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Double Life

A new book of photographs challenges viewers to consider gender roles.

Photograph: Kelli Connell
From the book Double Life by Kelli Connell

Chicago shutterbug Kelli Connell is not the woman depicted in her photographic portrait series and book, Double Life (Decode, $60), although she has to explain this to viewers constantly. “I’m really fascinated by that because it has been something since the very beginning that has happened,” Connell says from her West Andersonville studio. “Anytime a person repeats using multiple images, people are used to that being self-portrait.”

Shot over a period of nearly ten years (and counting), Double Life’s striking images capture two seemingly identical-twin women in situations that are domestic, idyllic, intimate and even incestuous, until the viewer realizes the woman in each image is the same. But she may as well be Connell since the relationships reflect, in part, her own journey as an LGBT-identified person.

Raised in Abilene, Texas, Connell attended the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University, where she earned her M.F.A. in photography in 2003, before moving to Chicago in 2007 to teach photography at Columbia College. She began the series in her final year of graduate school as a way to examine sexual orientation and gender roles. “At the time I started, I was thinking about my own sexuality and identity and how to navigate the gay scene. I look really straight,” Connell, now 37, says. “I would go out to the grocery store or a gay bar and watch people’s body language and how they interact and how people even know if you’re interested in them if you don’t look stereotypical butch or femme or have a code yet.”

Connell says the images function on two primary levels. On the one hand, the model’s different scenarios—shooting pool with herself, embarking on a road trip or engaged in a post-coital embrace—depict a relationship between two people; on the other, we can see these women as separate halves of the same person. In both instances, the images engage viewers to consider their own roles, dominant or passive, in relationships. “I’ve always felt exactly in the middle,” Connell says. “In some relationships I’ve been the more aggressive, and other times not so. But also in some of the images I may be commenting on how some partners may look alike over time or they’re very stereotypically different. Two bears may be together or a butch and a femme girl and I’m fascinated by that.”

To achieve the desired effect, Connell shoots her model (longtime friend Kiba Jacobson) in various situations along with a stand-in (often Connell, using a self-timer on her camera). Jacobson and the stand-in then switch places. Next, Connell prints out the contact sheets and creates collages where she matches up the best images from each roll of film (her favorite part of the process). The image manipulation is completed via Photoshop.

The final effect is powerful. In an age when couples, both same and opposite sexed, are jammed into conformist roles—top and bottom, masculine and feminine, etc.—Double Life, which has been shown in galleries in New York and San Francisco and will be on view at Chicago’s Catherine Edelman Gallery beginning September 9, forces viewers to consider the fluidity of their own identities in relationships. Says Connell, “The photos give us permission to see ourselves in both roles.”

Double Life hits stores August 31. An exhibition at Catherine Edelman Gallery begins September 9.

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