Amy Jorgensen

Amy Jorgensen, interviewed by Debra Klomp Ching, about the Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue series.

#9 Verity Oates (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

At Length: I was first introduced to your series Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue when we met at the Maine Media Workshops + College, and then later viewed it in person at your solo show at the Elizabeth Houston Gallery in New York. Can you start off by sharing what the initial inspiration for your project was?

Amy Jorgensen: The initial inspiration for Something Blue was my Great Aunt Edna Berg, who was a suffragette in New York City in the early part of the 20th century. A curator had asked me to participate in a show exploring intergenerational female themes, and I knew immediately Edna would be the starting point for this new work. As I began researching the details of her life and the work of early suffragettes, I discovered the recently unearthed archive of surveillance images made by the Scotland Yard in 1913.

This is a collection of eighteen images made of women who were militant suffragettes in the UK during the early part of the 20th century—the end of the Edwardian era. Over a nine-year period, just prior to the first world war, approximately 1000 women were sent to prison for their activity in the suffrage movement. Most of the surveillance images were taken while the women were in the yard at Holloway Prison, and they are reportedly the first surveillance images ever made, as the suffragettes refused to pose for photographs.

AL: How important is your personal narrative, in the story that you weave through the series?

AJ: The stories in my family about Edna are legendary; as a young person she occupied mythical status in my imagination. I never met her and only know her through family lore, but while I was navigating adolescence as a self-identified feminist, she certainly served as a role model.

She marched in the streets, used to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt, debated politics loudly and fiercely, and was a vocal advocate for the rights of women. And there are small connections. My family lived in Italy for many years, and my parents would spend whole afternoons sitting with the linen and embroidery makers in Portofino. They cultivated life-long relationships with the women and had a deep appreciation for the traditional craft. These experiences undoubtedly influenced the making of this work.

Annie Bell, 2016 ©Amy Jorgensen#5 Annie Bell (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: The title of the work is a familiar catchphrase, obviously conjuring up the realm of the female, specifically brides and wedding rituals. Did the title come early on in the project and how did you arrive at it?

AJ: The phrase first appears in the written record in 1876 in England, as a rhyme associated with good luck and fertility for a bride. Over time, the folklore phrase has become institutionalized in the traditions of matrimony—every bride needs something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

What I like about this phrase, whether you subscribe to it’s superstitious nature or not, is that the tradition is about a generational, intimate exchange among women. The bride is gifted various objects by mothers, grandmothers, and close friends to wear close to her body on the day of her wedding. A handkerchief is worn next to the skin, close to the heart, inside the bra, a garter belt on the thigh…. They are usually objects that are feminine, made by other women, and often passed down through women in families. It is a ritual of sharing and intimacy.

Historically, marriage was a transaction negotiated by men. A woman passes from her father’s household to her husband’s household, dowries are paid, and maiden names exchanged for married names. In the loss of one identity for another, neither of which is entirely her own, I was intrigued by the acts of intimacy shared between women and the many points of conflict associated with matrimony in terms of identity, equality, autonomy and power. The phrase seemed a perfect catalyst to explore confrontational and sometimes contradictory themes.

#3 Margaret McFarlane (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: This positioning of the work, firmly within feminist context, is further compounded by the materials used. Can you explain the meaning behind the combination of materials in this context—cyanotype, vintage handkerchief, archived imagery?

AJ: I chose the cyanotype process for a few reasons. It’s a historic 19th century process popularized by Anna Atkins, the first female photographer and the maker of the first photographic book. The cobalt blue is a deeply rich and seductive color, and because it’s a photographic solution that can be painted onto fabric, there is an element of the hand involved in making the image, in much the same way there is an element of the hand involved in the extraordinary embroidery work on many of the handkerchiefs.

Each surveillance image is printed onto a vintage handkerchief. These are objects that were made and worn by women, and often gifted for the wedding ceremony. Suffragettes commonly signed and exchanged handkerchiefs as a symbol of solidarity, using embroidery techniques to scribe their names or initials. In the 1970s a handkerchief surfaced with the signatures of 68 suffragettes imprisoned at Holloway Prison in 1912. Each name was embroidered, it’s an extraordinary document.

The parallel narratives of the matrimonial ceremony and suffragette surveillance imagery, provide a departure point to examine the role of patriarchal structures in history and contemporary culture.

Mary Raleigh Richardson, 2016 ©Amy Jorgensen #11 Mary Raleigh Richardson (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: How important are the identity and personal stories of the women depicted in the photographs? Is there a key figure that interested you when making this work?

AJ: The work makes sense if you understand the general experience of the suffrage movement: however, these women have such compelling personal stories the details of their lives certainly add depth to the series. They ultimately came to the conclusion that militant participation and civil disobedience (bombing, arson, vandalism) were the only way forward to secure the vote for women. They were arrested on multiple occasions, imprisoned at Holloway, force-fed, participated in hunger and thirst strikes, beaten, and lived under the cover of aliases. Their experience conjures the phrase penned much later by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in a text about colonial women, “Well behaved women seldom make history.”

Mary Raleigh Richardson (#11) was arrested for slashing Diego Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus” at the National Gallery in London. She did so in defiance of the government’s treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She stated, “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Long before John Berger introduced the concept of male gaze into the art lexicon, there was an intuitive awareness of the power of the male gaze. It was this destruction of artworks by Mary Richardson (#11), Lillian Forrester (#14), Evelyn Manestas (#10) and Annie Briggs (not pictured) that triggered Scotland Yard to make the eighteen surveillance images.The printed images with corresponding numbers on each card were handed out to detectives and gallery staff, an interesting historical parallel to the most-wanted playing cards used during the US invasion of Iraq. Surveillance, by construction, is inherently about the act of looking, and the first surveillance images ever made, were created because a woman acted in violent defiance of the male gaze.

In another example, Jane Short (6)—an alias for Rachel Peace who was an embroiderer—was force-fed three times a day for several months during a hunger and thirst strike. The experience left her in a fragile state and she spent the remainder of her life in and out of asylums. A well-to-do member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Lady Constance Lytton, took responsibility for her life-long care. I was struck by the suffering of so many of these women in prison as they were violently restrained and force-fed, but also by the solidarity they shared as a community.

Lillian Forrester, 2016 ©Amy Jorgensen  #14 Lillian Forrester (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: How and where do you find the handkerchiefs? Do any have a personal connection, for example, belonging to a female ancestor? 

AJ: In the early printing stages all of the handkerchiefs were sourced from friends and family members, so each one was an heirloom object passed through the family. However, after a while I began to exhaust that resource; not everyone wants to give up all of their great grandmother’s hankies. So now I scour online estate sales and E-bay. However, I do make sure every edition includes a few heirloom handkerchiefs with a known history, as it’s an important part of the project for the objects to convey intimacy, both through their physical presence and lived history.

AL: There’s also an undercurrent of the taboo aspects of the female condition—widely explored within feminist art—that bind the female to her gender. For example, the use of the cyanotype on the handkerchief is reminiscent of menstrual flow on cotton. Is this connection a reach, or do you see this as an additional layer of the series?

AJ: Much of my work is situated in conversation with the body. In this series one can think of the handkerchief or cloth as being akin to the body, in both spiritual and feminist terms. Historically in visual art, the female body is most often acted or gazed upon, whereas I am interested in exploring the body as active and participatory. As the cyanotype solution spreads and soaks into the cloth, it mimics the staining of blood during the menstrual cycle. And while the cobalt color is obviously different, the patterning, saturation and mottledness of the final image is meant to convey a link to bleeding. The act of making this reference is a confrontation of the taboo, as much as women’s experiences outside of what conforms to convention remains unseen and unspoken.

AL: And of course the cultural/conceptual space of domesticity is visible. 

AJ: Absolutely. On one hand this work is very much rooted in the domestic realm, the handwork, matrimony…. Yet there is also pushback. While the materiality of the project is very feminine it raises important questions about the cultural and economic value of women’s work, and perceptions of domestic ritual and space. The delicate object, or the domestic space, can also function as a form of protest and confrontation.

Maud Brindley, 2016 ©Amy Jorgensen#8 Maud Brindley (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: Each photograph is unique, printed by hand onto an individual handkerchief. The labor of your hand is evident in the application of the cyanotype solution. Is this evidence of authorship important to you? How does this relate to the subject? 

AJ: If we return to the title phrase, Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, it’s about connection and exchange. I see the application of the cyanotype solution, by my hand onto the handkerchief, as another layer of exchange and intimacy embedded into the object. The embroidery, the white work, the lace: All of this work was traditionally done by the hands of women. In brushing the cyanotype onto the handkerchief, in leaving the mark of my hand, I see myself contributing to the history of the object. A gift, if you will, to the next person who holds it close.

AL: When you exhibit the work, the handkerchiefs are pinned to the wall. How does this form of presentation add to the overall concept and message of the work? Are the pins dressmaker pins by any chance?

AJ: The handkerchiefs have an exquisite delicateness and materiality to them. In the exhibition context, each handkerchief is pinned to the wall in the upper corners with small pearlized dressmaker pins. This allows gravity to pull on them slightly, creating a soft sway in the material, giving them dimension and tactility. Because there is so much detail in each handkerchief viewers like to get close to them, and someone’s breath or movement in the room creates a reactionary movement in the handkerchiefs. I wanted the work to feel alive so that the connection between past and present becomes fluid. For collection and permanent hanging, framing and glass sometimes becomes necessary, but there is an element that is lost when they are placed behind glass. Handkerchiefs were designed to be held.

AL: The series is editioned as unique artworks with variations. How many pieces are in the series and how are collectors buying the work? Is it in pairs, multiples, singles? 

There are eighteen images in the series, and it is editioned as 5 + 2 AP with variations. Every handkerchief is different, and the staining of the cyanotype chemistry is unique to each one. The primary interest is in individual images—I think people identify with a particular suffragette’s story or image.

AL: Have you printed the complete edition, or do you continue to print over time? Why is this?

AJ: I print the editions over time, really out of necessity, as it takes so long to source the handkerchiefs. In every collection of eighteen I like to have a combination of old, new, and borrowed pieces, including a few heirloom pieces with a known history. I also think about how the physical characteristics and aesthetics of each handkerchief pairs with the images and histories of individual suffragettes. It’s partly intuition; sometimes I simply know that this suffragette must be on this handkerchief. And lastly, I look at the collection as a whole. There is a lot of shuffling around on large tables to find the right balance.

Evelyn Manesta, 2016 ©Amy Jorgensen #10 Evelyn Manesta (2016) ©Amy Jorgensen – 12″x12″ cyanotype on cotton handkerchief

AL: What are the common responses to the work? Who is responding most effectively—curators, critics, photo editors?

AJ: To date, the most effective attention is coming from photo editors, who recognize their audiences are interested in themes of surveillance, power, suffrage and the relevance of these issues today. The work resonates strongly with contemporary women, regardless of where their personal politics fall on the spectrum of conservative to liberal. I think they identify on an intimate level with both the historical struggle of the suffragettes, and the current dialogue surrounding women’s equality.

A couple of art dealers have posed the question of the art market. More specifically, art about women does not sell; men buy most of the art, and men don’t buy art about women. This speaks to the heart of what Something Blue is about—changing the structures of patriarchy and equality for women. It is a question surrounding the value of domestic space and work. There is still much work to do.

AL: Where would you like to see this series situated in the long term? For example, it seems that the artworks could easily find a home in a museum’s photography collection, a collection on the history of the struggle for women’s equality, etc. 

AJ: I would ideally love to see a complete set of eighteen collected by an institution with a specific focus on women’s art or women’s history. Conceptually, I like the idea of the work being viewed in a broader context of the women’s movement.

AL: Do you have any exhibitions planned for the future? 

AJ: I have a solo exhibition in the fall and am putting together new work exploring the intersection of violence, power, and the body. My research into the early militant and radical practices of suffragettes has certainly informed this new work and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.


Amy Jorgensen is a visual artist working across photography, performance and video. She lives and works in Utah, United States.

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