More than models

Nancy Grace Horton brings photographs of “Ms. Behavior” to York Library

Snap Shot” is Nancy Grace Horton’s ode to beauty and power.

In the photograph, there’s the natural luxury suggested by vintage fur, the bold independence of a woman with a gun.

“There’s the elegance of velvet, the intensity of red,” Horton said. “And her breast is there. Maybe some people only see that.”

The image is part of “Ms. Behavior,” a series of photographs exploring, and deploring, the ways American culture and mass media influence female gender roles. The Seacoast photographer’s latest collection is on view at York Public Library through December, and an artist talk and reception is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 16 at 5 p.m.

In the case of “Snap Shot,” the feminine body looks alluring, but also embodies the strength of the character Horton created for the photo shoot. It says feminine and feminism coexist. It’s a very different portrayal than that of most magazines or other media that tend to objectify women.

The character and scene are loosely based on “Grey Gardens,” a documentary about a mother and daughter, relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onasis, who grew old together in a mess of an estate.

“It’s kind of quirky,” Horton said. “They live in this house in disrepair. They might not be living the way the rest of society lives, but they’re living their own lives.”

But that was just the point of departure for the photo shoot, a storyline to help guide the model through different postures, Horton said.

“I like for it to play out. I don’t entirely plan it out,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

One reason Horton still shoots in film is so she stays in the moment. She can’t see the images on the back of her camera, so she’s just taking the photos, not editing them at the same time. This helps push her forward, she said. She can’t be sure she’s got the shot yet.

Her photo shoots begin with a story, but her photos end up like clues to a mystery. Many are cropped in close, drawing us into this personal space and demanding attention to details — not just the props and clothing, but also evocative texture, color and shapes.

“Some people want to see more,” Horton said. “I want to give them less, so they have more to work with for their own interpretation.”

I want to see women that inspire me. I want to see what’s possible.

With her recent work, Horton has been examining how mass media portrays women, and the explicit and implicit power relations constructed and maintained by those portrayals.

In the “Ms. Behavior” series, the models, often Horton’s friends and sometimes herself, approach so-called women’s work with disobedience and discontent. A woman, barefoot and in the kitchen, tiptoes on the stove near a hot burner. A woman irons herself flat, pins her own hair out to dry on the clothes rack, or rinses the dishes along with herself in the shower.

And sometimes, the models take on the chores of “the man of the house,” such as mowing the lawn, in high heels that wouldn’t even be appropriate for standing still.

Horton said she grew up believing gender equality was an older generation’s fight and that it had been won. But, she’s learned that the issue is ongoing. Female role models are as important as ever for future generations, she said, adding that women in the spotlight have an obligation to expose possibility, not their legs.

“I want to see women that inspire me. I want to see what’s possible,” Horton said.

It’s an idea Horton explored in her series, “Being 13.” Young girls are targeted by retailers and exploited in popular culture, Horton said, in addition to the natural confusion
of adolescence.

In another series, “Mad Women,” Horton delved further into the idea of a woman waiting for a man to come home from work, a scene often portrayed in “Mad Men.” While Horton is drawn to the clothes and colors of the time period, and is able to use her retro-looking home as a set, she intends to push people out of the dated mindset.

“We’re stuck and we don’t know it. We play into it,” she said. “It’s maddening to me.”

Without strong role models, Horton said, girls get the notion that they can’t succeed and it’s not worth trying. She said that’s a shame for our entire culture.

“Hopefully we’ll empower women to speak up for themselves,” she said. “Try. Go for it.”


“Ms. Behavior” is on view through December at the York Public Library, 15 Long Sands Road in York, Maine.