Elizabeth Heyert: The Sleepers

New York

9 January — 1 March 2003

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Press Release

In her inspired series, THE SLEEPERS, Elizabeth Heyert’s haunting photographs expose a rarely seen, emotional underworld--the private, primal, interior life of sleep. Working with a large format view camera from a balcony, Heyert documented a diverse range of men and women, sleeping naked, singly or in couples, for two or three hours at a time. As they slept, Heyert witnessed an extraordinary transformation-- her subjects, completely unconscious, and consequently unselfconscious, appear to be flying, or leaping, or in a state of ecstasy or torment. With revelatory gestures, at once majestic and yet touchingly vulnerable, the relaxed bodies of the sleepers, seen from above against a stark black background, seem to be floating in space. Liberated from the constraints of daily life, their balletic movements possess the strange grace and poignancy of Etruscan sculpture.

Unmasking this startlingly primitive transformation inspired her to add a second step to the process. Traveling to deserted villages of northern Sicily, Heyert projected images of the sleepers onto the ancient walls of ruins and re-photographed them. Shot in the dark of night, in abandoned ghost towns emptied by war and earthquakes, the resulting photographs, have an intense, almost mystical quality. On their flesh, made transparent by the projection, the cracks and lines of the stone map out the passage of time, endowing these Tarot-like figures with the dramatic power and beauty of ancient frescoes. In Heyert’s words: “I discovered the stone had meaning. It had passionate life. Both the stone and the figures seem perishable, historical, mortal—but at the same time immortal, epic.”

With this surprising layering of imagery, what began as a voyeuristic exploration transcends documentation and captures an abstract, timeless essence of humanity. Iconic images emerge from darkness, mythic and heroic, with their deeper meanings dancing on the edge of ambiguous vision. The large scale of the prints (60 by 48 inches) recreates the hallucinatory nature of the experience for the viewer while the voluptuous toning conveys the rich textures of the stones saturated with history. Sensual and evanescent both, Heyert’s images linger in the mind like a waking dream, blurring the sharp contours of fact and fiction, image and reality.

Elizabeth Heyert is internationally renown for her photographs of architecture and
interiors, which have appeared extensively in such periodicals as the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, American and British Vogue, Elle Décor, Town & Country, Architectural Digest and nest. A writer as well as a photographer, Heyert is the author of numerous books including Metropolitan Places, Personaggi e Case Famose, and The Glass-house Years. She received a masters degree in photography and the history of photography from the Royal College of Art, London, where she studied with Bill Brandt. Her photographs are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and have been published, exhibited, and collected both in the United States and in Europe.