New York

Abby Robinson

When I met Abby Robinson, after having seen her work in a group show called “Sights Unseen,” I felt that I already knew her on a personal level. Behind the face that each of us shows to the world we all have a more candid, less flattering vision of ourselves. This is the vision we get when we accidentally catch sight of ourselves in a mirror at a moment that we don’t expect to. It is an image in which our lumpish flesh suddenly represents to us how we really feel, who we really are. Most of us keep this image buried under layers of self-defense. Maybe we can feel it there, the way the princess feels the pea under the mattress. But we are loath to show it to anybody. In “Auto Works,” the work Abby Robinson exhibited, she shows us 140 such images of herself. This series of black-and-white photographs, which she had reproduced on slides for the exhibition, is among the most remarkable and moving documents I’ve seen since I began writing reviews.

When I met Robinson, one reason I felt I already knew her was that I had seen her naked. There is nothing either lascivious or narcissistic about the many pictures “Auto Works” contains in which Robinson bares her flesh to the camera. It’s just a metaphorical way to bare her soul. She knows that one’s own body seen from the too acute perspective of one’s own eyes is an ungainly, unesthetic, unerotic object. She shows it to us this way in order to express the painful self-consciousness she at times feels as a woman. From the disadvantage point of her knees, she photographs her vagina with the strings of a tampon hanging out of it. This is a coarse photograph. It borders on self-revulsion. It compounds that emotion with a desire to revolt the rest of us. Yet in the context of 139 other “Auto Works,” its anger is mitigated by self-mockery. It becomes just part of the process of trying to see oneself honestly, candidly, without illusions.

“Auto Works” is not only about letting it all hang out, going naked, but about pulling it all together as well. A significant part of “Auto Works” is devoted to Robinson’s beautifying herself, especially to having her hair done, and to how such things don’t work. One sequence begins with Robinson standing near the sea, her wild, almost gnarly hair wrapped around her face by the wind. She is half Venus, half Medusa. But then, in subsequent pictures, the mythical beast is tamed. She blow-dries the unruly tangle of hair into orderly, fashionable curls. She sits in a beauty salon with it wrapped up in curlers. She buys a cheap wig from a sidewalk peddler. In the last few pictures the wild hair in the wind becomes a strange afterimage, a misplaced vision. Robinson appears next to a statue whose windswept hair is represented by blades of metal which stick out sideways from its head. Her own hair is now cut primly short. In the final picture of the sequence, the wind whips the tail of a scarf beneath which her hair has completely disappeared.

“Auto Works” depends on Robinson as a subject, of course, as much as on Robinson as a photographer. The two functions are often indistinguishable in these mirrorlike photographs, especially when she holds the camera out at arm’s length and takes her own picture. Doing so tends to put her on the edge of the frame, off to one side. It’s a position from which the subject seems to be. what the photographer is, an observer of the scene rather than a participant in it. Robinson stares out at us from some of these pictures like a one-woman chorus which turns aside from the play in order to address the audience. Her eyes make her look as if she were experiencing her life the way the camera sees it, noncommittally, with detachment and disinterest. These passive feelings show most when there are men around. In one picture she watches with boredom while a man eats greedily. In another, a man’s arm extends from above the top of the frame to below the bottom in order to fondle one of her breasts. As this faceless man feels her up, Robinson looks into the camera with a dead-level gaze. If he could see her expression, as we can, he would turn to stone.

In “Auto Works,” Abby Robinson has accumulated photographs the way a good novelist accumulates prosaic experiences. Like a novelist, she has not tried to impart too much significance to any one event, any one picture. She has trusted to time and to the accumulation of living itself to give her experiences meaning. When Robinson was a student at Pratt Institute ten years ago she had to do a self-portrait, an assignment that anybody taking photography courses comes up against sooner or later. Although the result wasn’t inspiring, she continued to make such pictures with no particular purpose in mind. Not until 1978, when she printed some of her negatives very small (2-by-3 inches), did what she was doing begin to make sense to her. The intimacy of such tiny prints made her see the unique intimacy of the photographs themselves. In “Auto Works” what we get is the benefit of Robinson’s patience, her candidness about herself, and her wisdom about photography.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.