Laura Larson

Through a Doll's Eye: Laura Larson’s Domestic Interiors

Carol Armstrong

Small photographs, of a dollhouse, several dollhouses. I wonder if I would have known, had I not been told, that that's what these were. And how I might have known: Is there something within them to suggest a view into a miniature world, a view through the glass eye of a small dark box into the apertures and appurtenances, the thresholds, passages and blockages, the slivers of luminance and drifts of cast shadow, of another small dark, compartmented box? Something to suggest spaces uninhabited except by glass-eyed, china-faced, rotted-silk personages (whom we never see), tiny simulacra of antiquated spindly-legged chairs, striped window seats, vignetted pictures on the wall, and oversized motes and clumps of dust? Something to call up the little space of temporal regress and the slight specter of girl-childhood days, mine, my mother's or grandmother's—or somebody else's entirely—and our play, not with plastic baby dolls or silicone-breasted Barbies, but with old-fashioned fetishes of times preceding our own, whole Lilliputian households, fashioned and handed down from mother to daughter in a matrilineal chain of descent, always already retro, behind the moment and backward-looking in their period style?

Some time ago—in the 'thirties, it must have been—my mother owned such a dollhouse, built by her grandfather, peopled by a Mister and Missus Spiddiock—so she named them—a pair of five-inch cloth-and-china dolls clothed in tiny nineteenth-century garments sewn by her grandmother Abigail, and furnished with miniscule replicas—piano and chairs and four-poster beds and grandfather clock (with a man's pocket-watch for a face)—carved by the same diminutive grandmother, of the Victorian furniture in her house, some of which had also been carved by her. I remember seeing this dollhouse in the attic, pierced by window-refracted light and the dusty glimmer of old objects, overlooking the hospitable gray trunk and dull green leaves of an avocado tree of my five-foot grandmother Isabelle's house, the south California house of my tall mother's girlhood and of my occasional visitation, this attic that was the site, for me, of childhood sleep-overs, morning rummaging and afternoon time-travel, when I was small.

Perhaps I would have known from the quality of the photographs' detail, for there is something odd about it. The prints I have seen are appropriately small-sized (all but one of them about 5 x 3 1/2 inches), and vertical to match the door-jambed, stairwelled, windowed, and curtained spaces they enframe. It happens I like small photographs—I like the small album size and miniature effect of certain old snaps, and I used to print photographs of my own square and small, so that you had to look closely into them as if they were little boxes, to see what secrets they had to show and tell. But being small is part of the logic of Laura Larson's Domestic Interiors. Blown up they would yield no more detail, and they would not convey the sense of a miniature realm that they do now—and yet one peers into them wanting to see more, thinking that one would if one had more square inches of print surface to peruse. The wanting to see more is a condition, a function—and perhaps a cause—of the photographic. But it is somehow exacerbated here, by the smallness and darkness of these Domestic Interiors, and by the narrowness of their range of in- and out-of-focus. The frustration of that wanting is integral, as well, to photographic experience, for one never can see more than is given in the surface of the print, and the peering harder, up close, loop-aided, fingertips rubbing the smooth plane of the photograph, merely yields the glossy, banal-magic matrix of tiny silver grains of which it is made.

While contemplating these images, a shaft of light from my normal-sized window fell upon Open Door, happening to glance so that its sharp edge lay flush with the needle of white illumination traced beneath the miniature door, while the rest of that wedge of accidental light diffused dark floor and dim door in the blind shine of white paper. In that moment, the essential photographic-ness of these miniature pictures was highlighted: something to do with the relationship between light and memory, large windows and small, the relay of seeking touch and unseeing sight—and the desire for and failure of detail. The bafflement of the close-up, squinting gaze is more pronounced, more poignant than usual here, where the details are minimal, even when the focus is precise and the lines are finely-etched: as in the panels and molded cornice of Open Door, the curled metallic edge of Mirror, the stripes of Chaise and the panes of Window (not to mention the fringing of its gauze curtain—I have seen such loose-sewn, unraveled, three-inch bits of gossamer cloth before, it seems to me: the Thumbelina drapes of my mother's dollhouse, or was it a tiny petticoat?)—the white-painted railing of Staircase, and the picket fence glimpsed beyond the half-open front door to Home.

The peculiarity of these dollhouse details is signaled by one image that stands out from the series, for its even smaller size (its minute dimensions are about half that of the rest), its out-of-focus, tilted framing, and the sudden, unexplained trauma that it represents: I speak of the ceramic Disaster, the punctum of the series, in which an earthquake of pygmy proportions appears to have occurred (or perhaps just a paroxysm of gleeful smashing, for its own sake, for the sheer pleasure of destruction: I've seen my sons do that, and flashing to mind come tantrums of my own), resulting in the brief devastation of all this dwarfed domestic order. At the same time that Disaster pictures even smaller objects than the rest of Larson's domestic realm, they are larger than their companions, however, in relation to the smaller rectangle of the print, and yet barely legible at all—thus foregrounding, simultaneously, the quandary of readable detail and the riddle of relative size—if not the sheer proximity, at once physical and metaphorical, at the level of index and idea, of the camera's glass eye to the doll's microscopic domain. For Disaster shows how near the camera must have been, on a level with its objects and their spaces, bridging the liminal area between the focused and the unfocused, the optical and the haptical, between the craving to see everything and see it up close (see it so close, in this instance, that one cannot see it anymore) which is inherent to the photograph, and the wish to hold a world in one's hands, clasp one's fingers around it, which is intrinsic to the dollhouse. Both desires hinge on a will to have—to own and to know—but here the thin line between owning and knowing and mastering—or rather mistressing—by ordering and arranging, and dominion by destruction is also blurred, all within the safe, small raum of domestic space, and the short, interior circuit of eye and hand.

Some of the dollhouse's contents, dispersed since my grandmother's death, made their way into my mother's house in Arizona, such as the music box piano that used to decorate her piano top, while one or two pieces wound up in my possession—the much-decayed Mrs. Spiddiock has come to rest and gather dust, minus her mate (I don't know what happened to him), in the chintz lap of a larger, china-headed, prairie-gowned female doll of the same vintage and same line of ancestral descent—this one was never named—next to photographs of my husband and myself and of my two boys, atop a green-repainted, glassed-in bookcase scrounged and hauled from my dead father-in-law's north Jersey house, presently in my bedroom, further south in the same state. I do not know what became of the dollhouse that housed Mrs. Spiddiock and her furnishings: is it empty now, or destroyed, consigned to the rubbish heap of family history?

Effects of miniaturization, of course, are always part and parcel of the “faerie picture" that is the photograph, which, like reflections caught small and distended on the sides of wine glasses, or suspended in windowpanes, or glimmering in the facets of gems, or hovering like tiny ghosts over the glassy pupils of pictured human eyes (duplicating what happens, unseen and upside-down, in the darkened backs of retinas and cameras too), automatically diminishes what it traces and doubles. But miniaturization is what Larson's photographs are about, and in some way one gleans that fact from within their reduced rectangles and the attenuated world(s) they put on offer, as they play on the lingering ties between the peep-box and the camera obscura. What is it, they seem to ask, about miniature things— and in particular, about miniature facsimiles, reproductions, and representations that shrink what they reproduce and represent from feet to inches and fractions of inches? Why do we fabulize the bug's-eye view of things of thumb-sized magnitude? For we surely do: that is in large measure, the fascination of dollhouses (even more than the dolls they house), and of photographs too, each equally mute and resistant to the stories we insistently make of them, each equally empty and absent of the referents they call up. They are as silent and spectrally absent, and yet resonant, as the invisible four-poster bed whose evocative shadow is traced in a square and double line on the corner of Open Door, aligned with the lit, framed edge of the picture within the picture (another square within a rectangle) on the wall right over the darkened, noticeably empty little chair that casts its own ephemeral shadow, marked by its own slight “L" of light, which all but disappears into the shade which embraces it, and which produces a shutter-speed click of vague, light-splintered recollection. And likewise, how is it that the miniature entangles memory, as it does? It did so for me, sending me from the desk before my window in New Jersey in a Proustian spin back to moments past, to other places, to my own personal history and the particular happenstance of family trajectories, and to questions about the dispersal and disposal of things produced and possessed well before me. And in particular, when miniaturization amounts to the microcosm of the dollhouse, intimate and uncanny, what do we make of its involvement in the mnemonic space of the matrilineal?

Those are the enigmas posed, Sphinx-like, by Domestic Interiors. As the interior play of remembrance was marked, for Proust, by domestics—by grandmothers, mothers, and nannies—so Barthes has intimated a deep connection between the photographic and the maternal. Camera Lucida—by some accounts it is simply a memoir, and certainly by any reckoning the book represents an act of mourning, whose centerpiece is the ever absent photograph, taken long before Barthes was born, of his dead mother as a child—aligns the melancholia and nostalgia, and above all the subjective poignancy of the photograph, its spurring of memory and its puncturing by the past, with the rupturing of the Father's Law of representation—the break with patrilineal legacy, and with it the Oedipal order of the family romance, but also, more photographically, the breaching and fissuring of the patriarchal order of the sign, of its field of cultural information, and its narrative of authorial control. Larson's Domestic Interiors zoom in and scale down on that—somewhat atavistic—understanding of the photograph, it seems to me, making it small and specific, and enwombing it in the finger-scaled domesticity and precisely carved concision of the dollhouse, with its dark insides and openings, its emptinesses and its shadowy ghosts, its retrogressive details, and its abrupt little untold disasters: something happened here, once. Something shattering, of infinitesimal significance.

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