I have always made art, sprawled on the kitchen floor with a stack of printer paper and a Uniball pen as a child, later turning to acrylics and gauche, experimenting with Photoshop, video making, collage and discovering the photo booth at age fifteen.
An only child raised by a single mother, I was introduced to the social, cultural and economic challenges that women in our society face every day from an early age. I was also graced with many strong female figures in my life, a family of trailblazing academics, artists and activists. My mother’s mother helped to launch the field of women’s history. My mother, a professor of gender studies, along with English and American studies, passed on to me the firm belief that gender is a social construct (even while we live it in real bodies), and always encouraged my self-expression and art-making.
Despite having no formal education on feminist issues, I have always felt myself to be a feminist, refusing to swallow many of the gender norms that we are bombarded with daily, and always examining and re-examining my own relationship to sex and gender.
I exist within an inherently gender-obsessed society, where norms about what it means to be a woman and man are instilled in us from birth. But something in me rejects this implantation and I cannot function without questioning daily the choices I make.
I love and embrace the fact that I am female, that my womb can expand to compensate new life, that my breasts can produce milk to nourish an infant, that the nature of my form invites certain kinds of insights about the world around me. I have always identified with the power of my sex, yet I still find myself playing into societal expectations that can be binding.
Each day I put on clothes and primp, unconsciously preparing my performance for the world. I wear shoes that blister my feet, belts that leave brutal impressions around my waist, and ensembles that induce cat-calls from passersby. I am both sickened and fascinated with this process, by the sense of power I attain by being “beautiful”, by the game of it all.
The experience of womanhood versus the performance of it is something that I have questioned and grappled with since childhood. There were years where I refused to wear skirts, gasped at the thought of any pink article of clothing, and identified as a “tom boy”. I later adopted hyper-sexualized fashion statements, traipsing to middle school in short-shorts or in skirts so short that I’d be sent home, thong underwear exposed, makeup caked on like a clown.
Throughout adolescence I wrestled with the disconnect between the true power I knew I possessed and the lure of the validation I found could be achieved by a short enough skirt or a sexy pout. Possessed with a wanderlust and desire for dominance that seemed only permitted to men, and a simultaneous inclination to nest and be dominated, I am faced with a longing for both worlds.
I have found the best outlet for this exploration is in my art, where I am free to search and document that quest. My current work is a negotiation between the lived experience of gender and the performance of it—a documentation of my personal searching and my relationship with my outer world. It is intimate, public, and necessary.
Society has constructed boxes in which we must function, boxes so firmly in place that many of us develop inherent beliefs about who we are based on the frames we exist in. This bondage of self is what perpetuates the roles we play and what keeps the boxes in place. We are as much victims of our harsh, corrupted society as we are of our selves. This bondage of self is what drives me to make art: I am finding freedom within the constraints.
The photo booth becomes a microcosm for the boxes I experience daily: the four walls of my bedroom, the frame around my mirror, the role I am expected to play as a woman in the street, at school, at work, in bed. The constraints are intrinsic to the photo booth, inescapable, definite. Four dollars for a token, four shots, the strip dipping in and out of the chemicals, four minutes later emerging from the booth, still wet from developing, four frames that tell a story. It has become my art to do as much as possible within these strips.
With only seconds between shots, I change costumes, backdrops, include props or leave a vacant frame. I hang from the roof of the booth, lie upside down on the floor—legs in the air, stand, kneel and sit on the adjustable stool. I paint and prop up elaborate backgrounds, painted face, bodies, friend’s bodies, and create worlds within the four walls of the booth.
This is a public art—photo booths sit in commercial spaces. There is an inherent performance and exhibition involved in the process, and this is one more boundary. The flimsy curtain between me and the proprietor is another boundary and the risk of exposure and exile becomes one more thrill.
I will step in and beyond boxes. I will question the boxes by making the frame strange, consider the frame around myself, the frame around my art, the frame I choose to hold up to the world.
Born in San Francisco and raised in New York City, Sofia Szamosi is a lifelong artist and has been working in photo booths since 2005. Szamosi is currently studying at New York University and working as a consultant in the art department of a treatment center for substance abuse.