection fills a full length mirror. A green stain marks her red underwear. “Both of our interests lie in how human beings feel stained or that they are in some way faulty and are coping with their own private demons,” Mitchell says. Here the obscure becomes obvious. The stain becomes a palpable marker of the feelings of shame and fear of isolation that accompany expressions of eroticism and desire from women in their middle-aged years. Duarte and Mitchell’s series gestures towards a culture of shame and fear that exists around sexuality. The images from Sour-Puss The Opera feel like a defiant refusal to hide the stains that this culture creates.
“Diogo and I embarked on this collaboration when we started talking about how I felt about getting older,” Mitchell remembers. “Both of us share an annoyance over how women are regularly portrayed in the media, particularly in photography. Older women are often ignored or shown looking their ‘best’. We feel there’s very little room for women to just be as they are. In my fifties, I feel like a powerful, sexy, mysterious person, while also grappling with really human issues, such as how to come to terms with difficult experiences from my past and my fear of getting older and dying. I have loved being part of a series that puts me out there, unadorned, unashamed and still very much a sexual being.”
Mitchell has a striking presence in the images: her hair is cut short, and she is presented without the traditional props of femininity. The defiance of her gaze lies in its unwillingness to be overpowered by the spectator. In most of the images containing Sour-Puss’s face she is not looking directly into the lens or she has her eyes closed. Rather than gazing directly into the lens and searching the eyes of the viewer for feedback, Duarte and Mitchell have created a series of images in which the protagonist is searching for a sense of self on their own terms. Sour-Puss, spoken from the mouth of someone who is frustrated by the fact they are no longer in control of the way a woman is expressing herself, feels like an apt name for Duarte and Mitchell’s character.
Sour-Puss The Opera presents the realities of growing older as a woman: the sleeplessness, the exhaustion, the frantic bursts of energy, the changing relationship with your body and the fear of running out of time. But this series also shows how these themes are universally human, and many will relate to Sour-Puss’ moments of melancholic reflection. The exhibition has been nominated for the Photographic Prize by the Royal Birmingham Society of Art, and the award will be presented on March 8th, International Women’s Day. There are currently 21 images and two acts in the series Sour-Puss The Opera; neither Duarte or Mitchell know quite what is in store for Sour-Puss in Act III, but for now it is galvanising to see creative energy being directed towards a path less trodden.
Diogo Duarte’s Sour-Puss The Opera was exhibited at the Argentea Gallery in Birmingham, 14th Feb – 9th March.
Ceridwen Mitchell is a fourth-year English Literature student.