Connected \\ October 22, 2021
A word with Frances F. Denny
How women define themselves is an ongoing theme in the work of New York-based photographer Frances F. Denny. When she discovered that her family tree included both a woman accused of witchcraft and a judge from the Salem witch trials, she decided to explore the archetype of the witch. She drove around the U.S. and photographed nearly 100 people who identify as witches for a book project called Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America. Thirteen of these powerful portraits are included in The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming exhibition, on view at PEM until March 20, 2022.
We recently spoke with Denny about identity, photography and her own ancestral ties to the tragic events of 1692.
Q: How did you discover that you are related to two people involved in the Salem witch trials?
A: When I was researching my 2014 series called Let Virtue Be Your Guide, which explores the particular femininity embodied by many of my relatives in New England, I was looking into my ancestry and I discovered that my tenth great-grandfather was one of the central judges of the Salem witch trials. His name was Samuel Sewall. And, coincidentally, I also found on that family tree that my eight great-grandmother, a woman named Mary Bliss Parsons, was accused of witchcraft. That coincidence stuck with me. I couldn't resolve it for myself. It felt like something I would want to return to in my work.
Frances Denny with the portrait of her ancestor, Judge Samuel Sewall. Photo by Kathy Tanrantola/PEM.
Q: How did you start the project?
A: I started thinking about Salem. I started thinking about the power of this word "witch," which is so full of fear. I started thinking about how this word "witch" has traveled over time and morphed from the Salem usage where it was a term used to propagate hate and fear of people living outside of the status quo. Then you look at the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, where the witch is the old hag living in the woods, eating babies, to The Wizard of Oz and the Disney version with the green skin and a pointed hat. I was tracing her through history. When I came to the 20th century, I realized that there are many people out there who identify as witches and who have reclaimed this word from its very murky, shadowy origins and turned it into a term of empowerment. I got very interested in this community.
Copies of Major Arcana are available in the PEM Shop. Image courtesy of artist.
Q: How did you find your portrait subjects?
A: I started on hunches that I had about people whoI knew and contacted a small handful of people who I suspected would understand what I was after with this project. And then once I had about 10 or 12 people photographed, I had people introducing me to their entire cousins. I had people emailing lots of other friends across the country about putting me in touch.
Frances F. Denny. Leonore, (Montpelier, Vermont), 2016 from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America series archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, N.Y.
Q: What did you learn about contemporary witchcraft that surprised you?
A: You can really hardly call it a community because it's so vast and so diverse. The questions I was asking myself, really became the jumping off point for Major Arcana. Who is a witch? What does she believe? What does a practice of witchcraft entail? I was a newbie to the world of contemporary witchcraft. The more I looked into this, this idea of the witch as a primordial, female archetype, the more I realized this is a word that is powerful. It has shapeshifted through the centuries and there are new meanings. My biggest takeaway was that there is no one way to be a witch. Not only in terms of belief, but in terms of age, ethnicity, geography, body type, the way that I posed people, where they're photographed. All of these things needed to be reflected in the pictures and then subsequently in every edit that the pictures get turned into. Major Arcana represents a much broader spectrum of gender diversity. There are trans individuals, non-binary gender, queer. It was really important to me to make sure that that representation was a part of this project. I think that this show really shows that beautifully. The diversity, in all senses of the word, is really on display. If my viewers take one thing from seeing the show, they will see that a witch is not one thing.
Frances F. Denny, Shine, (New York, New York), 2017, from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America series. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, N.Y.
Q: How did you gain the trust of your portrait sitters?
A: One of my pet peeves is a thing that I've seen some photographers do, which is that they tell their subjects to relax. And, I think that's the wrong thing to say to your subject, who, of course is feeling nervous, having a big fancy camera pointed in their face. I think it's your job as a photographer to help them relax, not to demand it of them. So, the ways that I do that are usually by just chatting with whomever I'm photographing to get a sense of them, to see how they hold their bodies, if there's a part of their face or body that they have tension. I start out with just a conversation. The camera is still in the camera bag. Then I give a lot of direction. So, I'll tell somebody where to put their hand. I'll have them pick up their hand, shake it out, put it back down to try and bring it into a place that feels less tense and more natural. When we are photographed, we put on a mask. It's a persona. It's a performance, right? So, I feel like my task, the onus is on me, to help people take that mask off in front of my camera. I do that very gently.
Q: You grew up in Boston. What is it like to see your work here at PEM in Salem?
A: I have been coming to PEM my whole life. It is really, really exciting to have my work on the walls here, and particularly this work. Because I think that the theme of contemporary witchcraft has not been taken all that seriously in some circles, and I think the way that I set out to document this culture and these people was with a great deal of respect and dignity. I think the fact that an institution like the Peabody Essex Museum is putting these figures on the wall is incredibly validating to me, and I hope, not that they need the validation, but to my subjects as well.
For more on The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming and to read more from Frances Denny, see this recent New York Times story.
TOP IMAGE: Frances Denny is interviewed by the team during the opening days of The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming. Photo by Diana DiRamio/PEM.