Maura Sullivan’s photographs demonstrate a consistent and unwavering cinematic vision. Like any good storyteller, a dynamic visual artist spins the same never-ending narrative- perhaps in varied ways, but nearly always projecting a clear and singular way of seeing, imagining, and experiencing the world. From one portfolio to another, Sullivan’s images might easily reveal the same set of intriguing characters, at different stages in their lives, all emanating from one long and dreamy surreal film.
Sullivan’s portfolio, titled And, is one such irresistible narrative. The etymological meaning of this word was “to imply a connection to something previous,” which suggests that these images are meant to remind us of some previous event in our own lives, or that some meaningful event has occurred in these images, in the lives of these characters, just moments prior to actually clicking the shutter. This unseen version of events, to which the viewer is never privy and can only imagine, informs all of Sullivan’s work. Thus, the power remains in both the seen and the unseeable, in the known and the unknowable. Her chosen title, And, may also mean simply that there is, indeed, a connecting thread among these portfolios that weaves them, seamlessly, into one enigmatic whole.
Sullivan’s black and white images, all made with film, possess a grainy film-noir quality. Each, beautifully rendered, remains cryptic—the titles providing the only possible key to unlocking the mystery. The title “Tears at the Green Door” already tells us more than we can actually see in this dark monochromatic scene. A woman, draped over a chair, the roundness of her back, the polka-dots on her lower clothing, the linearity of her spinal column, long arms revealed, fingers outstretched, all echo the circular shapes and the straight lines of the door centered behind her, as well as the legs of the chair over which she bends. This linearity—that which is always true, straight, stable, and reliable—creates a powerful juxtaposition with that which is uncertain, unseen, and unknown. Much of the power of Sullivan’s images lies in the story untold.
The images in Sullivan’s portfolio, Children, remain timeless. Her subjects’ expressions and clothing provide no clues as to when these images might have been made. In “Philip and Julia,” the two children seem to harbor unspoken grown-up secrets, projecting the sense that they know more than perhaps they should. Similar faces and gazes are seen in some of the photographs in the portfolio entitled Portraits. In the image, “Max at 15,” this boy could easily stand in as the grown-up “Philip,” just as the fractured glare of “Kamille” could just as easily reveal the adult version of “Julia.” And the faces of other children seem to appear again and again as their older selves.
Meandering through the portfolios And, Children, and Portraits, a narrative arc emerges. Are the people in these images connected in some way? Are they all part of the same fantastical storyline, or do we only wish it were so? In And, a woman in an odd and formal, almost futuristic, costume sits on the edge of a bed, in quiet stillness. Eyes closed, she waits for someone, or no one. The mirror directly behind her offers another view, an opening into a different space and time. In Portraits this figure appears once again, in “Eleanor’s House,” where we see her from a slightly different perspective. This time, the clock seen only in the rear mirror, rather than Eleanor herself, takes center stage, offering a whole other meaning to these two connected images.
The youngest of 15 children, Sullivan grew up in a world that was, at once, “intensely chaotic and intensely creative.” Although surrounded by so many older siblings and extended family, Sullivan spent a lot of time alone—observing, listening, and reflecting. The stories of her youth, those that still keep her up at night, dreaming, were like “stepping into their magic worlds.” Hearing these family stories ultimately helped Sullivan define her own. Most fascinated with the process of creating a transformative portrait, Sullivan says she is “always searching for that third person like a fiction writer. I love the idea of rewriting stories and dreams through pictures.” Though most of her subjects are of family and friends, she photographs them in a way that recreates them as “familiar strangers.”
Sullivan’s images, replete with mood and mystery, offer more questions than answers. In some, we merely see hands, gestures, or fragments. Like half-remembered dreams, these elements reappear again and again. Other images could easily translate as moody film stills. String them all together, and they work as a montage— one ineffable sequence of events, resulting in a continuous whole. Ultimately, “story telling and dream chasing” remain at the heart of Sullivan’s vision. Her rich and complex visual narratives allow us into her world, where we, too, are given the freedom to create stories all our own.