Overweight and shy, the young Jen Davis often used her camera as a way to communicate with the world. In 2002, she began an explicit study of her insecurities, her body, and society’s perceptions of beauty. "Eleven Years," the series that resulted from this exploration—now on view at ClampArt Gallery in New York—traces her self-directed gaze from her early twenties to her thirties.
The first image in the series, "Pressure Point," sets up the various issues Davis revisits throughout the series. She is sitting on a sandy beach mat, her shorts and tank top contrasting with the bare skin around her. She "was working with a view camera on a tripod, an unconventional object on the beach," she told an interviewer in 2013, "which intrigued passersby, making them my audience. Unknowingly, I was attracting attention, making them see me.”
Davis's images call to mind seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, isolated figures bathed in natural light, engaged simple daily tasks—with the occasional splash of vibrant color. Her expression is often pensive and solemn, and even in the photos where she interacts with someone, she seems apart. In addition to being an exploration of body image, this series is also an exploration into love and intimacy.
With these photos, she says, “I was doing was seducing myself. I couldn’t necessarily identify with the idea of someone seeing me as ‘beautiful,' but I could accept that the pictures that I created and inhabited were.”
Davis’ self-portraits serve to unravel her insecurities with the aid of the lens. By showing the viewer her vulnerability, she elicits both sympathy and empathy. This series not only speaks to those who’ve struggled with their weight, but to those who’ve struggled with fitting in and body-issues generally. Discomfort with oneself is a universal experience.