Trapped Between Eras
Frances F. Denny’s Subtle Family Portraits

Summer houses in the Hamptons, tennis, polo shirts—the lifestyle of the WASPs, or “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants” —has long been a popular motif in the fashion industry. But beyond the glossy campaigns of Ralph Lauren,  this is a class of society that for a long time produced the political and cultural elite of the United States and one which cleaves to rigid role models. The photographer Frances F. Denny was born into this privileged world. Her series “Let Virtue Be Your Guide” shows both classic images of the American woman and the incredible pressure behind the façade of feminine perfection. Denny’s subtle portraits have now brought her recognition with the Deutsche Bank/ NYFA Fellowship Award for Photography. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf met the artist in Brooklyn.
Frances F. Denny comes from an old-established family. Her roots date back to the Pilgrims who reached the east coast of America near Cape Cod on the Mayflower on a November day in 1620. The voyage across the Atlantic was sheer torture. Strong west winds damaged the ship’s sides so much that seawater seeped in; the rations were too small, the sanitary conditions catastrophic. During the trip, two people died from cold, dampness, and exhaustion. Nearly half of the debilitated passengers, particularly women and children, are said to have perished during their first cold winter in New England. The Pilgrims were tough. But John Howland, a descendent of Frances F. Denny, was even tougher. Legend has it that the young man was washed overboard during a severe storm, but grabbed a halyard and pulled himself back onto the deck.

Nearly four hundred years later, his forbear opens the door to her apartment in Cobble Hill, one of several sections of Brooklyn that have come into their own in the last few years. Frances F. Denny was recently granted the Deutsche Bank Fellowship Award for photography, a prize given to young artists annually through the New York Foundation for the Arts. The subject of her prize-winning photo series Let Virtue Be Your Guide, which I want to talk about with her, explores her origins and family history, especially the role women played. 

As she is currently moving into a new studio, we meet at her home. The elegant but not ostentatious ambience matches the young woman, who comes from one of the oldest east-coast families. In the USA, the Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, and the Roosevelts (Denny is distantly related to the latter) form a legendary aristocratic elite and are all descendants of the Protestant Mayflower Pilgrims. It is not only inherited, “old” money and political power that are the hallmarks of the WASPS (an abbreviation for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), but also culture, education, and a lifestyle that preserves traditions. Like wealthy families everywhere, the children go to prep schools, Ivy League universities, and even attend debutante balls. Proper WASP behavior includes good manners, discipline, and a practical, in no way wasteful elegance. WASP is often a derogatory term for an antiquated, birthright establishment. Rebellion against this rigid culture has a tradition, be it J.D. Salinger’s lost hero Holden Caulfield, who rebels against the prep school system in The Catcher in the Rye, or Dustin Hoffmann, who in the film The Graduate shatters the façade of WASP family life by having an erotic adventure with the older Mrs. Robinson and her daughter. The Poor Little Rich Girl Edie Sedgwick, a celebrated New York debutante who became a drug-addicted superstar in Andy Warhol’s factory, is also a cult figure of subculture.

When Diane Keaton gave the "preppie" style a new androgynous touch in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall in 1977, at the latest, WASP culture became a fashion phenomenon. In the early 1980s, designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren brought collections onto the market that made the clean Park Avenue and Hampton beach-house look available to the masses, selling chinos, polo shirts, and yachting shoes, as well as evening gowns and tweed jackets. “’Aspirational’ is a word that is used frequently in the fashion industry, i.e., how do we create things that people aspire to have, or become?” says Denny. “I think Ralph Lauren was one of the first to manufacture this ideal of a WASP lifestyle and turn it into a commercial luxury product, even though it’s far from an accurate depiction of the WASP world I know. So the fashion industry is what helped create the WASP stereotype as we know it now, and that is in some way what I’m working to complicate in this work.” In her series Let Virtue Be Your Guide, which also appeared in book form, Denny does something that is almost sacrilegious. She not only opens the doors to the true, dying-out world of the WASPS, but gives incredibly intimate insights into her family. She showcases old east-coast upper-class life, focusing on the women in her family, on their beauty and strength, as well as on the precipices that lurk behind conservative women’s roles and their constant quest for perfection.

Denny, who took classes in gender studies at her university and views the writings of feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, and Judith Butler as being fundamental to her work, photographed three generations of women in nine houses on the east coast. She shows a decaying world. In front of portraits of their ancestors or in children’s rooms with flowered wallpaper, girls and young women wait for something that will never come. As in classic portraits, they look at the camera or elegantly turn away from it. Denny’s cousin Edith, whom she portrays repeatedly, sits on packed crates: The old family seat where she has spent her entire life is being transformed into a museum.

The protagonists of these photographs seem to be trapped between eras. On the outside, they look very contemporary, clad in jeans or bathrobes, sitting on plastic chairs with a pug on their lap. But on the inside they are burdened by an awareness of their family history and the traditional roles women had in it. “Virtue” alludes to the image of the serving mother, the housewife, the perfect hostess who uses her education for making conversation and her artistic abilities for interior furnishing, garden design, and table decoration, with no prospect of embarking on a career.

For this project, she also photographed men in her family at first, says Denny, but she quickly realized that the idea of observing only her family or her social class was too arbitrary, too imprecise. So she began taking pictures of women, who at times look incredibly distant, and at others enchantingly affectionate. Many of the most impressive photos show her mother: in a tweed dress at the cemetery where her ancestors were laid to rest; sitting in the living room with a girlfriend; in a vegetable garden shaking a female neighbor’s hand in a friendly but formal way. Like the other women in Denny’s series, the mother often looks like an actress ritualizing her life.

In a very unsentimental way, Denny gets to the root of this perfection. Between lovingly decorated cakes, whitewashed kitchens, and summer idylls, she repeatedly captures the decay of this world in close-ups of worn-out furniture, threadbare or stained carpets, and faded wallpaper. The hands of her mother, who is wearing a white apron and checking the table decoration, are as tense as those of an athlete who is about to take part in a competition.

“Though I am critical of aspects of WASP culture, I do come from it and I am clearly interested in describing it with my camera as I see it fading away,” says Denny. “Thankfully, the world is changing and the WASPs don’t have a monopoly on power and privilege anymore here in the US.” After all, why should one take an interest in this world in the age of racial conflicts, streams of refugees, financial crises, and ecological disasters? Denny nods in agreement. “I think as an artist I needed to do this work about myself and where I come from first so that I could say it and move on from it. In my current work, I am documenting people who are also typically depicted in a stereotypical manner, but they are a far more under-represented group. But I think that I needed to start in a place of ‘This is what I know, this is who I can fairly represent,’ because I came from it, it was my world.”

In this respect, Denny’s project is like a voyage of discovery, not just regarding her origins, but also formal issues. Denny was inspired by renowned U.S. photographers such as Larry Sultan and Tina Barney, who also came from WASP families. Both of them realized subtle portrait series of the American upper class in the 1980s and 90s. Like the photography of this generation, Denny’s pictures walk a fine line between snapshot and performance, emotion and concept. We often don’t know whether a certain moment was captured, or whether women were given instructions and are in the process of acting. As Denny explores her own world and the issue of how classes, genders, and power structures represent themselves, ephemeral compositions often catch her eye: One of her mother’s blouses is hanging in the sun on a mullion window, a symbol of emptiness and self-sacrifice. Sunlight slants through a polished window and rests on a nostalgic carpet like an apparition. Due to enlargement, burn marks on the carpet and worn covers look like macroscopic images of skin samples seen through a microscope.

Denny’s photographs are always ambivalent. While they draw the viewer into the picture on account of their almost clichéd beauty, there is a peculiar disparity between the nostalgic idylls in our minds and what Denny actually photographs in a distant and unsentimental way. Denny captures the smallest details:  shades on faded paper, scratches on wood, the folds of a dress, the fuzziness between fore- and background.

Perhaps she feels the same way as Tina Barney, who has this to say about her family portraits: “I want every object as clear and precise as possible so that the viewer can really examine them and feel as if they are entering the room. I want my pictures to say, ‘You can come inside here. This is not a forbidden place.’ I want you to be with us and to share this existence with us. I want every single thing to be seen, the beauty of it all: the textures, the fabrics, the colors, the china, the furniture, the architecture.” Just how complex and overwhelming this existence can be in a fleeting moment is evidenced by one of Denny’s portraits of her mother, titled My mother, after her swim (Prettymarsh, ME) from 2014 – the only picture that her mother doesn’t like all, says the artist. And it is obvious why. For a moment she is not in her role, but in her blue swimsuit looks like a young girl in whose face we can see things that otherwise are almost never revealed in this women’s world – vulnerability, sensuality, perhaps even sadness.