Obey Your Master

Nathaniel stood paralized; he had seen but too plainly that Olympia’s waxen,deathly-pale countenance had no eyes, but black holes instead – she was, indeed, a lifeless doll.

The Sandman by E. T. A. Hoffmann (1816)

The origins of Gothic literature are a fascinating topic, and I’ve been studying them for part of my life. Along with the The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (during the English Gothic Revival period) and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the short story which is always quoted when speaking of Gothic literature is The Sandman by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, a Romantic novelist and composer, whose genius is behind the infamous ballets Coppelia and The Nutcracker. The Sandman is an uncanny [1] story where the obsession for eyes and sight and the theme of the automaton recur, but this is just a part of its dark fascination. The opposition between Clara and Olympia [2] – one is a real woman, Nathanael’s fiancée, while the other is a woman-shaped robot, which causes the protagonist’s madness – immediately came to my mind when I saw a photoshoot by Craig McDean starring Megan Fox.

The images were published on the June 2010 issue of Interview magazine: Megan Fox – incredibly beautiful – was portrayed with a naked mannequin with her same features. The resemblance is striking and rumors say Megan left the set, after the shooting, with the head of the mannequin as a souvenir. I don’t know what she felt while posing with a double made of plastic, but I think it was quite a unique and probably creepy moment.

In all the pics, Megan is wearing black clothes: some are very feminine, made of lace or embellished, while others have a more masculine feel. In any case, she is the one who has the power in this strange liaison with her own double, since the mannequin is always naked, apart from a pair of Nina Ricci sandals (the same worn by Megan). The reference to Hoffmann’s story – where the protagonist is obsessed with eyes [3] – is striking in this picture, where Megan closes the mannequin’s eyes.

The mannequin’s make-up, complexion and haircut are exactly the same as Megan’s. I love their short bob, very chic and sexy.

The two are seen in different positions, but the mannequin has always a subordinate role. In the fiction of the photoshoot, Megan is the master and the mannequin – as a lifeless doll – cannot but obey the orders.

The concept of mise en abîme is partly used here: looking at these pictures is like having the visual experience of standing between mirrors and seeing a reproduction of the actress’s image. The mannequin clearly looks like one – see the junctions – but in the picture above, the difference between human and its silent double stays on a blurred line. The final touch – Megan is holding the mannequin’s hand – adds uneasiness to the whole.

The mannequin is very much like Megan but of course it is not her, and the difference between the two is emphasized in this picture, where the torso junction is slightly misplaced.

A certain S&M mood flows through the photoshoot: the master-servant relation is clear since the beginning, and many sexual references are present. The dominating and abusive role of Megan is pictured in the shot above, for example, where she’s wearing a fur bolero, and this could be a nod to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, a novella published in 1870.

The sexual references are present in this picture, too, where Megan actually looks like a dominatrix, with those long opera leather gloves. Sorry if I am overthinking, but the black and white floor has immediately brought the floor of the Red Room in Twin Peaks‘ Black Lodge to my mind.

This is the most disquieting picture of all, because Megan is “playing” with her mannequin, which is only a torso now, without legs. The real nature of the mannequin is revealed, and this causes a weird feeling, it’s like entering someone’s privacy or shattering a taboo.

The theme was pretty brilliantly developed in McDean’s photoshoot, but he didn’t invent anything. The relation between the man and the mannequin/robot/android/automaton has been central in a multitude of novels and movies, but the first photographer who based part of his work on this theme and brought it to another level was Helmut Newton. Since the 1960s he experimented with mannequins used as models and with real models posing as mannequins.

He also shot several pictures where dummies look exactly like the models they’re posing with. Dummy and Human III is a clear example of this.

One of the most famous series by Newton is the Big Nudes, where models were portrayed dressed and naked in the same poses, and pictured like contemporary amazons. A mannequin in a window display was used to advertise Sumo, the massive volume which covers all the career of the German artist. The dummy is modelled after Henrietta, the protagonist of Big Nude III.

Cédric Buchet used the same concept in L’éternel fantasme, published on Vogue Paris in November 2009. Eniko Mihalik and a mannequin posing in front of the camera in sapphic postures clearly pay homage to Helmut Newton’s shots.

Before closing this long post, let me spare a few words for Lester Gaba, a mannequin designer, and his beloved Cynthia, a socialite-like mannequin which became very famous in the 1930s in New York. She became his date at the opera and in fancy restaurants, wore Cartier and Tiffany jewels and designer clothes, and “lived” a dream-like life, until she slipped from a chair in a salon and broke into pieces.

[1] It is not coincidental that Sigmund Freud quoted The Sandman in his essay The Uncanny (1919). He introduced Hoffmann as an “unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature”, explaining that the doll-like Olympia was not the only or the strongest disturbing element in the story (according to him, “the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes” was the “more striking instance of uncanniness” in the tale).

[2] This opposition is brought even further when a character has his/her exact double in an automaton. This happens, for example, in Metropolis by Fritz Lang, where Fredersen and Rotwang create a machine-woman with the same features of the heroic Maria, so as to create confusion and distrust in the population of the city. The extreme consequence of this opposition is the android, a robot designed to look and act like a human, with all the ethical issues related to this theme. Just think of the protagonists of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or of David, the child-like prototype model of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

[3] According to the tradition, Sandman sprinkles sand on the children’s eyes at night to bring them dreams and sleep, but in Hoffmann’s tale, he throws sand in the eyes of children who wouldn’t sleep: as a result, their eyes fall out and are collected by Sandman, who takes them to his iron nest on the moon and uses them to feed his children.

Source, source, source and source.




    1. The Sandman is part of Hoffmann’s Nachtstücke (Racconti Notturni). If I am not mistaken, Einaudi published this collection of short stories some years ago. I am sure you’ll find it in libraries.

  1. The reference to The Sandman immediately reminded me of The Uncanny too(I had to read the essay several times for my studies).
    The concept of doppelganger has always fascinated me, but it seems to be a fertile and almost failsafe source of inspiration for fashion photography lately…I’m thinking, for example, of the one featuring Daphne Guinness and two girls dressed like her, or of a Versace campaign with natalia Vodianova and another girl whose name I don’t remember- you published both of them.
    I find these pictures extremely beautiful because of their disquieting nature. What I find especially interesting is the fact that, despite being colour photographs, they are almost entirely based on the black/white contrast (another dychotomy, after living/lifeless and master/slave). The most evident colour is the red makeup, which is also the trait d’union between Megan and the mannequin.

    1. You’re right: the theme of the double (or doppelgänger) is so fascinating and visually fruitful, because I think it is based on one of our deepest fears/desires, that is realizing there’s another you out there, with all the possible positive and negative effects.

      The colour scheme in the photoshoot is extremely simple – as it is based on black, white and red – yet very effective.

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