Q: What do iconic film Stepford Wives; cult David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks; and countercultural novelist Thomas Pynchon, have in common? A: ‘Twin Palms’ the latest, dazzling project by Brighton-based, contemporary photographer - and rapidly rising star - Matt Henry.
Picture the scene: it’s California, 1967, in the sleepy suburban town of Twin Palms (a fictional creation by Henry that’s only a hairs breadth away from historical reality). Rich, glamorous and disenchanted, a pack of beautiful young housewives are poised at the cusp of a gender revolution that hovers in the sultry, stifling air, ready to explode at any moment. Under the blue Californian sky, surrounded by nothing but their modernist villas, immaculate lawns, and glistening swimming pools, these women offer a new perspective to the well-trodden narratives of the ‘feminine mystique’. “What I didn’t want to do,” Henry admits, in an interview for The Independent, “was recreate the 1960s housewife as we all know her—Betty Draper from Mad Men stuck at home with the kids while Don works his way through his secretaries.”
Not so for the women of Twin Palms, who are raging rampant, getting drunk in the hot tub, employing the pool boy for his (ahem) less professional services, and even (so rumour has it) procuring drugs form San Fransisco. Henry’s fictionalised newspaper article - one of the 30 images that make up the series - has diagnosed the disorder as “mass hysteria[…] a most dangerous predicament for females.”
Henry’s work explores the power of fiction through photography. Inspired by the politics and culture of 1960s and 70s America (the subject of his ongoing doctoral thesis), Henry’s art is driven by an attention to style and characterisation, each photograph beautifully designed, composed, and executed. Every project is underpinned by a narrative: Henry creates fictional scenes, each one storyboarded and built around dressed locations or sets, and peopled by actors who are directed by Henry. Yet the result is far greater than a glossy film snapshot: every image tells a story, through exceptional attention to detail, a deft sensitivity to light, colour and composition, and the conceptual rigour that feeds his aesthetic. As he articulates, his work “plays with fragments of American photography, cinema and literature to explore underlying ideological concerns.”
The ‘Twin Palms’ series perfectly encapsulates this collaging of cultural fragments: highly stylised and visually breathtaking, the photographs expertly merge familiar tropes from midcentury American culture, to create Henry’s distinctive aesthetic. Although light and colour are at the heart of the images, the project is decidedly dark: a juxtapositional line that Henry treads with astonishing sensitivity. The sugar-coated homes of the housewives - filled with every item and ornament they could ever desire, decked out in stylish trimmings, and dripping with money at every turn - represent the deeply restrictive, gender polarised society from which Henry draws: witness ‘Portia’s Cake’, going up in flames in her pristine living room, an apt symbol for the frustration of the aimless housewife; or Wilma alone in her tub, surrounded by beer cans, as she drinks her way through the meaningless day.
Henry’s work reminds us that we’ve come a long way, but that there’s still so much further to go. We’re used to seeing seductive women in contemporary art (in art through ages, for that matter), but not often in a form that drives home the kind of political messages enshrined within Twin Palms. For all the bleak undertones, the series offers a grain of optimism: perhaps eventually, Henry muses, “the concept of gender will evolve to the point that one day we might look back in mockery in just the same way.”