Gil Blank: Who were they? What did they do with their time?
KM: Never quite figured that part out. I pieced together from my conversations with Lee that they’d come down from Alaska. They’d gotten a hard time for the way they looked—people thought they were witches. So they left their hick town of closed-minded people and ended up in San Francisco. They hung out with the skinheads but they weren’t Nazis at all.
GB: So what’s with the whole “Aerian Woman” brand?
KM: I asked her about that. She explained that it was a different spelling than Aryan. “There was a time in India when all was Utopia.” That was her answer.
GB: I see.
KM: Anyway, she wasn’t a Nazi and she never talked the way they did. This was back when I met her in ’86.
GB: How old was she at the time?
KM: Seventeen. She disappeared for a while, not sure where she went, and then I saw her again in the early nineties. She was living on Haight Street and doing phone sex for work. And that’s when I did the chain bra picture, in her apartment. That was in ’92.
GB: What was her self-association with Marilyn Monroe all about? In one respect it seems bizarre, and in another, perfectly logical.
KM: Your guess is as good as mine there. I know she had a whole scrapbook of Marilyn pictures. I never really got into it with her.
GB: Did you ever really get a grip on who she was? Where her ideas of herself came from? Was it all strictly an observer-observed relationship? What did you ever know about her?
KM: All I knew was that she was quiet, very soft-spoken, and that she had a love for the world. But we never really discussed issues. She was just living her life, you know? She seemed happy enough. I never get into discussing things with any of the people in my portraits.
GB: Why? What are the stories here? These pictures are so full of desire, and beauty, and the tenuous thread of connection—doesn’t it fill you with the urge to know something, anything? You knew she was from Alaska, but do you have any idea what’s happened to her since? Did she die, or disappear? Maybe I’m confusing all the stories of your subjects that I’ve heard, but I think I recall some hard involvement with the drug scene. Is she still alive? What became of her?
KM: No, she wasn’t into drugs. But the only things I hear about her are rumors. I met this guy she started seeing. His name was Ken, so I approved. Rode a motorcycle. She got pregnant. He was from Jersey, so they rode off East. This was around ’94, somewhere in there. Tried contacting her but it never worked. Totally lost track of her and have no idea what happened to her. I had a post office box address in Jersey, a town called Gladstone, but the letters got returned.
GB: Lee moved to Gladstone?! But that’s horse country. Jackie O. had a big spread out there.
KM: Hmmm. You know, my whole thing was just the beauty of it all. Her beauty and the way she would love to be photographed. We’d do this stuff on the street, people would be walking by, sometimes it’d be really crowded. You look at the pictures and you can’t tell, but there would be people around, hanging out and watching us. But we never really got into conversations about our lives. She seemed to be living day to day, just getting by.
GB: Most of the people you photograph seem to be doing exactly that, just getting by.
KM: Well, most of the people I photographed had some serious problems—mental illness, drug problems, problems with anger. But with Lee I never really saw any of that. She wasn’t a drug addict or a prostitute. She didn’t have really strong political views.
GB: So she was unresolved in several ways. And remains that way.
KM: Very much so.
GB: I always thought she was a speed freak.
KM: No, she was a vegetarian.
GB: I see.
GB: I must have been projecting. It’s entirely possible that she’s married to an accountant in Jersey and driving their kids around Gladstone in a minivan.
KM: Could be. Maybe Ken came from money.
GB: Maybe it’s cynical of me to say that I find that thought depressing. But it’s the vague sense of romance I’m trying to drain out of this equation. “Living her life,” “being happy”: I have no idea what that actually means. I know what we want it to mean, and I know that vague idea of longing is a big reason we take portraits. Here’s Lee, here’s this one exquisite subject; we can’t all be this way but at least we’ve got this one beautiful fierce specimen pinned into this frame. Better we don’t know what happened to her.
KM: You know, if she ever sees the pictures, she’ll get a hold of me. I just know it.
GB: Why do you think that? Why hope for that?
KM: Dunno, I just do. You know she wrote a story once and gave it to me. It’s around here somewhere. Can’t imagine where it is. I just remember reading it and thinking how bad it was.
GB: So bury the story, lose the contact, keep her in black-and-white and chain bra. Better that way. Better to forget the story.
KM: Yeah, you just don’t want to hear it. They all wither away. They never stay. Only in pictures.
© Copyright Gil Blank and Ken Miller