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Poignant photos explore womanhood in the fading world of WASP culture

By Katie Booth on April 1, 2016

The term WASP, an acronym for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” originally described an elite group of families. For centuries, their ancestors maintained the cultural establishment in the U.S. They were, unofficially, the reigning social class, at home in a world closed off to, and glamorized by, outsiders. Over the last several decades, the prestige of the WASP has waned, and today, the term is weighted with a mockery of privilege, and freighted with association with Ivy league education, summer homes on Cape Cod, and country club snobbishness. Although the influence of the WASP has dwindled, echoes persist of the rigid definitions of femininity set in place by its culture.

Photographer Frances F. Denny descends from a long line of WASPs dating back to the 17th Century in New England. She grew up in the wealthy Boston suburb of Brookline, Massachusetts, a world that fit well within the sphere of WASP culture. Now, in Let Virtue Be Your Guide, an exhibition opening April 1 at Schneider Gallery in Chicago, and a forthcoming monograph published by Radius Books, Denny offers a poignant exploration of the constructs of femininity that have been passed down over many generations to the women in her family, and where she fits among them.

To be labeled WASP served as a jumping off point for Denny in examining her family’s privileged place in history, and its implications. It was a word I was familiar with but rarely used myself. But something rang true about it,” she told Women in the World. “I became interested in ‘WASP’ as a cultural category, and began photographing my relatives to try to understand it. The word carries baggage, and no doubt to some, it’s downright pejorative,” she said. “For me though, it’s a useful term. The messiness of what it connotes approaches a more truthful answer to that favorite American question of ‘what are you?’”

It’s exactly that messiness that makes Denny’s work, rife with contradiction, so impactful. In one photo, a young girl with milky skin looks complacently at the camera from a floral, pastel bedroom. In another, light falls gently onto a faded blue carpet speckled with an aged and permanent set of stains. “I became particularly aware of not making things look too pretty, like a Ralph Lauren advertisement, for example, and to instead show something threadbare, stained, or worn-away,” she said. “I looked carefully at these surfaces and these people to see past the beautiful, composed veneers.”

Hope, in the guest bedroom, Bar Harbor, ME (2012). (© Frances F. Denny, courtesy of ClampArt, NY)
Carpet stains, Bar Harbor, ME (2012). (© Frances F. Denny, courtesy of ClampArt, NY)

Beneath those serene veneers, Denny sought to learn more about the lives of the women in her family. Through written anonymous questionnaires, multiple generations of her extended family responded candidly to questions about their lives. “It’s a culture that values modesty, not talking about yourself too much, and being socially graceful. They aren’t so expressive about their feelings,” she said. Their voices are interspersed through the photobook, a testament to the rawness of emotion, family discord, and discontent existing in the undercurrent of a seemingly idyllic lifestyle. In one such response, a female relative writes of her parents:

“As a couple, my parents were non-demonstrative, not prone to smooching or touching. Mummy was stoic in the face of pain, silent in grief or loss. Daddy was legendary for being unemotional. As a child I longed for them to soften, and once, one evening on the farm….we clamored for Daddy to lift Mummy up….Like she was a bride or a maiden. So, standing in the middle of the living room at Palmerstone, he lifted her into his arms. He didn’t hold her for a long time, but he held her and her long legs draped over one arm and her arms wrapped around his neck. It wasn’t entirely satisfactory to me, but I have never forgotten it. It was the most romantic thing I had seen them do.”

“She had this impression of how something was supposed to be, but found the reality to be far from what she had imagined it ‘should’ be,” said Denny. “That continual falling short of expectations is a theme throughout the work.”

In all, the stories and women represented in Let Virtue Be Your Guide are less portraits of individuals, and more a reflection of Denny herself. “The photographs are personal to me and my own interior struggles, much more than a documentation of facts about specific family members or WASP culture on the whole,” she said. “It’s about my own issues with propriety, modesty, beauty, and ambition. And in that way I’m grateful to the people in my series because I’m talking much more about myself than them.”

Central to the project, and a major source of inspiration, was Denny’s mother. “She herself is this interesting paradox because she comes from this world, but also subverts it in her own ways. She totally understands what I’m doing with the series. I’m grateful to her because she allows me to tell this story the way that I see it,” she said. Indeed, many of the women that Denny photographed convey a paradox; far from the stereotypically put-together image of a WASP, they seem both at home in their domestic surroundings and at odds with them.

The photo below shows a cousin seated in a plastic lawn chair, glaring into the sun. “This picture reminds me of those paintings of perfectly turned-out aristocratic women with their lap dogs. But here, her hair is disheveled, she’s barefoot, the light is harsh, and her dog is sort of melting into her lap,” said Denny. “I’m trying to show a divergence among multiple generations, and examine how things are kind of unfurling and loosening.”

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Lali, Woods Hole, ME (2013). (© Frances F. Denny, courtesy of ClampArt, NY)

Thanks to a detailed, annotated family tree compiled by her father, Denny has learned a lot about those who precede her. The story of her family’s settlement in New England begins aboard the Mayflower, when one of her ancestors, John Howland, arrived at what is now Massachusetts from England. “Legend has it that he fell off the boat at one point during the voyage, grabbed ahold of a line that was trailing behind the boat, and pulled himself back on board,” Denny said. It was on the heels of that perilous voyage that Denny’s family established a legacy of influence and achievement.

Among the many anecdotes and accomplishments listed of her forefathers, however, Denny noticed a startling absence on her family tree: “The women’s entries are almost all blank, so it feels like there’s this silence on the tree, where all the men’s branches are very heavy, and bearing all this fruit, while the women’s branches are skeletal,” she said.

Aside from the number of children each woman gave birth to, little else was written about them. “Until very recently, as a woman in my family you were not expected to do much of anything but maintain a social calendar and bear children,” Denny said. “Now, there are extraordinary women in my family, on both sides — I am the least impressive of them! I think our ancestors would be stunned.”

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My mother, Salem cemetery, Salem, MA (2012). (© Frances F. Denny, courtesy of ClampArt, NY)

With Denny’s inquiries into her origins have come a number of difficult truths. Scattered along the branches of her family tree are men like Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island, government officials, founders of academic institutions, and slaveholders alike.  In the photo above, her mother stands at a memorial in Salem, Massachusetts for the men and women prosecuted during the Salem Witch Trials. She’s related, ironically, to one of the main judges in the Salem Witch Trials and one of the women who was accused of witchcraft during that time. “For me this moment captures two sides of a particular moment in history. It’s a strange place to find yourself literally relating to both the persecuted and the persecutors,” she said.

But Denny is straightforward and unflinching in acknowledging those contradictions. “Making this work has been a way to confront the fact that I come from a long line of economic and social privilege, and to grapple with the metaphorical inheritance that entails. Specifically, I’m looking at the legacy of a certain kind of femininity defined by that cultural elite,” she said. “Things have loosened a lot in the last several decades. Our mothers grew up in a different world than our grandmothers, of course, but there are lasting effects of growing up in a society where women were not expected to endeavor to accomplish much beyond their domestic duties.”

Frances F. Denny: Let Virtue Be Your Guide will be on view at Schneider Gallery in Chicago through May 31, 2016. A limited number of copies of the photobook will be available for purchase at the opening. The photobook will be published by Radius Books on May 1, 2016. 

This conversation has been edited.