A Dancer’s Dream: The Photographs of Josephine Cardin

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We are pleased to release January's print, Be Set Free from from Josephine Cardin. Read more about Cardin's work below.

Purchase this print from our print sale page.

Be Set Free
Archival inkjet print
6 x 9”, signed and numbered edition of 5

That Josephine Cardin trained as a ballet dancer comes as no surprise when viewing her photographs. Like an interpretive dance sequence, her images reveal themselves unhurriedly, in a lyrical, fluid, and often dramatic way. Emphasizing the narrative, Cardin groups her images in miniseries of five or more, each with its own evocative title. These groupings frequently borrow from other art forms, often translating as a slice of performance art—complete with masks, mystery, and melodrama. At other times, she draws from literary culture, unfolding her two-dimensional art form in fantastical wordless storytelling.

One such series, entitled Nevermore, pays homage to and draws inspiration from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. Nineteen monochromatic images, including five distinct triptychs, embody a kind of hazy supernatural atmosphere, much like Poe’s poem. These soft romanticized images depict a woman in a long white gown, dreaming perhaps of her wedding. She soon appears in a transparent white veil, one that flows from a tightly woven crown of vines, and which ultimately transforms into black. As in Poe’s poem, she is visited by a raven-like bird. In movement and in stillness, this woman displays emotions that range from a dreamy kind of happiness and imagined love, to one of wonderment, disappointment, fear, sadness, and loneliness. This visual narrative is multifaceted, laden with symbolism, and, like all of Cardin’s work, wholly interpretive.


Cardin describes her carefully constructed imagery as that of a “voyeur in the mind of someone dreaming.” And, like any dream, what follows is at once surreal and nonsensical, logical and familiar. We are meant to identify with these stolen dreams—inspired, in part, by “human themes of loneliness, isolation, fear, and transformation.”

In each series, the images could all exist as stand-alone pieces with their own compelling and malleable plot line, yet Cardin’s multi-image groupings suggest more than a single image or conventional triptych could. At times, they seem reminiscent of a found filmstrip, allowing us a voyeuristic journey into Cardin’s own vivid imagination and dreams.

Another of Cardin’s visual stories, entitled Upon a Time, not only borrows from the traditional opening lines of a fairy tale, but the eight images that comprise this series reveal a woman who embodies many of the roles given to fairy tale women. In deep saturated color, clothed in royal purple and crowned as a princess, the woman’s eyes remain closed and ultimately blindfolded. She is manipulated like a helpless marionette. Disembodied female hands, possibly her own, hold the strings that control her. For reasons unknown, she soon breaks free of those binds, and those once-controlling strings loosely undulate like liquid ribbon. She moves voluntarily in a kind of rapturous delight. The final ghostly image offers no definitive closure; rather, Cardin allows us alternative endings, completely dependent on the individual viewer’s reading.

Ground Underneath

Cardin feels that she needs to tell a story, to look at something or someone, and “capture the essence, the emotion, and the soul of the subject.” To reveal these seemingly infinite narratives in a single image feels impossible to her. Consequently, the best way for Cardin to tell her stories is to show multiple photographs in sequence. When she views others’ single images, she is invariably left with wanting “something more.” In choosing to create multiple images within each series, she offers that “something more” to her viewers. Most of Cardin’s narratives follow a theme, frequently ending with some sort of self-realization or transformation. In dreams, as in reality, these changes can be subtle, at times indecipherable, and not always presented linearly. Cardin exposes just enough to allow space for the viewer’s own reading and interpretation, presenting a meaningful interactive experience. She also wants the viewer to make a connection—to look at her imagery and say, “I have felt that, right there!”

Cardin treads a fine line between making images that remain contemporary, but that also recognize and often exploit historic depictions of women. In her series, Silenced, she explores the question of Who is Mary Magdalene? Early oral and written history describes Mary variously as saint, sinner, whore, goddess, demon, mother, savior, and disciple. In Silenced, Cardin touches on a few of those roles ascribed to Mary. In each image, Cardin’s Mary of Magdala appears with a black tape covering her mouth. This tape, echoing the shape of the cross she carries, essentially silences her own voice. Many of these same themes, to varying degrees, can be found in all of Cardin’s imagery, whether ascribed to or adopted by the women she creates for her narratives.

Keeping Secrets

Many of the women in her images often appear silenced, literally bound, or rendered sightless, as in the thirteen images that comprise Keeping Secrets. Others, such as Ground Underneath, reveal a woman in what appears to be a state of reverie, often in levitation—ethereal and gravity-defying.

The majority of Cardin’s work is self-portraiture, which began solely out of necessity. Initially, not knowing any models, she placed herself in her own storylines. Surprised by how much she enjoyed the process, it was then that she “truly connected to her figurative work,” combining that entire she loves—dance, photography, storytelling—into one art form. To connect with and own one’s work to such an extent is both rewarding and challenging, in that, as Cardin describes it, “you’re literally putting yourself out there.” Yet her compelling image-making derives, in no small part, from that literal and willing participation. Every movement—elegant, efficient, and beautifully rendered—infuses depth and meaning to her work, where “harmony and truthfulness” are in the telling.

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This article first appeared in print in Issue 5.

Diana H. Bloomfield is a photographer, independent curator, and writer. She lives and works in Raleigh, North Carolina.