I collect women. Well, that’s not exactly true. I collect pictures of women. It all started in a rundown antique mall in a rundown town somewhere in the mountains on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. That’s where I collected my first group of girls.
They’re trapped beneath glass, divided between two frames, and close to a century old. I found them buried beneath the standard pile of antiquated merchandise—fraying quilts, faded tablecloths, tarnished copperware. They were stunning. Draped in belted, sheer dresses and sporting closely-cropped tresses resembling Clara Bow or Carole Lombard, the girls are suspended in time, in an eternal woodland dance. Their lines are beautiful, their movement graceful, their expressions serene. I bought them for $20 a piece.
After I discovered the girls, scouting for women became my thing. When rummaging through yard sales or estate sales, antique shops or Good Will, I was on the hunt for women. But I didn’t want just any women. I wanted women who embodied something bigger than themselves. I couldn’t really describe to my husband what it was that drew me to certain photographs and not others. Some x-factor? Some secret formula? I only knew the women I collected needed to be different.
First of all, they needed to be old. I don’t have any woman in color. All my photos are black and white. Secondly, they needed to be original photographs. No prints. No copies. I wanted the real thing. And thirdly, my women needed to be breaking some unspoken code of ethics. They needed to somehow prove to the camera that they were more than their societal labels. They needed to show me they had courage.
Here’s the thing. When I imagine the women of history—those who have come before me—I can’t help but think of the pressures, the constraints, the rules for which they had to abide. I envision girdles, and aprons, and typewriters. I see them trapped inside invisible boxes of which they wanted desperately to escape. But maybe that’s not fair of me. Maybe what I imagine is an incomplete picture.
Because the women in my photos? They’re not any of those things. The photographs I collect remind me—and I think this is why I love them so—that women have always been rule-breakers, they’ve always been adventure-seekers, they’ve always been brave. My women—whether riding alligator bareback, hiding a smile behind a tuft of cotton candy, or dancing hand-in-hand among wildflowers—epitomize everything I want for me and for my daughter: to be daring, to be beautiful, to be free.