Hallucinatory Portraits That Rethink the Ways We Look at Women

The Photo Blog
July 31 2014 11:35 AM

Hallucinatory Portraits That Rethink the Ways We Look at Women

This is not a painting!
This Is Not a Painting!

Melanie Willhide

This post contains nudity.

Through formal portraiture mixed with plastic flowers, images from Playgirl magazine, reference to nightshade potions, and other source material, Melanie Willhide’s series “Henbane for Honey Bun” takes a hallucinatory look at the ways in which we look at women.

The series took root, so to speak, a couple of years ago when Willhide began photographing flowers. At the same time, she was also making portraits of women in her life she felt were fascinating beyond their physical beauty.

Willhide, who is in her late 30s and a native East Coaster, was also beginning to feel as if she were being forced outside the realm of visibility in Los Angeles.


“The way people address me has shifted—people call me ma’am now—and there is a level of anonymity, even invisibility, since I also don’t work in the industry,” she said.

She visited the arts and crafts store Moskatels in Los Angeles, a place where “everything natural is made out of plastic” and began photographing artificial flowers, mixing them into the portraits of women.

“I started to create compositions that are part fake flower, part female subject. One never ages and never dies, and the other is subject to the culture of youth and perfection."

The act and the result of the action.
The Act and the Result of the Action.

Melanie Willhide

With the exception of blue.
With the Exception of Blue.

Melanie Willhide

The eye of the day.
The Eye of the Day.

Melanie Willhide

She also bought a decade’s worth of Playgirl magazines, thinking of the ways in which women’s fantasies played out in the magazine, and started sourcing some of the images into the portraits.

Once the images began to take shape, Willhide showed them to a friend who commented on the shifting cultural references represented in the portraits.

“This one looks like a hair commercial, and this one looks like a pre-Raphaelite painting, and this one looks like a 1960's Playboy Bunny, and this one is one of those kids from The Village of the Damned,” Willhide recalled about her friend’s reaction.

“In these images there are various pop culture references for the viewer to engage with, which is in many ways what I intend, but ultimately it is my hope the subjects transcend the points of reference. There is a moment when you realize the human element, a struggle, a person like all of us who is aging and full of desire.” 

Perceived resemblance.
Perceived Resemblance.

Melanie Willhide

Through sleep and sorrow.
Through Sleep and Sorrow.

Willhide, whose previous series, “To Adrian Rodriguez, With Love,” was featured on Slate last year, said working on the project is intuitive, shaped from a place of feeling where after a lot of trial and error, the images begin to feel right to her. 

“The language reveals its meaning at a certain point,” she said about her work. “I hate the beginning (of a project). It is so painful, alone in my studio on the hill, surrounded by houses filled with cowboys and Cal Tech professors—and having only my dog to show my work to, but when the cake starts baking, that’s the exciting part for me.”

Willhide titled the series “Henbane for Honey Bun” as a nod to “flying ointments,” or salves that are infused with psychoactive herbs or plants (such as Henbane) to transport the user into a hallucinatory state.

“The hallucination that manifests inspired the way the images look,” she said. “Since taste is the new talent, and everything is borrowed and remixed to create the new, my new work is a historical cocktail of sorts. The hallucination created for my audience is a historically referential one.”

Willhide will show the work at the Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles opening Sept. 6.

The common bride.
The Common Bride.

Melanie Willhide

Grace and Thorns.
Grace and Thorns.

Melanie Willhide

Virgin's bower.
Virgin's Bower.

Melanie Willhide

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.