Close to You: The Yvonne Todd Story

Yvonne Todd: Creamy Psychology (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2014).


“Long ago and oh so far away,” Karen Carpenter sings. Her voice swells, fills the song with far more longing than the lyrics contain. She sounds so ‘sweet and pure’, but she’s not really here; it’s just YouTube. Karen Carpenter died of heart failure on 4 February 1983 due to complications from anorexia nervosa. She was pronounced dead at Downey Community Hospital, near her parents’ home in California. She died the day her divorce was due to be finalised. Thirty-two years old and at her lightest weighing just eighty pounds, Karen Carpenter remains anorexia nervosa’s first and biggest superstar.

Long ago but not so far away, Yvonne Todd worked for a distributor of bicycle parts on Auckland’s North Shore. She was employed as an administrative assistant from 1991 to 1992. Eighteen years old, it was her first job after high school and she felt out of sorts, disconnected from her self. During this period, Todd recalls looking forward to getting home after work and watching The Karen Carpenter Story, the 1989 American made-for-TV movie produced by Richard Carpenter.

Quaalude Eyes is a photograph of a satellite dish in profile, like a cornea turned towards the sky. Judge of the inaugural Walters prize, Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, said Todd’s image of the manmade satellite “irritated him”. Portraits of young women, a pale pink rose, a manicured female hand, Quaalude Eyes is the only photograph in Todd’s prize-winning 2001 Asthma & Eczema exhibition that isn’t explicitly feminine. She took the photograph at the Warkworth Satellite Earth Station, just outside Auckland. The satellite is an emblem of twentieth-century communication. The uplink dish is aimed into deep space; signals transmitted on one frequency are translated and retransmitted back to earth on another – calling occupants of interplanetary craft.

“In your mind you have capacities you know, to telepath messages through the vast unknown,” Karen Carpenter sings.

In the 1989 biopic, actor Mitchell Anderson plays Richard Carpenter basking in the TV’s midnight glow, popping Quaaludes to help him sleep. ‘Ludes’ are a downer. The side effects include distorted vision. The real-life Richard Carpenter was allegedly a controlling presence behind the scenes. Actress Cynthia Gibb was expected to lose weight and wear Karen’s original clothing to play the part. Richard also requested numerous script changes to soften the role of their mother, Agnes. Only six years after Karen’s death, it’s not surprising the family wanted control over the portrayal of her anorexia. Sickness and specialness, melodrama and mollycoddling, The Karen Carpenter Story transmits signals on one frequency.

Yvonne Todd dishes them up on another. “I wanted to know what I would like as an anorexic,” she said. She produced her first anorexic self-portrait for The Book of Martha (2003). The exhibition featured eight disparate photographs and a miniature sculpture of an iron lung. The viewer constructs a narrative of disease using the Kuleshov Effect. Martha is a caustic image that evokes harsh scratching, especially when paired with Prell (2003), a photograph of an ice skate cut off at the shin. Prell, in turn, echoes the rotating ice skate in the TV advertisement for the household cleaner Jif. Todd’s Martha stands in a garden, like a hangman come loose from the noose, her illness an open book.

Resulta (2004) is the prognosis defined. Todd hung a gown over a coat hanger, photographed it, then doctored her head onto the gown using Photoshop. The windswept Resulta laps the lawn in a long-sleeved velour robe. Her outfit was inspired by an article Todd once read about an American company specialising in ‘death wear’. The setting is innocuous, neither sweet nor sour. Todd chose outdoor environments to ground her anorexics. Resulta was photographed on the shores of Lake Pupuke, near the hospital where Todd was born. And Springtime (2006) has already sprung. An overgrown woman with an overbite sits on a swing, her polka-dot dress well past its use-by date.

The model in Springtime is actually a cousin “whose jawline I trimmed on Photoshop to create a more ghoulish effect,” Todd said. The sitters in her early photographs are often family members and friends. After Todd won the Walters Prize in 2002, her achievement was framed in relation to her North Shore upbringing. The Sunday Star Times ran the headline: ‘An Underachieving Rose Blooms’. Todd’s brief tenure as a wedding photographer and waitress at an Auckland strip club heightened the dramatic appeal of her own narrative arc.

Yet Todd’s portraiture unleashes our hunger for autobiography, even when the story on offer is not genuine. Hazel The Forbidden (2007) is a dodgy image from The Lamb’s Book of Life. Is young Hazel off her rocker? She sits in a wooden rocking chair wearing a wig, glasses and a long mumsy nightgown. Hazel (another one of Todd’s cousins) cradles a teddy bear. The stage is set for an elaborate lie.

Todd’s photographs of young women assert the drama of the self, but which self? Todd remembers watching Sally Fields in Sybil, the influential 1978 TV biopic. Sybil was the ‘true story’ of a woman who suffered from dissociative identity disorder as a result of child abuse at the hands of her mother. Sybil allegedly developed sixteen personalities. However, Sybil’s biography was based on the analysis of her psychiatrist, Cornelia Wilbur, who is now suspected of exaggerating for financial gain. An unhappy childhood can be a useful conceit, especially in popular entertainment. Todd and her cousin used to reenact the enema scene from Sybil with a Barbie Doll.

“Just like me, they long to be close to you,” Karen Carpenter sings.

Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is also staged by Barbie dolls. Richard Carpenter objected to Haynes’s unauthorised biopic, yet the films have similarities. In each, Karen’s short-lived marriage fades out to the Carpenters’ song This Masquerade. Her anorexia is depicted as a byproduct of matriarchal oppression: a recurring trope. In Haynes’s film, the scene in which twenty-five-year-old Karen tries to leave home takes place at the dinner table. After the Carpenters’ harmonising vocals made them successful, Karen and Richard moved into two apartment buildings in nearby Downey. They renamed the apartments Only Just Begun and Close to You.

American author Mary Gaitskill writes of Karen:

When she shut herself up in her closet and starved herself to death, people were shocked. But starvation was in her voice all along. That was the poignancy of it. A sweet voice locked in a dark place, but focused entirely on the tiny strip of light coming under the door.[1]

In Todd’s case, anorexia is symptomatic: she’s not really starving. Martha, Resulta and Springtime enact a dark wish fulfilment. Each image encapsulates the allure of the unauthorised biography. Todd is focused on the closet rather than the tiny strip of light coming under the door. Her anorexics embody a cultural stereotype. The disease increased markedly in young white Western women from the sixties onwards. “It rarely, if ever, affects poor people and has not been described in under privileged countries,” said Dr Hilde Bruch.

Dr Bruch’s 1978 bestseller The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa was the first book to promote wider understanding of the illness, supported by case studies.[2] In her introduction, Bruch speculated that the rise of anorexia could be linked to the impact of TV and the greater social freedoms available to women. “Growing girls can experience this liberation as a demand and feel they have to do something outstanding.” The excessive drive to thinness becomes an obsession and an achievement. “There is something exhibitionistic about anorexia, though few girls will admit it at first,” Bruch said.

The story of anorexia nervosa is now well thumbed. Karen Carpenter’s death helped publicise awareness of eating disorders. The shelves of Internet bookstores are replete with biographies and autobiographies about the struggle to overcome them, and people can now share and rate their reading experiences online. Todd remembers enjoying Anne Snyder’s novel Goodbye, Paper Doll (1980) when she was twelve years old. “It was about a girl called Rosemary who stopped eating to lose a bit of weight and ended up becoming a shrivelled anorexic husk.” Thinness is a talent anyone, if devout, can access. “I highly recommend this little paperback to anyone, especially my fellow starvelings out there … Goodbye, Paper Doll is a familiar story … an easy read, so go for it! Devour it! Especially if it’s all you’ll eat today,” writes one satisfied Amazon customer.

Pill-popping dolls, the weird science of food in advertising imagery, the sad back-stories of stymied heroines – Todd’s art is in thrall to the lives of the lost, the women starving in a world of plenty.

Her photographs capture the enigma inside the golden cage. Christina Onassis, daughter of a shipping magnet, dead in the tub, aged thirty-seven. Joan Kroc, wife of Ray, founder of McDonalds. The sugar-cube swinging January (2006): a character from Jacqueline Susann’s novel Once is Not Enough (1973). Todd’s models wear outfits once owned by faded celebrities: Whitney Huston, Liza Minnelli. And Todd is the controlling producer behind the scenes of the Vagrants’ Reception Theatre (2005).

A.S. Byatt writes:

Biographies are no longer written to explain or explore the greatness of the great. They redress balances, explore secret weaknesses, demolish legends. There are biographies of the women in the lives of ‘great’ men written in part to cut those men down to size.[3]

Homage to Dr Spackman (2004) is a case in point. Seven black candles are reflected in a mirror, offset by one diet pill. The candles have been blown out, but the hostile wishes linger. From 1997 to 2001, Dr Spackman prescribed Todd a Phentermine-based diet pill called Umine. “They came in various strengths, depending on how fat you were. I started on the softest version, the red ones, then got upgraded. The green ones, the second weakest, were like speed. I stopped eating and stayed awake totally wired.”

Todd’s attention to detail is obsessive. She matches the formal restraint and fanaticism of a calorie counter. Her still lifes of food and pharmaceuticals examine our appetites from the outside in. For Carrot and Egg (2006), she applied the ‘diffuse glow’ and ‘lens flare’ filters in Photoshop. Presented in a found frame, Todd’s carrots and eggs are as sentimental as the Carpenters’ album covers. The average egg = 74 calories; a 100-gram carrot = 41 calories. Big egg and little egg appear as siblings trapped inside a halo.

Dr Hilde Bruch said: “Therapeutic work with these girls is admittedly difficult, slow, and at times exasperating. In a way they have to build up a new genuine personality after all the years of faked existence.”

Milk Study (2012) could be a portrait of Karen Carpenter’s last supper, minus the laxatives. Her autopsy revealed she had swallowed ipecac syrup, an emetic used to induce vomiting. Her contralto vocal range is now synonymous with her disease. In Milk Study, a near-empty glass of milk, pea, and tiny shell form a stark tableau. The photograph is a hymn to the piety of the ultra-thin. The glass weighed down by the pea and the shell’s turret.

Dr Bruch said: “There is nothing more rewarding than seeing these narrow, rigid, isolated creatures change into warm, spontaneous human beings with a wide range of interests and an active participation in life.”

Becky Henry, life coach and founder of the Hope Network for families living with eating disorders, retaliated: “If you want to blame your mother for your eating disorder, and read unscientific, outdated theories about eating disorders, then this is the book for you.” Henry gave The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa one star on the book review site Goodreads in 2013.

Todd’s trinity of anorexic portraits Martha, Resulta and Springtime loosen the latch on the golden cage. Current research suggests connections between the mind of a person with anorexia and the mind of a person with autism. Both conditions exhibit a strong interest in systems, including a fascination for detail, a tendency to focus on oneself, inflexible behaviours, and rigid attitudes. Scientific knowledge and ideological frameworks are always shifting, but our biographies continue to bind us.

In Todd’s Honest Places (2014), a beautiful brunette wearing a long 1970s-style maxi dress stands next to a full-size model of a skeleton. A female voiceover calls out the technical names of bones: “First rib. Clavicle. Manubrium.” Todd’s aunt, a Dutch psychotherapist, supplied the voice over for this moving-image work. The brunette holds a pointer but does not use it. She’s learning by rote. She stands stock still, as though posing for a photographic portrait. Occasionally her dress sways; she blinks and the hand holding the pointer wavers.

[1] Mary Gaitskill, Veronica (New York: Pantheon Books, 2005).

[2] Hilde Bruch, The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).

[3] A.S. Byatt, ‘An Artificial Paradise: Baudelaire in Chains’, The Guardian, 21 February 2004.

image: Yvonne Todd, Milk Study, 2012.