Deciding to make a book of vagina portraits was one thing. It wasn’t until I went out and bought my first digital SLR (2.5 megapixels! which was a big deal in 2000) and some lights (that I still don’t understand) that I was, in fact, all in. That took a month of vacillating between worrying about whether this was what I should be doing with my life, and whether I was actually capable of doing this thing, which so needed to be done, before I was ready. ish.
Actually making personal images like these was something else entirely. For one thing, there is no good way to ask a woman if you can make a portrait of her vagina. Everything that that made me think of, roll my eyes and recoil from, multiplied by every woman’s own experiences.
This was a sensitive subject, and (it can’t be said often enough) different for each woman. The way I saw it, asking a woman to pose for a v-portrait came out like a dare. The opposite of my intention with this work, which was to create a comfortable space where we could see ourselves for ourselves —where we could see, and talk, and think for ourselves. This space didn’t exist yet. I’d have to create a forum for the conversation first. If this was something women wanted to see, then the v-portraits would follow.
The original vaginaverite.com became a forum for vagina conversations. Along with my talking about it, endlessly. Bit by bit, we began making vagina portraits.
At about 30 v-portraits, I began exhibiting. I previewed vagina vérité® on its own, and as part of group show. The exhibitions and events explored a range of themes relating to women’s bodies and how we feel about them and what that means for our quality of life.
The first exhibition, yOur Exhibition, was a solo show that I organized at a bar on the lower east side, named Smithfield, that no longer exists.
It was a preview exhibition just for women. About 130 women attended, and the staff was all female. Most got their first view of other women’s vaginas that night. It was a fun evening, where my mother’s friends got to spend some time in a Lower East Side bar (one commented on the bathrooms being unexpectedly clean); my best friend made cupcakes (way before it was trendy!) and a few women were surprised to find that the v-portraits weren’t large, head-swallowing sized images. One said: “It’s not that scary after all.”
One of my favorite moments was at the Smithfield exhibition, the first one. The v-portraits were installed on a wall, and two of my friends happened to be side by side viewing them.
The two weren’t friends themselves exactly, but because of their relationships with me, seeing each other at my birthdays and events, and knowing how I felt about each of them, they had an intimacy-by-association between them.
One of them said to the other “I think that’s me.”
And, the other woman said, “No, it’s not.“
“How do you know?” the first one said.
“Because that’s me!”
I love that. A few of the women who participated told me that they wondered whether they would be able to identify themselves by their v-portrait.
This was the first time the v-portraits were framed and installed on walls, and viewed altogether like that, and—viewed by women who weren’t directly involved in making v-portraits.
After the exhibition, I could not bring myself box them up to wait for the next one, so I installed them on my living room wall. And, eventually (when the count of v-portraits exceeded 60, 60 being that wall’s v-portrait capacity) I installed v-portraits on all of my living room walls.
For years, my apartment was vagina central.
At no point did I completely stop worrying about it.