New Eden: The Life and Work of Isabelle Raymond is an ongoing installation project that presents a lost (fictional) history to be “discovered” by the installation’s audience. Exploring photography’s power to persuade, I invented the character of Isabelle Raymond, a nineteenth-century, cross-dressing female photographer, and her male model, M. Claudet, whom she photographs in poses traditionally reserved for the female nude. I assume her persona both before and behind the camera, creating the seemingly antique faded Victorian photographs attributed to her. Isabelle’s iconoclastic portrayals critique both ancient and Victorian mythologies of the gender and the body. Focusing on the cultural ideals of an earlier era, the images and installation explore how certain preconceptions and assumptions are perpetuated through visual and literary traditions and how those conventions influence our understanding of history, gender and race and self-identity still today.

The viewers “discover” Isabelle’s photographs in two separate contexts—The Museum and The Back Room. The public space of the Museum holds an exhibition of the photographer’s images in a well-lit gallery, complete with antique frames and curatorial signage and interpretive labels that offer an “official” history for the fictional photographer. In contrast to the museum setting, The Back Room—a darkened room lit by only 2 oil lamps—allows the viewer to enter what appears to be a private domestic space inside an abandoned home. Here viewers can touch and interact with the images inside an antique photo album, look through a stereoscope to view a three-dimensional image of a male Venus or rummage through various drawers to find images that upset traditional assumptions about nineteenth-century men and women. The viewers become participants in the discovery of a Victorian world gone awry: complete with a racially diverse group of female artists who paint and sculpt the male nude and other unruly women who defy the Victorian model of femininity. The physical act of handling the photographs endows the fiction with a kind of tangible authenticity and believable reality and persuades the viewers to suspend their disbelief, and experience —for a moment—the fiction to be “real.” Fictive documents such as letters, newspaper clippings or criminal identification cards also help build the biographies of Raymond and Claudet. Suzy Gablik observes that the museum is not a “neutral zone” and that the authority of its institution influences how the work inside its walls will be received. The Bride Wore Trousers appropriates and subverts the conventions of museum display, western mythology and the history of art with the additional space of The Back Room to create a kind of alternative archive from which to reconsider not only the past but the present and future—to examine the biases, assumptions and stereotypes that still influence us today.

What if such a photographer had existed, but her work had been excluded from the official historical record because of her gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic class or beliefs? The contributions of creative and unconventional women like Rosa Bonheur, Alice Austen, and Claude Cahun have survived, but the voices of countless men and women have more often been written out of history—silenced and forgotten and dismissed as irrelevant. The Bride Wore Trousers reminds us of the often forgotten tradition of rebellion amid historical mythologies that perpetuate a more conservative cultural climate. History is not stagnant, but always in process as new artifacts and evidence are discovered and future generations reexamine the past from new perspectives. Exploring the selective and problematic nature of history, The Bride Wore Trousers offers this fictional biography—perhaps very much like one yet to be found—with the hope of stimulating questions about the existing narratives that dominate our consciousness and examine our role in perpetuating them. As time marches on, how do outmoded sexual and social codes persist as means to manage our perceptions, behavior and identities? New Eden asks us to consider the messages imbedded not only in the past, but in our contemporary culture as well, and seeks the possibilities for expanding human understanding and experience— beyond the limitations of the mythologized past.




new eden

The Bride Wore Trousers (exhibition brochure)
Katy McCormick
Gallery 44, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Toronto, 2001
view catalog   The Bride Wore Trousers: The Life and Work of Isabelle Raymond
essay in The Body Aesthetic ed. Tobin Siebers
The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2000
view catalog