Girlhood on parade: Michelle Gemma’s haunting images chronicle a Mystic girl’s maturation into womanhood
In 1999, 12-year-old Morgan Vail was walking her dog in downtown Mystic. Pausing for traffic, she found herself next to another pedestrian. It was local fine arts photographer Michelle Gemma. The pair spoke casually, and Gemma, then 31 and well established in Mystic’s burgeoning arts community, realized Vail was a neighbor.
Soon after, they ran into one another outside a health food store and Gemma, who was and is influenced by photographer Sally Mann’s renowned collection “At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women,” impulsively asked if Vail would model for a photo shoot.
On Dec. 14, almost a quarter-century later, Gemma will celebrate the publication of “Portrait of Morgan — A Photographer’s Memoir” with a launch party at the Lamplighter Trading Company in Mystic.
Obviously, Vail agreed to that first session, and what evolved was an artistic dynamic that turned into friendship. They started with occasional photo shoots that ultimately and thematically captured a timeline of the model’s maturation and developmental levels of personality, artistic impulse and vision.
The photoshoots are ongoing, but “Portrait of Morgan,” a gorgeous and hauntingly evocative book contains 81 black and white images divided into chronological “chapters” of photos of Vail from ages 12 through 19 and then, after a period when the model lived out of state, from 26 through 31.
Looking at the work, one immediately recognizes ongoing costumes, props and settings motifs. Some of the images fall into the category of portraiture; others place Vail in a specific setting or outfit wherein she improvises or reacts to suggested instructions from Gemma.
At first, Gemma steered these components with advance calculation, but over time it became a more collaborative and even intuitive process. Throughout the book, Vail’s persona and charisma — at various times whimsical, somber, shy, introspective, teasing, amused — are etched with the sort of nostalgic permanence one associates with door frame pencil marks chronicling a child’s growth over a period of years.
Education of a photographer
As suggestive as they are of the model’s maturation into womanhood — Vail is now a professional visual artist — the photos likewise testify to Gemma’s own instincts and education as a photographer.
Gemma has been an integral member of a renowned, ebbing and flowing but ongoing Mystic arts collective that erupted into existence in the 1990s and includes musicians, writers, painters and all manners of creative folk. Many of its members still live in Mystic and can’t imagine being elsewhere.
Gemma, for example, now owns and operates a longtime family business, the Mystic Army Navy Store. Her husband, Rich Freitas, is a drummer (17 Relics, Portersville) and a solo recording artist who works at the popular record shop Mystic Disc. They’ve lived in the same Mystic house near the Seaport since 1996,
Though Gemma received a bachelor degree in business at the University of Connecticut, she had an epiphanic experience after impulsively taking a camera to Scotland in 1992 to record a vacation. After that, and through a mostly autodidactic approach, she developed her artistic technique and vision. Inspirations include architecture, Greek mythology, Mystic itself, and a predilection for dreamy, Gothic atmosphere. Her favorite photographers include Mann, Helmut Newton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Richard Avedon and, in particular, the late, internationally known and Stonington Borough-based photographer Rollie McKenna, whose portraits of famous literary figures are renowned.
While still working with Vail and pursuing a number of other other photographic projects, Gemma also landed a job as an archivist for McKenna for a few years starting in 1996. She called the experience transformative. Through that association, Gemma helped transfer all of McKenna’s Stonington-generated work to the Stonington Historical Society’s Woolworth Library.
From solo show to book publication
During that period, in the fall of 2005, Gemma selected 29 images from the ongoing Vail sessions for a solo exhibit called “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl” at Three Rivers Community College.
It wasn’t until Gemma worked as part of the Rollie McKenna Project Committee to compile a book on the titular photographer’s Stonington-based work — and after she and Vail resumed their own sessions — that the idea of a “Morgan” book occurred to her. Starting in 2021, Gemma gathered a team of eight trusted friends to help her winnow over 1,300 images to a manageable format. After over three months of weekly sessions, and upon completion of an eloquent author’s introduction, “Portrait of Morgan” is completed and out from Stitch in Time Publications.
Over the past few weeks, speaking first from behind the checkout counter at Mystic Army Navy Store and later in various emails, Gemma talked about the book and its backstory. Here are excerpts from those conversations, edited for space and clarity.
Q: Your photographs infuse spectral and trance-like qualities nonetheless tethered to reality and space. How have those qualities evolved within the concept of the “Morgan” project over almost a quarter-century? What is it about Morgan that allowed this project to flourish?
A: The goal was to continue photographing Morgan. Each photo shoot culminated in projecting the same cinematic dream-like recurrences and themes, so the evolution was time itself. My initial inspiration was “At Twelve,” and I met Morgan when she was 12, so that was my “This is the girl!”
Morgan has such an awareness about her; she was like a true Gen-X latchkey kid living across the street from me, and early on she just threw herself into each character that I would present to her for the photo shoot. Having taken local acting lessons with Lynn Britt of Paper Moon Productions since 11, she gravitated towards the dramatis personae in her modeling. The impulse to elevate each shoot with an increasing sophistication in location and in clothing and props was a natural outgrowth of the evolution of two artists meeting each other to produce the work at hand.
Q: Particularly in the early years, as you and Morgan became close, how did that affect the project? In any sort of older/younger friendship dynamic, I suspect the elder person has expectations or hopes for the younger. Did you allow the evolution of the relationship to continue naturally — possibly at the expense of the concept?
A: The rate of that inherent change has always seemed natural and organic. We have both gotten a lot busier in our everyday lives, and one consequence is that there are fewer shoots per year than we enjoyed 15 years ago.
In 2016, I thanked Morgan and told her how lucky I was to work with her all these years, and she said, “I’m happy to put some fuel on your creative flame. I always love seeing the world through your eyes. It’s a very unique friendship and a balanced exchange. You have always been an inspiration to me; thank you for being the kind, creative strong woman you are.”
Q: You clearly wanted to express Morgan in her natural guise, but a tonal consistency – settings, hair, apparel — provides a thematic unity. How was that all determined?
A: Consistency of style has been a grounding force for me since I picked up a camera. Every revered photographer represented an aesthetic quality all their own. This charged my photographic destiny. One of the great compliments given to me was when someone said they knew a photograph was “a Michelle Gemma.” Wow! That was my achievement realized, so this aesthetic is part of who I am — which is the Mystic art vibration that I subscribe to and is part of every photograph.
Q: How much was Morgan a part of the conceptual decisions? It seems only natural, given her participation and artistic inclination, that she’d be interested in YOUR part of the process rather than just as a subject.
A: In May of 2021, as I was selecting final images and the written introduction for the book, I sent it over to Morgan for review. This was her response:
“I giggled while reading this (as) I remember our first shoot very well and how I became more comfortable over the years, picking poses and sharing ideas and clothes. You did something for my confidence that my childhood never did. Thank you for that. What a wild and crazy life this is.”
Morgan had taken an interest early on by doing her own hair and make-up, and I credit her for helping me create the look that I sought for each shoot. She would find clothes in vintage shops that she knew that I would love, so we could use those too. I have been collecting vintage clothing and accessories for thirty years now. I have them all and I use them all the time, in different ways, and to different effect, so it never appears to be the same item.
Q: Is it possible to imagine how the “Morgan” project would have progressed if you hadn’t worked with Rollie McKenna?
A: The decision to expand the original concept of a photographic timeline, which was the “Portrait of the Young Girl as an Artist” exhibition, into book form was inspired by McKenna. I was able to witness the ease with which Rollie related to her artist friends. When you can maintain the connection over time with your subjects, it’s easy and comfortable to check in with them as the time presents.
While rereading Rollie’s autobiography, I landed on the following quote: “…as I grow older, I identify more and more with the people I have photographed over the years…” Rollie’s words continue to inspire and rejuvenate me with her enthusiasm for her work and the life of the subjects.
What: Launch party for “Portrait of Morgan: A Photographer's Memoir”
Who: MIchelle Gemma
When: 6:30-8 p.m. Dec. 14
Where: Lamplighter Trading Company, 8 Steamboat Wharf, Mystic
How much: Free, copies of the book $29.99
Also available: Mystic Army Navy, Mystic Disc, Portrait of Morgan PayPal
For more information: (860) 536-1877
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