Photographer Marjorie Salvaterra Evokes the Complexities of Womanhood

The poser.

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  • Written by
    Hadley Hall Meares
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    "When The Universe Has A Bigger Plan For Your Life" from Marjorie’s HER series

When asked about the biggest compliment her artwork has received, photographer Marjorie Salvaterra laughs. “Someone called my work Irving Penn on acid,” she says, her charming, lilting voice tinkling in the air.

“Him,” from the HER series.

Marjorie’s whimsical personality and petite stature belie a certain fierceness that she possesses—a mix of rage and joy that is expressed in her thought-provoking, sometimes astounding, sometimes darkly glamorous, photos of women. Her subjects—of all ages—are culled from her walks of life. They are fellow artists, professionals, wives, mothers, friends and daughters of friends. They pose in surreal settings, the images evoking the complexities of womanhood. Often they are naked.

“You’d be surprised at who would pose completely naked—even the most conservative of women. It’s hard not to get swept up in the moment,” says Marjorie.

With some photos, the more you look the more you see. Some are adorned with real butterflies. Others have something subtle etched on them. On one, there’s a set of angel’s wings. On another there are bees. At the bottom, Marjorie names each piece. One is “Your feelings are your feelings.” Another is “Rejection is protection.”

“You are not a tree,” from the photographer’s DEAR MARJORIE series. “This is about my favorite life lessons.”

Originally from Missouri, Marjorie lives in Encino with her husband, a writer, and two high school-age children (one is 2020 VB Top Teen Oliver Salvaterra). She often uses Valley locations for impromptu shoots, including a cornfield, that she and her friends snuck onto and then the property owner showed up.

“We got amazing photos and just as I was releasing the women, this guy locks the gates—locking my set builder, Charles, inside. I gave my cameras to my friend and told her to leave. The guy started yelling at Charles, and the remaining women came running to me: ‘He’s got Charles!’ Then he came to me and said I owed 500 bucks to release Charles!”

Marjorie somehow got Charles freed without making any payment. “We called a police friend, who said that it was kidnapping for ransom, and after a few calls where the guy threatened me, our friend called him and laid down the law. But the moral of the story is, I got the photo!”

After several years working as a writer, Marjorie picked up a camera while working on a film set. She started taking portraits and got so much positive feedback from the director and crew that she decided to take a class—and got hooked. Regarding her choice to shoot women in highly conceived settings that deliver strong messages, Marjorie says it has become an important part of her growth—not just as an artist, but as a human being.

“Push” from Marjorie’s series ICE, which is about “boundaries and self-preservation; it is important that we pass these lessons on to our daughters.”

“I believe I really found my niche when I started making work about my own life,” she says. “As women we have to fill the roles of wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, self—and then you have to look like you’ve got it all together. I was going through a time when I definitely didn’t have it all together and was faking as best as I could. Then the idea that one drop of water would absolutely sink me popped into my head and along with it came the photo of ‘The Weight Of Water 1.’”

The stunning photo—showing a group of weary-looking, bewigged women standing along the surfline—evokes the unique kinship of uncommon women, weighted by society’s expectations.

For Marjorie, her photo series HER—complied in the 2016 book HER: MEDITATIONS ON BEING FEMALE, which includes a forward by writer Roxane Gay—was a true turning point in her artistic evolution. “Funny enough, everything I felt I was missing all came to me when I created my HER series,” she says. “I was feeling sort of lonely and missing of a village, and when I reached out to my friends to be in my photos, they didn’t question it but rather showed up. They stood in the ocean at 6 a.m. one February morning, lay in the grass naked, and went running across major intersections in crazy wigs, bras and girdles.”

“Faith” from Marjorie’s HER series.

Marjorie’s work is currently on view (by appointment since COVID) at Ralph Pucci International in LA. The show, DEAR MARJORIE, includes “You Are Not A Tree,” in which a woman is wrapped around a tree as colorful, real butterflies fly out the top, and “Don’t Jump Ship Before The Miracle,” which is covered in Swarovski crystals to look like it’s snowing.

With shoots currently on hold, Marjorie is getting her creative ya-yas out by searching for butterflies online. “I’ve been using quarantine to bedazzle, search the world for beautiful butterflies, and come up with new pieces that I can shoot as soon as we can be around other humans!” she says. In an age of apartness, her photos are poignant reminders of what it means to be together.

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