In You and You and You, Mikayla Whitmore uses a glass pane to distort her subjects — and reveal their true selves
Separated into a thousand squares, Holly Lay looks caged in light and shadow, the curves of her lips and closed eyes blunted by the optics of the cut-glass grid between her and Mikayla Whitmore’s camera. Sun and strobes catch color and form singularly in each square, like it’s painted. The final portrait smacks of computer sorcery. But Whitmore is known for shaping images using gels, prisms, mirrors, smoke, and other tools that bring physical mark-making into visuals that seem digitally rendered. “That’s really important to me,” she says, “to have sincerity to the image.”
The idea of sincerity in a manipulated photograph is just one of many interesting, layered ironies that characterize Whitmore’s You and You and You, a portrait series funded by a grant from contemporary art/design websites Booooooom and Society6. You and You and You was inspired by a mechanical phenomenon Whitmore saw in Taiwan. As a friend moved behind a beveled window, light and matter alchemized into fantastically pixelated mosaics lasting only an instant. Whitmore wanted to explore that transformation, and the ways it spoke to identity.
“It started churning in my head about identity politics and reading a book by its cover, stereotyping, censorship, how all of that can be seen just by pixelating something,” Whitmore says. “The series dives into the perceived notions society can put upon a person and the actual expectations of the real person … layers of who you are and what you share.”
This is personal for Whitmore, who identifies as queer. Much of her work looks for beauty in marginalized realms, whether stark desert vistas, decaying neon, or discarded slides of strangers on holiday. You and You and You puts that filter on 18 faces from the LGBTQIA community, and the collage effect of the glass both distorts and reveals.
Lance Smith says he is used to being seen as “seemingly a cis black man in a suit,” reserving femme presentations for specific spaces. Friends with Whitmore since art school at UNLV, the painter and illustrator showed up for their shoot in heavy makeup and opulent jewelry. The portrait reflects the clash of internal and external conceptions of self, Smith appearing as intended yet still exposed to the viewer’s judgment and the environment’s power to abstract, obscure or magnify certain features.
“One of the most important things Mikayla said was, just be yourself — whatever version of yourself you’d like to be,” Smith says. “It felt affirming. … Even though I was behind a pane of glass, I saw myself more clearly.”
Local journalist Leslie Ventura’s heightened aesthetic mixed glam, punk, and drag. She hates being photographed, but the 1/8-inch shield emboldened her to be joyously raw, “grimy” even. Pressed to the hot glass, she trailed her tongue and wad of gum along it.
“Knowing you’re not going to be 100 percent seen kind of frees you,” Ventura says. She has thought a lot about gender, how she appears and what others assume. And she appreciated the push to embrace any side she chooses to indulge. “We’re so afraid of sharing ourselves — rightfully so — because on social media anything can go viral. But at the same time that’s so limiting. … I don’t know where I fit and I never have, and I might not ever know. But a project like this, that allows you to look however you want, act however you want … I think it inherently comes out when you’re surrounded by people who you know understand.”
Other models appeared topless, smooshed their lips on the pane, vamped with papaya or Day-Glo putty. There’s a sexual overtone (Whitmore says everybody licked the glass), though moods range from searching and defiant to goofy and sad.
“I had some archetypes in my brain or characters I thought people would become,” Whitmore recalls, but anything premeditated gave way to “powerful ‘I’m here’ poses.” Her first art series on human subjects, You and You and You captures essential realness in its pixelated take on self.