A Bunny and Our Barn: My Introduction to Photography
© 2005/2014. Chehalis Hegner
It was 1973. I was growing up in rural Illinois - in a small farming town whose monument on Main Street was a large resin holstein cow with plump, pink, milk-engorged udders that greeted passers-by at eye level. Harmilda, the sacred milk cow, existed as a reminder to us that we lived and breeded in the breadbasket of America. In contrast to Harvard's rural way of life, my parents were city people who transported their lives to the country. They decided that raising their children in the country would be a good way to protect them from the violence of growing up in the innards of Chicago. Mom and Dad bought a 254-acre farm that entailed a lot of hard labor for all of us. My parents commuted to their Chicago jobs by train and they worked hard. They came home late and exhausted. The result was that my younger brother and I were left alone a lot. One fateful afternoon when I was twelve years old we descended the steps of the school bus and walked down the long, narrow driveway. Outside the back door I knelt down and felt for the hidden key. Entering our cold, dark house with a measure of anxiety, afraid that a bogeyman or intruder might be hiding and waiting to attack. Once in the house, I turned up the heat a few degrees, careful not to boost it up too much, in order to avoid the predictded reprimand from my father about being wasteful when money was tight.
In the kitchen we made our after-school snacks, pressing off hunger until our parents would arrive home a few hours later for dinner. As we stood at the counter spreading peanut butter on whole wheat, I became aware of the dread I felt welling up. I would soon need to head out to the barn to do chores before dark. I hated going out alone to the creaky barn to haul buckets of water and rip twine from heavy bales of hay to feed our horses, cows, and donkeys. To get out of there as soon as possible, I raced through the lower level between posts with peeling paint, and under rafters filled with sparrow’s nests. Then past a herd of crated carousel horses covered with years of dust and cobwebs. Twenty-four antique horses of carved-wood, flowing manes, and wild black glass marbles freakishly stared at me every day as I did my chores. I imagined that to have a merry-go-round of one's very would have been any little girl's dream, but those beasts remained to me like crated slaves for the whole time I knew them. I still don't really know what they meant to our family, or why the carvers created expressions of such pain in their pony's eyes - their ears pinned back, frozen as a photograph. The wooden horses disappeared as mysteriously as they appeared. Dad secretly found his buyer, and I felt sad that I never got to see them in motion. But I learned early to keep my mouth shut about any personal disappointments.
That day was fateful. As I took the first bite of my sandwich, I looked out the kitchen window in the direction of the barn and was greeted by the most shocking sight: In the glow of dusk, a totally naked woman with wavy, long, blonde hair danced without music. Her legs were long, lean, and strong. Her perfectly shaped (huge) breasts swayed gently as she posed. It was Barbie, and she was real. I wondered, "What is she doing in front of our barn?"
“I’m going to call the cops,” I said to my brother.
My brother snapped back at me, “No--you’re--NOT! I am going to get the binoculars and you are NOT going to call the cops!”
He ran up the stairs with my mother’s bird-watching binoculars to the guest room window—a perch from which he would have the best view to look. I went along with it for about five minutes, but then a sense of anxiousness overtook me, so I went out to investigate the situation. As I approached the barn, I was surprised to see a dark figure crouched down in the tall grass across from the stone wall. A very handsome man in his forties squinted into the eyepiece of a camera, it’s motor drive surging forward. My blonde goddess panicked, covering herself with a long-sleeved sweater lying on the dirt in beside her.
That moment of confrontation, discovery, and fear filled me with heart-thumping adrenalin. The only adult woman’s body I was familiar with was my mother’s. I felt awkward and strange about interrupting their photo shoot. Though embarrassed, I also had an unsettling sense of feeling invigorated by both my display of bravery, and the overt sexuality of the scene. The naked woman who seemed to possess the power of a goddess a moment before, now seemed to be shrinking in shame as she cowered before me. Perhaps I reminded her of her own innocense. I wonder now what her name was. She must've had a name.
The photographer stood up, walked over to me, and then proceeded to give me a pat on the head, explaining to me who he was and why he was there.
Shocked but satisfied with his explanation, I retreated to the house and turned on a black and white version of The Andy Griffith Show. I was in a state of shock. Returning to the kitchen window to check on the situation once again, the nude and photographer had vanished. A strange emptiness settled on the space where she no longer was. Whenever I return to that place, I can still see her, a centerfold in my mind. The latent image of her form, in front of the rusted corrugated side of the barn, still sways so sadly in my memory. What was her life like...after that day in front of the barn? If only I could find her. I have tried but my search was not fruitful.
Why did I as a young girl feel the need to investigate what was happening in front of the barn? My brother was content to observe from afar with binoculars. In my photographs and in my life, I am still reckoning with the impact of that day. What does it mean in 2014 to be a photographer of women? Will women and girls ever be in control of the images that shape the way they learn to feel about themselves?
The mysterious and handsome man, it turned out, was a friend of my father’s who worked for Playboy Magazine. For better or for worse, Dad failed to mention anything about this arrangement to us, his beloved children. This type of experience was 'normal' in my family. It may seem an unlikely early artistic influence, but events like this one formed the foundation of my life and created themes that would fuel so much of my creative life later on. My parents didn't take us to see the Great Masters housed in famous museums ~ maybe because we lived so far from the city, or maybe they were just too busy. In retrospect, I see that our rural and "safe" Playboy enculturated life granted me the same opportunities any museum of Western Art could offer me, and even more. In terms of learning about who and what a woman was all about (and therefore who and what I was all about) Playboy offered me as much of an education as any History of Art experience could.
True to post-sixties life, my dad's dirty magazines were not hidden away in a drawer, but were proudly strewn about on the living room coffee table, next to The Whole Earth Catalog, Reader's Digest, and tattered copies of Organic Gardening. My first memorable experience involving photography and pornography is a key that I believe holds the potential to unlock the drama of my life as a woman who loves men. How many young women's lives are still being held hostage by the belief that it's okay to use and objectify a person based on sex.
As an adolescent girl, I was left alone to make sense of other similar events. Playboy nudes mucked around in the muddy pond for another photo shoot. And once a large crew of naked women sky dived into our hayfield. My earliest impressions of wome were not created by women or for women ~ The impact of these pornographic distortions (I choose to call them porno-stortions) was to feed the insatiable appetites of men, with no regard to the effects it was having on the women these men shared their lives with. Making photographs that work to untangle this mess of lies in my psyche is my way of begining to untangle the knot of the false impressions.
© 2005.Chehalis Hegner, revised ©2014.