WRITERS PRIZE: 24 / JUL / 2023
MANDY O'NEILL'S PHOTOGRAPH OF DIANE
by Oana Sânziana Marian
I don’t know Diane, but when I catch her gaze at eye level (as the photographer Mandy O’Neill captured her), there’s a complicated pain I haven’t felt since I was a teenager.
But first, the photograph: Diane, a young woman of 17-18, standing, wearing a school uniform – white button-down shirt, navy-blue tie with thin diagonal stripes of maroon, yellow and green – against a featureless light blue background. There’s something retro, and institutional, about it: the pastel backdrop of school portraits in the 80’s and 90’s, when I was coming up. It’s easy to say this could be – if cropped – a school portrait, and diminish neither the photographer's artistry, nor the sitter’s singular presence. O’Neill and Diane both burst out of the conventions they have constructed (O’Neill, classical portraiture), or to which they have consented (Diane, Larkin Community College’s dress code). It’s the posture of school portraiture: three quarter turn, eyes facing camera, but even Diane’s adherence to the uniform feels somehow simultaneously in defiance of it. Sleeves rolled up. Unbuttoned collar reveals a thin black leather choker (repeating the form of the necktie) with a pendant. Dark hair, buzzed on the left, highlights the vulnerability of exposed skin, the neck, the ear, with its delicate silver hoop. Chin-length, icy blue-green ombre hair, a shade brighter, greener than the background, frames the right side of her face.
Finally, the incredible face. If, by both the school’s convention of tie-wearing and her personal choice of jewellery and hairstyle, Diane pushes against gender expectations, the flawless cat-eye contour, shaped brows, subtle eyeshadow and fuschia lipstick re-subvert the subversion. "Women have long been oppressed by compulsive femininity," writes Jessa Crispin in an article exploring fashion and patriarchy, "Wouldn’t it be better to remove the pressures of gender conformity so that one could freely choose whether or not to participate?" Yes, or participate in both, and Diane obviously already knows this; her gaze is both locked and open, refusing and expectant.
"I knew when I made this photograph that while a number of factors made it a compelling portrait, it also had that intangible element that draws you in and resonates in a way that is inexplicable," O’Neill says (Diane, Larkin Community College, 2018 won the Zurich Prize in 2018 and is now in the National Portrait Collection). The photographic portrait blurs the lines of ownership. Whose image is this? The photographer’s? The sitter’s? Both, of course, but it is the photographer who initiates the artist-subject relationship, and behind this compelling portrait, is a photographer who creates conditions for the sitter to hold her power, lights her with skill, and then gets out of the way
O’Neill’s work has reminded me of another great documenter of adolescence, the Dutch photographer Rineke Dijsktra. In particular, Amy, The Krazyhouse, Liverpool, England, December 22, 2008 also features a young woman against a light grey-blue background. Amy’s bouffant hairstyle and ruffled yellow shirt conform, more or less, to general expectations of femininity; her defiance is concentrated in the confronting eyes, raised brows and slightly parted lips. But where Amy challenges the viewer with preemptive defensiveness, Diane (albeit uniform-constrained) is fully self-possessed. There’s a queerness about the photo that has very little do with presuming the sexuality of the subject; "‘queer’ as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and that has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live," in the words of bell hooks. I might add, calmly at odds.
And that’s the tender spot for me. Speaking from the social location of a white, European-American cis queer woman, every generation of women before me suffered more pressure to conform to expectations of gender and sexuality. By my mother’s generation’s standards, I am in many ways freer to be exactly who I am. But by this token, when I see this stunning photograph hanging in the National Gallery, I am confronted with the grief of the teen I once was, who would have needed so much to see such a model of self-possession and calm opposition to a world that, let’s face it, is still a patriarchal nightmare. I am glad we have her now.
Images: 'Diane, Larkin Community College, 2018,' Photograph, 80 x 60 cm, Mandy O’Neill (top), 'Amy, The Krazyhouse, Liverpool, England, December 22, 2008,' Archival inkjet print 48 3/8 x 39 3/4 x 2 in. (122.9 x 101 x 5.1 cm), Rineke Dijkstra (bottom)