The bedroom is one of the most private, protected enclaves of a home, where people are at their most vulnerable. And an extraordinary project by artist Barbara Peacock is showcasing the beauty of that vulnerability by photographing people across America at rest in their bedrooms.
The formula for Peacock’s photos is deceptively simple:
Take pictures of people in the place where they sleep, whether that’s a bedroom, a trailer, a tent, or on the street. But the richness of the images comes from Peacock’s well-trained eye for detail and personal details.
The photographs are a compromise between finding the perfect composition and finding the all-important “authenticity of the subject.”
Peacock says that she “[helps] with the placement and gesture of their bodies for the best composition, and to utilize the existing quality of light,” but that from there, “I try to be a fly on the wall and wait for a poignant moment.”
Peacock has made it her mission to depict “ordinary, working-class Americans” from coast to coast. She cites Walker Evans, the Depression-era photojournalist who rose to fame documenting extreme poverty in the American south, as an inspiration for her work. But her focus isn’t social struggle; she wants to get a sense of these people as individuals. “I want to convey that within this careful and respectful glimpse of another’s life there lies a curiosity that we have about each other and the way we live our lives, no matter how disparate,” she told Getty.
When asked where she got the idea for the project, Peacock recalls an ordinary day in her own home. “My husband was sprawled out on the bed with his elaborate snore mask, his bare middle-aged belly, polka dotted underwear and black socks, left on from the evening’s night out. I stood there a moment and imagined how I might appear next to him, with my eye mask, tank top, and signature funky socks. I chuckled, and as I got back into bed I started thinking about people in their private dwellings and what can be said about us, as a people, in a single frame.”
Each image is paired with a short quote from the people in it, allowing the subject to speak for themselves. Often, the simplest statements are the most poignant; Pepere, shot in Jay, Maine, says simply, “I am so quiet in the morning when I wake up so I don’t disturb her, then I remember, she is gone.”
Many of the quotes speak to everyday frustrations, giving the viewers a glimpse at the struggles these people are facing. ‘It’s been really frustrating. I can’t hang out with my friends, can’t play sports. I’m stuck here… just me and my illness’ [rheumatic fever] (Cody of Portland, Maine)
Loneliness is a common theme in Peacock’s photos, especially loneliness among the elderly. When asked what she has learned on her year-long journey, Peacock told Modern Met, “I am learning that there are a lot of lonely people. I am learning that people have stories they want to share if someone will listen.”
Not all of the images are tragic; many are filled with life and hope. ‘I have always cherished my bedroom because it is cozy and reminds me of being a child. Now I am growing up and experiencing all sorts of new things. I like that my room doesn’t really change.’ (Claire of Westford, Massachusetts)
“I have these thoughts that culminate in my head, it took me years to get these souvenirs. I just moved into this place and all I have is an air mattress, but I stack up pillows and read and write.” (Brent of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina)
Others are gentle looks at the loveliness and chaos of everyday live. ‘Time alone is rare with busy lives, two kids, and a cat. Any time we get we savor, as summer just to seep away.” (Christopher and Alice of Portland, Maine)
“Much of what you see isn’t some showcase of fun colorful things I’ve acquired. Everything contains a story attached to my friends and life experiences. So, despite its cluttered look, having easy access to those cherished memories is quite calming and helps me still feels close to those people and experiences.” (Nito of Cambridge, Massachusetts)
The bedrooms photographed vary as much as the people, ranging from cozy to barren, from crowded to lonely, from conventional to unusual. ‘Sometimes life throws you in all sorts of directions. The most important part of about life is to remember you are exactly where you need to be.’ (Jessica of Milford, New Hampshire)
But because the subjects are allowed to speak for themselves, the images have a beauty and dignity to them, even when their subjects lead unusual or difficult lives. ‘I have lived a life of miracles, and I shall live forever, the flesh looks wasted but the spirited is alive and well.’ (Elmer of Boone, North Carolina)
The project is entirely in-character for Peacock, who has previously focused on the joys and tribulations of small-town America. Her book Hometown is a compilation of over 30 years of photographs taken in her home of Westford, Massachusetts.
The images in Hometown, spanning seven cameras, five kinds of film and an iPhone, are as much of a commentary on the changing nature of photos as they are the changing nature of the town she grew up in.
“I just moved home from Chicago, leaving behind dozens of friends and my life for the past year. The only thing of merit I was able to bring home was my cat, Juno. I’m still in a transient stage, but at least now I have my cat.” (Winslow of Westford, Massachusetts)
Peacock’s method for acquiring subjects is eclectic. Some of them are people she knows already, some of them are people she has found over social media, some of them are people who have responded to business cards she has left in shops and cafes. But Peacock has been able to find personal connections with all of them.
“My mom died when I was six. I have been chasing her ghost trying to feel close to her and to find out who I am. I hope for peace one day, to find love and to have a place to live to call home.” (China of Manhattan, New York)
“Within the obvious dissimilarities there may be between me and my subjects, there are core likenesses as well,” she explains. “It can be anything, the love of books or dogs, the countryside, fresh air, the yearning to travel or a type of food.”
“I am learning that people are fragile and conversely very strong. I am learning that being photographed can be an important moment in someone’s life. I am learning to listen,” Peacock told Modern Met.
Peacock has been traveling America for the last year. The images from this leg of her journey will be on display at The Fence in Boston from October 2017 to January 2018, and she will be signing copies of Hometown while she is there. But her journey is far from over.
Peacock’s goal is to cover all of America, “from the Northwoods of Maine to the deserted coal mining towns of the South, from the Badlands of South Dakota to Saddleback Valley, California.” Thus far, she has covered the East Coast and parts of the Deep South.
Peacock recently received the Getty Editorial Grant, a fund dedicated to supporting independent photojournalists in long-term work, for her project. She hopes to continue her project, which she calls a “cultural and anthropological study of Americans,” for three to five years.
“My wife and I, along with our Charley dog and two cats, live in a roundhouse at the end of a ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, because we believe in the circle of life and that what goes around, comes around.” Boone, North Carolina