For me, the photographic process is a process of redemption – not just for me but also for many of the people that I photograph. I’m always striving to look at things, even the difficult things, the uncomfortable things.
On discovering a Playboy shoot at her family farm when she was a girl:
“I saw this complete Venus goddess with long blonde curly hair swaying to and fro and completely naked in front of our barn. I was going to call the police. I got my courage up and went out to see what was happening. As soon as this woman saw me, she became very ashamed. I’ll never forget that look on her face.”
by Heidi Legg
This interview was conducted in a canoe on the Merrimack River at the request of Chehalis Hegner. We tied up to an old tree root along the river bank. It was a glorious fall day in 2015.
Last week Playboy magazine announced that beginning March 2016, they would no longer publish nude photographs of women. Today, with the billion-dollar online pornography industry a click away and selfies landing many politicians and celebrities into a viral tar-and-feathering, the idea of a woman who poses nude for Playboy seems almost tame. But for Chehalis Hegner, an American photographer who fell upon a Playboy photo shoot at her family-farm in Harvard, Illinois almost 50 years ago, the shock of that childhood encounter remains defining and, as she looks back, has informed much of her work.
When Hegner was 10-years-of-age in the 1970s, she and her brother had arrived home from school and she was making a peanut butter sandwich while thinking about how to delay her farm chores, when she looked up to see a naked woman swaying in front of the family barn. When she walked outside to find out what was going on, the last thing she expected to come upon was a photo shoot for Playboy. She later discovered that her father, Richard Hegner, co-founder of the successful Chicago commercial art firm Higgins, Hegner and Genovese, often offered his colleagues their family farm as a location for Playboy cover shoots, and consequently received free magazines from the company for years (which he left strewn across the family house). The moment was one Hegner remembers with acid clarity.
“I saw this complete Venus goddess with long blonde curly hair swaying to and fro and completely naked in front of our barn. I point this out to my brother, who was eight at the time, and he replied, 'oh, my God, I'm getting mom's binoculars and I'm going upstairs in the guest room and I'm going to watch.' I said I was going to call the police. I got my courage up and went out to see what was happening. As soon as this woman saw me, she became very ashamed. I’ll never forget that look on her face.”
Hegner’s Feminismo series, a mix of self-portraits and shots of other women, intended to encourage women to reclaim ownership of their bodies, launched her name as an American modern photographer to both criticism and acclaim. The images are powerful and shocking themselves. The Chastity Belt is a powerful image of an octopus wrapped around Hegner’s groin and The Cable Release shows her from the backside about to release the controls to an explosion, naked. There are also The Tennis Lesson and The Housewife that, as the titles alone suggest, therein lays a tempest Hegner associates with the domestic pink-ghettos of the Playboy era. Now she is taking her work back to where it all began.
This month Hegner and her husband Arthur Ganson [our interview with Ganson is here] – a kinetic sculptor with a cult following whose iconic work populates much of the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts – will return to her 500 acre Halo Hill Farm to create a collaborative art studio to share with other artists and inventors. I sat down with Chehalis Hegner to discuss what the Playboy announcement means for American photography, feminism, and how she plans to transform the farm for creative art on her own terms.
What was it about discovering this Playboy photo shoot that made it so integral to your work?
The first thing the woman did was reach for her baggy sweater on the dirt and covered her body. She was confronted with the innocence of a ten-year-old girl and all of the sudden, this very confident, swaying, buxom, sexy lady was cowering in front of me. I heard the shutter ‘click’, the motor drive on this camera surging forward. I don't even know if these photos of this woman and me exist, or where they might be.
As she crouched down on the grass with her sweater, the photographer, a male, came over and said, 'I'm a friend of your daddy's and I think you should go back in the house now.' Clearly my dad knew this was happening and he didn't bother to tell us. I went back in the house and watched a rerun of the Andy Griffith show in black & white. I was completely shocked.
What did you do next?
I was completely numb, like, 'what was that?' and then I told my parents what happened and my dad was like, 'oh, yeah. That was Dick Fegley. He's a friend of mine from the ad business and I told him he could come out and use the farm as a location,' and there was no further discussion about it. But that wasn’t the end. One time on the pond it was really muddy after a rain and back they came with the buxom woman again. And then we had the Playboy bunnies, a whole group of nude women, who leapt out of a plane into our hay field. There were these scenes that were unfolding and I was trying to make sense out of it, and it was confusing for a little girl.
All of these incidents were shoved underground in my psyche, but I couldn't forget about it because every month we would get one of the magazines for free and my dad never hid them. Most of my friends’ parents or dads who got these magazines would hide them. My father? No. They were all over the place. They were on the coffee table. They were on the kitchen table. Nobody ever discussed anything but this was the kind of imagery that I was exposed to as a girl. I remember thinking that the woman I saw in front of the barn didn't look like my mom and she didn't look like me. She looked kind of like my Barbie dolls.
Your photography has been reviewed as “contemporary and primal, disturbingly raw and redemptive.” Do you see your work this way?
I do, those words were written by Katherine Young. I think the work is contemporary because I'm always trying to be on the crest of a wave in the moment.
How does the word 'redemptive' strike you?
It’s key, actually, because for me the photographic process is a process of redemption – not just for me but also for many of the people that I photograph. I’m always striving to look at things, even the difficult things, the uncomfortable things. By looking at them, we can reshape them and through exposing secrets, we have a shared intimacy or a shared vulnerability that leads to intimacy. Through that intimacy there is a form of redemption. That comes from that moment as a child on the farm.
I believe secrets being held and not shared are problematic. As long as the secrets we have are locked up inside, that's where they get their power and that's where we get locked up as well. If we share the secret, it's no longer isolation but communication and connection and a form of redemption.
What were you trying to say about women's bodies in your Feminismo series?
One image called The Cable Release really addresses the story with the Playboy bunnies – it's a self-portrait of my rear end and I'm holding an old fashioned air cable release and what I was trying to say in that image was, 'no, there's a woman here who's going to reclaim the photographing of women's butts.’ Why are men taking all the photographs of women's butts? Women should take control. A really hard-line feminist one time really criticized me for that picture because she said I was still succumbing to that image of the beautiful woman's butt. But for me, that was kind of the point: to appropriate the beautiful woman's body if I choose.
Has that moment informed all your work or only the Feminismo series?
It informs just about everything I do and for me it wasn't just a moment. It was a culture. It was a culture where my mother was a supposed feminist and she lived with a man who was a total playboy, who had multiple women going on, and pretended like it wasn't happening. My mom must have been holding on to a lot of pain.
I'm not saying there was no screaming and yelling in our household between the two of them because there was, but it was a very confusing message with my mother going to National Organization for Women meetings and my father throwing his Playboy magazines all over the place. Where did I fit into that? How do I make sense of that? Here is my mother saying that women should have equal rights, and she's willing to go and fight for all of that every week and she had all these friends that were feminists. Meanwhile she's putting up with my dad being a total womanizer, and why was I being exposed to all this pornography as a child? It was totally confusing.
If you really look at all of those images in Playboy they are idealized, sexualized images where women are not really empowered. They're being used.
What do you think of Playboy's decision not to have nude models anymore?
I would like to propose that some women photographers get to make erotic photographs of women wearing clothes because I think that it's important to have a woman's voice in how her body is being used. Women really don't have enough control over their own bodies or they don't know how much control they have over it. Even though all this stuff was happening back in the 70s, it's still relevant. Look at how women's bodies are being used against them today.
As a photographer, how should we capture the human body at this point in time?
I think the human body addressed in a really appropriate way is the most beautiful thing. The engine of humanity will always be reproduction, in some sense. I think having healthy relationships with our bodies and with each other and with sex and with politics and all these things is important, and we have a lot to hash out. I don't think we're talking about a ten-year-plan or even a hundred-year-plan. I think we're talking about a thousand-plus-year-plan that we as a species have to start to think about. I think it would be great if women and men and people of any gender could be cooperating and listening to each other and being curious about each other instead of judgmental.
What was the reaction to the Feminismo series?
It's been an ongoing thing and so I keep adding to images to it. These are disturbing images for people. Some people love them and some people hate them. I'm okay with that because they're genuine for me, but I'll give you an example of one response. I was holding an exhibit at the national historic site at Saint-Gaudens in Cornish, New Hampshire. I had a very daring female curator who I appreciate very much, and two days before the show was supposed to open, federal agents were questioning whether my work was suitable for a general audience. The thing that was so sad was that my work questions all those things that they were fighting against, by wanting to shut us down. They were okay with Chastity Belt, which is a picture of an octopus on a woman's groin. And they were OK with the image of The Tennis Lesson with this old pervert looking down the unzipped sweater of a woman who's wearing high heels and a skirt for her tennis lesson… That was OK. But a woman with her arms outstretched in the shape of a crucifix hanging on a clothesline questioning how women are crucified by their domestic roles… that was a problem. Why? I mean people are crucified in any manner of ways and I said, ’There’s not even any nudity in this image.' I asked them, 'well, what if I took that image down?' and they said, ’that'll be fine.' I said, 'what if I retitled it? What if I called it Untitled instead of Crucifix? Would that be okay?' and that worked.
What does that say to you?
That says to me that there are some very strong religious currents flowing through our lives. Nobody called me up and said, 'why did you call it Crucifix? What is this about?' Somebody saw 'crucifix' and saw it as a blasphemy against their religion and I myself am a Christian.
Does this Playboy decision reflect a change going on in society?
I'm not sure what it says about this moment in time in society but we'll see how society responds to it. If you're still using women then it doesn't really matter if they have clothes on or off. I think it's going to be really interesting to see how Playboy plays this out and how women will or will not become part of the dialogue.
What do you think is driving Playboy's move?
It is probably a business move. The course of every business entity has a life. There's the growing up to the peak and then it starts to decline and you have to reinvent yourself. I think their readership went down from millions of subscriptions to 800,000 subscribers now. That's a huge drop. Good for them. Reinvent yourself and let's see how the public responds. Myself? I had a really great feeling when I heard the news.
How did the ten-year old you feel?
She was giddy and she wanted to write a letter and say, 'cool!'
You and Arthur Ganson are moving back to your childhood farm where you discovered the Playboy shoot. Why?
We’ve finished renovating two barns and are each going to have a couple thousand square feet of studio space and we recently bought forty-five acres from my mom as part of this larger 500 acre tree farm. We're going to be a half mile off the road and we're looking forward to sharing space. We don't really feel like it's ours. We feel like it's for anyone else who wants to come and make things and be part of the dialogue.
I feel really strongly that it's not about 'I'm making my art.' I feel like we're all making one big piece of art and everybody's lending a voice to this giant orchestra and for me, creating moments of deep dialogue is really important. The question I always try to ask myself is, 'am I adding to this big piece of art or am I taking away?' If I create this thing, what will the impact of this occurrence be for the big picture?
I love being in relationship with Arthur because together we have this dialogue that feels stronger than either of us, independently. We get very excited. I can't tell you how many times we've been in this canoe, tied up to this tree with that blue heron and coffee, and we just hang out like we're doing right now because there's something about nature that eases my mind and leaves space. Spaciousness is so important in the mind and around us. It is in the purity and in the simple things like really clean water and really clean food and getting a good night sleep and being honest in your relationship to the person that you lie down and go to sleep with every night.
That's the old-new luxury.
Well we're going to have to fight pretty hard to keep clean water and clean food because I don't think we have it. Most people don't have that right now.
What public opinion would you like to change?
I think it might seem like a bit of an obtuse answer but if I could erase one thing right now, this afternoon, the public opinion that I would change is that there are good people and bad people and that there are evil doers and good doers. I would totally erase that because we're all on a spectrum. I don't know about you but I've done my fair share of things that were not very – you know what I mean? Maybe you have Mother Theresa on one end and you have Hitler on the other end and we're all falling somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. I would really love it if people could talk to each other and be really curious about each other. If somebody does something really awful, why don't we find out why so that we can address the real issue instead of throwing this person in jail or blowing him up.
How do you consider the proliferation of social media photos as a new vernacular when you take so much time to craft your images?
It's a very interesting question and I think your choice of the word 'vernacular' is a good one because we live in a very visual culture. Our language is visual and the fact that they don't even teach cursive writing in many schools anymore furthers that we communicate using pictures. It's like two billion photos are taken a day right now or something like that.
I guess everyone with a smart phone is a photographer but it's a different kind of conversation. The people that are making iPhone pictures are not spending hours and hours coming up with the museum quality print that becomes part of a portfolio.
There are now billions of people talking to each other through photos and videos and I'm for it, because at least we're talking to each other! But as a photographer, I think people have a sense of what's real and genuine and in time the cream will rise to the top. It's hard to hold on to things that you can't hold on to. It is out of control, but you know what? You're sitting here in a boat with a real person and you went to where I really am and we had an encounter and intelligent conversation and I think that people are really hungry for that.
I feel the same way about The Chastity Belt. You can't snap all that went into that portrait on Instagram.
Thank you. I made a really big print of that for a collector in Malaysia last year. It looks really good big, I tell ya.
Where are you going with your photo montage on wood panels?
I think it's like a musician who may take on a theme. There are only twelve notes but you can have an infinite number of melodies. I find that totally amazing. What makes one melody so great and another melody not so great? It's the same twelve notes! For me, it’s taking material and working with it with my hands. I have this real need to touch things and make things with my hands... and with this process, I can create any scenario in my mind. I had Arthur’s son Cory, who is gay, meeting himself in this very strange Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve were both men - that was something I couldn't have really done in a live situation. It’s a place to dream and I really like that dream space. I want to spend some ongoing time there to see what evolves. These pieces are one of a kind. So they feel much more precious.
How do you and Arthur approach the work without thinking of the commercial potential?
It's so interesting. I think that there's a really big push to standardize what we do. If you look at trends in successful artists now, 'oh, yeah, all his pictures are of him with a Coke bottle on his head.' I'm using that as a silly example but it's like Coca Cola marketing. It's branding and people trying to fit into this thing that's expected and I'm sorry but creative work doesn't come from that place. It comes from being more free and more open and expansive and I would feel it was a death sentence if I had to make the same picture over and over and over again.
In the past we had really great examples of artists who ventured in many different directions. I mean, Da Vinci did so many different things. He was poet and a musician and an architect and a painter. There was a time when that really open expression was valued and cherished and now if you're multi-talented, it's almost like a curse because you have to market yourself.
I agree yet I'm annoyed with celebrities today who are suddenly in every art form. The machine gets behind them and then they're an everything brand.
Again, we have time in our favor. Will we be reading their poetry in a hundred years? I say let's just keep our nose in our studios and keep communicating. It’s disturbing when you see the commercialization of a person when you're looking for something deeper, but then we always have that choice.
The other day, I heard a priest say something. He said, 'we're all suffering from a case of FOMO - the fear of missing out.' That's okay. We can just miss out. I'll miss out on that one. There's so little time and we can't do everything. There are a lot of things that I say 'no' to because I'm going to be here in my canoe. This is where I am. It's simple.
Is there a yearning around us for simple right now?
We can't acquisition everything.
What's your dream for the farm?
Any student who wants to come visit Halo Hill Farm should get in touch with us and talk to us. I've been teaching for many years and my students have come and they will continue to come. [Hegner was a professor of photography at UMass Lowell for years.] The farm is actually set up in a land conservation easement and on top of that easement, we have on the books that we can have an artist residency program on the farm. Once things get settled, we can further work on that and in time likely have a small artist residency program. We're always open to people that are enthusiastic about coming and being part of it.
Arthur's bringing all this stuff – twenty-six pallets of stuff - and he said, 'I don't really feel like I'm doing this just for me.' He wants to have a really great workshop. He's going to have multiple lathes and just about every other tool you can imagine. Maybe before we're dead we can create some sort of nonprofit or foundation so that the property can be used long into the future for other artists – young artists and old artists and people that aren't even artists can come and make things and if the space is there, that'll make it easy. It’s such a beautiful place.
What advice do you have for people who want to lead a creative life in light of the necessary expenses of modern life?
I think everyone has a journey and I feel very strongly that if we really need to do something, life will answer that and we have to stay in a joyful place as much as possible and in an optimistic place.
We all know in physics that you can take a particle and split it in half and put it on opposite ends of the world and if you touch this particle over here, the other one will respond. There are energies that make things happen. I don't understand what happens but I think there's a higher power and it's not easy to turn yourself over to a higher. I don't know how it's going to happen but I think that if a person has a destiny and a true desire to be an artist or a healer or a writer or whatever seed is planted deep within you, there will be a way that it will happen. It may not happen right now the way you want it to happen, but we must persevere.
In Sally Mann's book, Hold Still, she talked about perseverance and it's like 99% sweat and 1% luck and here in the United States we still have the opportunity to create a life. It might be hard but we can do it.