Maya Deren

Maya Deren is famed for her contribution to American avant-garde cinema. Her 1943 short, Meshes of the Afternoon – arguably one the most significant works in film history – has become a key text in studies of surrealist film and women’s film-making. In addition to Meshes, she made a number of other films, including At Land (1944) and A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945), and worked as a choreographer, dancer and writer. Not only interested in film photography, Deren was an active still photographer and produced images which thematically echoed her film work.

L A Reportage, 1942
Maya Deren, L. A. Reportage, c. 1942, Boston University Howard Gotlieb Special Collections (Image: S. Keller, Maya Deren: Incomplete Control, New York, 2014, p. 40.)

Deren took up photography after meeting Alexander Hammid, whom she married in 1942. Hammid collaborated with Deren on numerous projects, including Meshes, and also taught her still photography. Deren quickly produced two series: L. A. Reportage and Fruit Pickers. The subject matter of these early series reflects Deren’s political stance; an active socialist and student of journalism and political science, it seems natural that she gravitated towards a reportage style of photography.

However, Deren’s early images are also peppered with the surrealist motifs that characterise her films; this merging of documentary and – for want of a better word – creativity is typical of her work. In one image from L. A. Reportage, a couple dance in a hall, their image reflected in a full-length mirror. Doubling and reflection – so often used by surrealist artists as a means of exploring the uncanny, identity and dream states – were recurrent themes in Deren’s more obviously experimental work. In Experimental Portraiture, a series she made with Hammid, Deren appears reflected in a mirror, surrounded by mannequin’s heads. In another of the pair’s photographs, Hammid stands in a room scattered with the dismembered limbs of a mannequin. Both images recall the work of European surrealists, notably Hans Bellmer’s violently posed poupées.

Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, Experimental Portraiture, c. 1942, Boston University Howard Gotlieb Special Collections
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, Experimental Portraiture, c. 1942, Boston University Howard Gotlieb Special Collections (Image: S. Keller, Maya Deren: Incomplete Control, New York, 2014, p. 40.)
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, Mannequin Dismembered, c.1942-1943, Boston University Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Centre (Image: J. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, London, 2011, p. 53).
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, Mannequin Dismembered, c.1942-1943, Boston University Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Centre (Image: J. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, London, 2011, p. 53).

Amongst Deren’s unpublished still photographs are a number taken in Haiti, where she travelled to research Voudon (voodoo) ritual. Deren’s Haiti photographs represent her continued interest in documentary. Taken during three visits to the country, between 1947 and 1954, these are seemingly unposed snapshots of life in Haiti ; Deren’s subjects include a chicken in a farmyard and the interior of a house. The photographs form one part of Deren’s vast research project, which saw her produce two albums of Voudon music, 18000 feet of film and a book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1953).

Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, Experimental Portraiture, c. 1942, Anthology Film Archives (Image: J. Rhodes, Meshes of the Afternoon, London, 2011, p. 44)
Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, Experimental Portraiture, c. 1942

Sources and Further Reading: 

Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Centre, ‘Maya Deren’, http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/collection?id=121866

Haslem, W., ‘Maya Deren’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 23, 2002.

Keller, S., Maya Deren: Incomplete Control, New York, 2014.

Rhodes, J. D., Meshes of the Afternoon, London, 2011.

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