Photographer Jean Albus’ signature self-portraits are now recognized as disembodied dresses floating in the wind, a delicate juxtaposition with Montana’s rugged landscape. But before the Montana artist developed her current style, she wrestled with how exactly she wanted her camera to capture herself.
For years, Albus’ self-portraits were traditional close-ups. She’d set up a tripod and, using a remote shutter release, take photos of herself as she contorted her face into different posed emotions. And, like many artists who delve into self-portraits, Albus came to see herself in a very different light.
“I think when you’re alone with the camera things have a tendency to emerge that normally wouldn’t,” says Albus, 57. “What surprised me more about any of it was how I came to disregard the image of myself as something personal. It’s hard to explain. After awhile I was very objective about the image and it became more about what I wanted the image to express rather than how I perceived myself.”
Albus says that the exercise also illuminated her philosophy on inner beauty—that humor and kindness make an image shine. She stopped posing for the camera and let herself be candid. She laughed wildly. She accepted her face in all its middle-aged details. And when she finally “got over the self-portrait thing,” as she puts it, she was ready to move on to a less literal idea of herself.
In June 2008, Albus moved from Red Lodge to a home west of Bridger. In the process of unpacking, she came across an old prom dress she’d worn to a party several years ago.
“I thought I’d photograph it,” she says. “So I hung it on the wall and I photographed it every which way. I started buying dresses in vintage and thrift stores and photographing them, and I started using them in the landscape. It was a way to address the harsh grandeur and the sweetness of this landscape. It’s like the dresses are a surrogate of myself trying to figure out what my place is in the landscape, how I feel about it, my emotional connection to it.”
In Bridger and the surrounding area of Carbon County, you can count on wind. Instead of stepping into a studio, as she used to do in Red Lodge, she packs up a basket full of dresses and heads out into the fields under a sky that gives credence to Big Sky Country.
“I head outside and find a place and a dress that seems to fit the terrain or the particular weather or the mood I’m in,” she says, “and I set them down and start taking photographs.”
In the sense that the dresses serve as a surrogate of Albus, they have almost a living presence. “Rebirth” shows a blue and purple-flowered dress soiled in gray clay, but crumpled in a way that it looks like a body emerging from the ground. “Line Dance on Cherry Springs Road” shows several colorful dresses clasped at the cuffs as if they were hands, billowing high above a country road.
Recently, Albus experimented with video and sound to fully capture her dresses flapping in the wind. She draped one on a clothesline, loosely and close to the ground. As the breeze lifted the dress, Albus would focus on the bottom of it as it lifted up in the air and down, and sometime she just focused on the shadow.
“The sound was being recorded too so you could hear the wind and you could hear all the grasshoppers—we have terrible grasshoppers out here in the summer—and all the bugs,” she says, “and you could hear the dress as it drug on the ground as it came back down and lifted back up.”
Though she lost the video recorder along with the footage not long afterward, Albus plans to continue experimenting with different ways of capturing her dresses. She just bought a Holga camera in hopes of giving her photographs some added surprise. Holgas are cheap, lo-fi cameras that are making more of an impression on the art world these days since they often print photos with bizarre streaks of light, strange coloring and a vignette finish. Adding one more unpredictable element besides weather makes the process more interesting for her.
“I’m impulsive by nature,” Albus says, “so my art sort of has that tinge to it too. It’s in the editing process where I have a little more control.”
Jean Albus’ “The Place You Remember” is one piece up for auction at the Missoula Art Museum’s 37th Benefit Art Auction & Dinner at the Hilton Garden Inn Saturday, Feb. 21, at 5 PM. $95/$80 advance.