A Picture Perfect Life Is Easy With A Fiberglass Family
Suzanne Heintz’s husband Chauncey lay on the living room floor, dismembered. She, unmoved, applied makeup nearby. This is not the scene of a grisly crime. It’s the start of a typical day for the Denver-based photographer.
Chauncey is a mannequin.
That’s true for two-thirds of Heintz’s fictional family, which is rounded out by the eternally 8-year-old Mary Margaret. It’s a model bunch she has been both party and witness to; photographing their vacations, breakfasts, and even steamy shower scenes for the past 14 years.
“It's all for show and that's really the point of the project,” Heintz explained. “If we are concentrating on the image of what our lives should look like we're not concentrating on the feeling of contentment that we truly want in our lives. It's all about image vs. reality.”
That conflict between the ideal and actual became the foundation for an on-going body of photographic work, “Life Once Removed.” The title reflects Heinz’s belief that a nuclear family being synonymous with a perfect life is an antiquated concept.
“These days a family looks like a range of things. It runs the gambit,” said Heintz. “So, it seems odd that we still hold ourselves responsible for an image that none of us can reflect anymore. This is 2014, not 1955, but the ideas that form our life expectations were formed before we even got here.”
Why Aren’t You Married?
The idyllic 1950s-esque photos of Heintz and her clan of domestic dummies were a satiric response to an oft heard question. Then a graduate student in her 30s and tired of being asked when she would settle down, Heintz purchased her family unit from a liquidation outlet.
“I thought, this is the perfect semester long project,” Heintz recalled. “I'm just going to take Kodak moments with my perfect family and sort of get back at all these well-meaning suggestions that I get on the ball with my life plan.”
The initial household shots gave way to increasingly elaborate staged family photos like annual Christmas greeting cards and family road trips to Carhenge. The photographs are meant to initiate dialog about traditional roles. Chauncey and little Mary Margaret represent father and daughter but, as Heintz explains, “without soul and without the reality of warm feeling that family is supposed to project.”
“I just think you need to do it in the right time for the right reasons and not just do it because you are running out of time and your eggs are getting old,” Heintz said with a chuckle.
Hitting the road for any family with children can be a feat. But a road trip, even across the city, is exponentially difficult when the majority of your family of three is mannequins.
For the ‘Heintz family,’ pre-departure banter includes “Don’t forget the hernia belt” as well as “Who has the camera bag?” and “That goes in the cooler.”
The hernia belt is important, because it will secure Heintz’s main man to their bicycle built for two. For this shoot, she actually pedaled through Denver’s City Park before the two settled in for a picnic that included fried chicken, Ritz crackers, and a bottle of wine.
Heintz said she quickly learned a woman lugging the parts and pieces of mannequins can turn heads and prompt questions, all of which she relishes.
“I thought this was a great interface and it's a living gallery,” Heintz said.
The reason for the City Park re-engagement shoot was a romantic-comedy style reconciliation. During the last Heintz family trip – to Paris – she discovered Chauncey was too expensive to ship back to the United States. So Heintz abandoned him, naked as the day he was manufactured, on a street.
In that moment, Heintz pondered whether the imagined family had served its artistic purpose. But with Chauncey 2.0 in tow it’s not over.
“I really am the decision maker in this relationship,” Heinz said with a chuckle. “So I've decided that we're going to renew our vows.”
Their wedding date is set for June 16, 2014 at the Grant-Humphreys mansion. Heintz will perform dual duty – wife and photographer.
Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, RMPBS, and KUVO