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Anja Niemi in character

The cover of Anja Niemi’s first monograph, In Character, shows a kimono-wearing woman collapsed against a beautifully painted wall. Both the room and her outfit are sumptuous and elegant, but there’s a sense that there might be something deeply wrong with her. She looks almost propped against the wall, face first, like a piece of furniture. The image is both striking and unnerving and it made me want to read the whole book and learn more about this artist.

I had not heard of Anja Niemi until I came upon In Character. A Norwegian artist, her work is slightly similar to artist Cindy Sherman’s photographs in that Niemi photographs herself “in character” as various Old Hollywood female archetypes: a showgirl, a receptionist, a bride. However, her characters, while dressed correctly for their parts, seem to be caught in an inner world of desperation. Most of these photographs would never be mistaken for “typical” Hollywood film stills (although she has been compared to more outré filmmakers like David Lynch), instead they seem to depict physical manifestations of the photographed woman’s inner break down. Sometimes, through tricks of photography, the subject is doubled and we see two versions of the character, one often looking unkindly at herself.

Anja Niemi in Character also contains many photographs where the woman is a specter-like presence. Disembodied feminine hands float near a vase of immaculate flowers, or a crow obscures a woman’s body and the viewer is left to imagine what happened to her. Women in Niemi’s photographs often appear like objects in the way they are placed—their bodies lie precariously on couches, they drape unconsciously over chairs—but the photographs cause the viewer to consider the inner life of the figures and our initial responses to them. I kept thinking about the roles that women play or are forced into, and the roiling emotions that can lie beneath even the smoothest and most perfect surface.