The subject of beauty is at the heart of Eva O’Leary’s photography practice. In much of her work she challenges popular notions of feminine beauty. One of her most celebrated series, Spitting Image, features portraits of girls between the ages of 11 and 14, taken as they look at their own reflections in a mirror. The sitters’ expressions – tentative, untrusting and unsure – are expertly captured by O’Leary, highlighting the complexity of our relationship with our appearance. The girls in the series are at the cusp of adolescence, when this relationship is perhaps most turbulent. The work was awarded the Hyères Festival Photographie grand prix earlier this year.
O’Leary’s own coming-of-age journey has informed the themes in her work. She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania though her mother is Irish, and as a result her early years were spent shuttling between the States and Ireland. “When I was in Ireland I felt self-conscious about sounding American, and when I was in Pennsylvania I felt self-conscious about not fitting in and having an accent. Both my parents are artists, they themselves didn’t fit in and were outsiders to the town and its culture,” she recounts. “Maybe as a survival tactic, I became pretty good at observing the way people behave, their body language, accents and self-presentation.
I became very good at adopting the things I observed,” she adds.