For the past two decades, Kelli Connell has been exploring gender and sexuality roles through her photgraphy project – Double Life – and some of that work is now on display through the end of August in New York City.
The exhibit, which opened in June at the Alice Austen House in Staten Island, showcases Connell’s images of one model portraying two people in an intimate relationship. Their personas shift and evolve through the series, which depicts their daily life and private moments.
“Sometimes their actions feel like they are on the same page – almost like a mirror. Other times they are contrasting one another,” Connell said.
The project took root when Connell sought to examine her own sexuality after a long-term relationship came to an end.
“I was just watching a lot of relationships. What we wear and our gestures sometimes speak for us,” she said. “Then again, I am always interested in breaking down barriers and stereotypes.”
The idea came to her – to have one woman play both characters. So, Connell connected with model Kiba Jacobson, who she knew from college. Jacobson had also been a photography major and understands how art is made. They meet up once or twice per year to create new work.
“This project has kept us together,” Connell said. “It’s her creative outlet to be the medium that I work through.”
The first photos were made when Connell was in her twenties.
“Many of the scenes that you see – like the two characters playing pool – were things that you would do early on in a relationship,” she said.
As the years progressed, the photographs have shifted towards the challenges and intimacy that come with time and showcase simple acts like going to bed early instead of staying out late. The two-decade series also serves to document Jacobson – and the characters she portrays – as they age.
Connell said she hopes viewers focus on the emotional tone of the work “so that we can all have more freedom within our relationships and more power and fluidity.”
“What does it mean for one person to have these shifting identities or roles within a relationship?” she said.
Some of the work has never been shown before, and this is Connell’s first exhibit in a house museum.
“Many of the images feel domestic,” she said. “The space just feels really comfortable and homey, and I just imagine Alice's presence.”
The Alice Austen House was once home to pioneering documentary photographer Alice Austen, who captured several thousand photographs around the turn of the twentieth century. Austen resided in the house with her partner of more than 50 years, Gertrude Tate.
Connell also plans to return to the Alice Austen House at the end of the month – to make commissioned works of Jacobson in the space in honor of Austen.
“This is my first time having a conversation with work that a photographer made in the past. I find it very exciting,” Connell said.
The show is also Connell’s first to include two different photography processes.
Initially for the project, she worked with a medium format film camera. She later switched to a medium format digital setup. Once the photographs are made, Connell then creates constructed realities with composites of the negatives and digital images.
Going forward, Connell said she plans to keep working on Double Life – but may do so at a somewhat slower pace, taking more time to reflect on what she has to say, particularly about the body.
“As long as I continue to have ideas for the work and interest, we plan to continue,” she said.