There is something familiar yet unsettling about Yvonne Todd’s Approximation of Tricia Martin, 2007. As quickly as you recognise it as a studio portrait, replicating the classic oval shape remin-iscent of the vignette-style portraits produced in commercial photographic studios, you also become aware of its sickly perfection. The subject’s glistening lips and perfect complexion are familiar to us all from the pages of magazines and advertising, where they sell the ideal of perfect beauty. Here, however, Todd’s concentration on her figure’s expression and features is to different ends. As she describes it:
I’m angling more for the pathetic. I respond to stoicism and piety, deflation and disappointment. I avoid hideous words like ‘empowerment’ or anything else in keeping with heroic.
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1973, Todd studied photography at Unitec, Auckland, and at the University of Auckland. Since graduating in 2001 she has held numerous exhibitions in New Zealand and internationally. Throughout her career Todd has photographed young women. Her subjects are selected from modelling agencies (where she invariably chooses those with little or no industry experience), from call-outs she places for certain ‘types’, as well as from people she encounters in everyday life. Their inexperience as models is evident in their slightly awkward poses and fixed expressions before the camera. This is what, for Todd, makes the women such compelling subjects.
All of Todd’s subjects are photographed against simple backdrops: brick walls, austere interiors or paper studio backdrops. In contrast, her treatment of the models themselves is multi-layered and involved, including elaborate make-up and, later, extensive retouching. Costuming is also an important aspect of Todd’s practice, and her models’ clothes are sourced from second-hand shops, eBay and online catalogues with consideration of, in the artist’s words, ‘the way [clothes] carry character and narrative connotations’. In Approximation of Tricia Martin, the subject’s costuming and wig suggest a character trapped in the stylistically overblown 1980s.
Todd has an ongoing fascination with peripheral characters in history and a self-confessed fas-cination with Priscilla Presley, Christina Onassis and Joan Kroc (the billionaire widow of the founder of McDonalds). She writes, ‘These peripheral figures never had much talent but somehow managed to have their moment of fame before being consigned to history’s rubbish bin. But I remember’. Approximation of Tricia Martin takes this fascination with sidelined figures in our collective memory further. The subject is a fictional character – a forgotten actress from a 1980s soap opera, or a model from the cover of a romantic novel or a clothing catalogue selling cheap demure garments. Through images like this one, Todd examines changing ideas of femininity and beauty, and questions our collective obsession with celebrity.
Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2014)