Connected \\ September 21, 2021
Exploring Frances F. Denny’s portraits of modern-day witches
Photo courtesy of Frances F. Denny.
In The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, pieces by fashion designer Alexander McQueen and portraits by Frances F. Denny of modern-day witches bring a fresh lens to these tragic events. Pam Grossman, the creator and host of The Witch Wave podcast, has been described as “the Terry Gross of Witches.” She sat for Denny’s series Major Arcana: Witches in America. Below is the foreward she wrote for the publication.
I confess I was a bit wary when Frances reached out to request I sit for a portrait for Major Arcana: Witches in America. As someone who has identified as a witch for most of her life, I was used to piquing people’s curiosity. Yet my experiences of being put on display to exemplify someone else’s idea of what a witch is hadn’t always gone well.
Frances, however, understands that the image of myself as a witch and the image of myself as a person are interlinked. No matter which of these aspects is being emphasized to the public, I want to be sure that I’m represented as multi-dimensional and powerful on my own terms. After speaking with her at our initial meeting, I felt assured that Frances wasn’t looking to frame me as a freak or a fetishized femme fatale. Her approach is to depict modern witches as wholly self-possessed individuals. She realizes that the expression of my magic and the depiction of my personhood needed to be as integrated in her photographs as they are in my own identity.
Frances F. Denny. Pam, (Brooklyn, New York), 2016, from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America series, archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, N.Y.
Both Frances and I believe that every photograph of a woman or female-presenting individual has the potential to chip away at the wall of sexism that’s been constructed over centuries. As a photographer, Frances has built up a riveting body of work that centers the female experience without exploiting it or trivializing it. That she has now decided to focus her camera on witches is particularly significant, for in doing so she is excavating the history of female imagery construction at its very foundations.
It can be argued that the image of the witch is one of the earliest examples of widespread propaganda against women. Though beliefs and stories about witches have existed in virtually every culture throughout history, the hypersexed, homicidal, Satan-worshipping witch as we know her came to prominence in fifteenth-century Europe. Friars of various sects of the Catholic church traveled throughout western Europe to warn villagers that bewitching, bedeviled dames dwelled among them, but it was the advent of the printing press that caused these ideas — and, crucially, images — about witches to proliferate and spread to the masses.
The Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) was written in 1494. A copy of this book in PEM’s collection establishes the existence of witches, describes witchcraft and how to prosecute and sentence witches and heretics. Photo by Dave O’Ryan/PEM.
Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (or The Hammer of Witches) of 1486 stated that although anyone could be a witch, women were far more likely than men to fall prey to Satan’s persuasive tactics due to their innate gullibility, weakness, and insatiable carnality. Texts like this one not only “informed” people about the existence of nefarious witches, but many included visual renderings that showed them shape-shifting into animals, attacking unwitting neighbors with weather magic or weaponry, and happily swooning in the devil’s embrace. Their hair was often shown loose and uncovered, and they rode the skies with cooking forks, brooms, or other phallic stand-ins between their legs. Artists of the age such as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien were inspired by these tomes and took things a step further by drawing witches that gathered in the nude to make all sorts of trouble. Their artworks were collected by wealthy men and kept in back rooms or curiosity cabinets for private titillation.
Over the next 200 years, witch-hunting manuals and pamphlets circulated throughout Europe and, eventually, the New England colonies. Tragically, this anti-witch crusade cost tens of thousands of people their lives over the next several centuries, and scholars estimate that between 75–85 percent of those accused were women. Though it’s anachronistic to apply film critic Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze” terminology of the 1970s to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century witch hunting, it’s fair to point out that it was exclusively men who were authoring and illustrating the books that popularized the notion of depraved — and usually female — witches. And it was women who paid the price for it.
Frances F. Denny. M. Nightmare, (San Geronimo, California), 2016, from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America series, archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, N.Y.
Since the nineteenth century, however, the word “witch” has taken on positive and often feminist connotations. Undoubtedly, Hollywood films such as MGM’s The Wizard of Oz of 1939, the post-war British “Pagan Revival,” and the subsequent mid-twentieth-century birth of the modern religion of Wicca had a huge hand in its resignification. So, too, did the rise of women across societal strata. For who better to symbolize a subversive, feminine force than the marginalized, magical witch?
Photo courtesy of Frances F. Denny.
It is through this historical lens — pardon the pun — that Frances’s remarkable photographs are best viewed. Her pictures of modern witches offer a respectful, anthropological, and quite beautiful glimpse into a complex spiritual and political movement. But they also pull double duty in depicting these women and genderqueer individuals as subjects and not objects, thereby decoupling both feminine imagery and witch imagery from their centuries-old baggage of straight cis-male desire, fear, and control.
Some of these witches are sexy, but they are never objectified. Some might be shadowy, but they are never posed to shock. A photograph is, by nature, a flattened, two-dimensional picture forever frozen in time. And yet somehow, Frances’s series feels nuanced and fully formed, as does each witch within it. Individually, each subject comes across like their own craft-master and knowing guide who has graciously welcomed us into their sacred space.
Frances F. Denny. Karen, (Brooklyn, New York), 2016 from Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America series, archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York, N.Y.