Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published on our previous platform, In the In-Between: Journal of Digital Imaging Artists, and the formatting has not been optimized for the new website.
“If it were women who ran the world,” an old saying begins, and artist Debbie Grossman has attempted to finish that platitude for us in her series My Pie Town. In 1940, Russell Lee created a series of photographs in a small community of homesteaders in Pie Town, New Mexico. My Pie Town, Grossman’s 2011 reinterpretation of Russell Lee’s images, envisions the same sort of small, independent society– only this town is populated and governed entirely by women. The series shows these women and their daughters living out the normal lives of homesteaders on the edge between civilization and the untamed wilds: herding cattle, harvesting cabbage, attending church meetings and having square dances.
Describing this community of frontier women as her “fantasy”, Grossman skilfully whittles feminine fingers and jawlines out of Lee’s original male subjects, or alters women’s body language toward one another to indicate a deeper intimacy than was originally shown. Some of her modifications are so inconspicuous as to be nearly unnoticeable. Other images in the collection are left completely unchanged, offering a hopeful window from this reverie into reality. My Pie Town‘s subtle charm lies in its innocuous supposition of this single outpost without male supervision or intervention, one town just barely beyond the scope of the rest of the western world– at once a quintessentially American story and a completely outlandish tale.
My Pie Town is not just a statement about feminism or lesbianism however, it is in many ways a larger comment about the fluid nature of gender itself. Grossman states, “In some of the pictures I have created women so masculine, or so ambiguously gendered, that they may not, for some viewers, clearly read as one gender or the other.” Though history may seem to tell a different tale, lesbianism and women choosing to live as men are not exclusively products of the late 1900s. For centuries women have been traveling, taking wives, and fighting wars using male personas, many of them being only revealed after their deaths. In its way, My Pie Town honors the likely hundreds of thousands of women throughout the ages who have lived and loved one another only to have their stories ignored or sanitized by a society unwilling to even acknowledge their existence.
While Russel Lee’s images do not necessarily flinch from his female subjects or treat them with kid gloves, in the true spirit of 1940’s America traditional gender roles were alive and well- even in the hardscrabble community of Pie Town, New Mexico. Grossman’s re-imagining of the American frontier seems to redraw the border between male and female back from a time when such things were unspeakable. What if we could say that such a town actually existed in mid-century America? And where as a nation would we be today if My Pie Town had really been possible?
Written by Meghan Maloney
Stay connected with In the In-Between