An unyielding reflection on the vicissitudes of photography, Moyra Davey’s video Les Goddesses begins as Davey shuffles through her earliest photographs, which show her five sisters posing in assorted groupings in 1970s Montréal. As her camera focuses in on pores of skin, body hair and midriff tattoos, she reflects on Walter Benjamin’s dictum that “to do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciations,” and narrates her ensuing retreat from the human figure, until her “subjects constituted little more than the dust on [her] bookshelves or the view under the bed.”
While appraising her own reticence to make “biographical” work at a time when the truth claims of the photograph had been undermined, Davey reads her photographs alongside accounts of Mary Wollstonecraft and her rebellious daughters: the ill-fated Fanny Imlay, who drank laudanum at age 22, and Mary Shelley, who absconded with her stepsister Claire Clairmont and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley on an infamous “six weeks tour” of France and Switzerland in the summer of 1816, joining up with Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Davey writes that “Les Goddesses began as an inquiry into the validity of storytelling, specifically: telling one’s own story, and the ambivalence surrounding this drive. The ‘story,’ or some part of it, is finally enabled by the discovery of a series of coincidences that connect the lives and writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughters, and my five sisters, via a series of portraits I took of them in the early 1980s.”
This work was included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, and is in the permanent collections of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; The Art Institute of Chicago; and La Colleccion Jumex, Mexico City.