Elizabeth Clark Libert, Boy Crazy

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Workshop Arts (here). Softcover (7.5 x 11.25 inches), 120 pages, with 56 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes various texts by the artist. Design by Caleb Cain Marcus, Luminosity Lab. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Elizabeth Clark Libert’s first photobook Boy Crazy was recently published by Workshop Arts, a new independent publisher. In her artistic practice, Libert considers “themes both autobiographical and psychoanalytical in nature”, and her book actively “examines the effects of past traumas.” Through the interweaving of photographs and text, Libert confronts traumatic sexual experiences from her past and reflects on how she can be a better mother to her two young sons, thereby breaking a chain of generational trauma. “My sons are beautiful creatures, but I worry they might become monsters one day.” That reflection lies at the heart of Boy Crazy, a very personal and intimate project that works particularly well in photobook format.

The project started in the wake of the #MeToo movement and probes Libert’s own history with sexual violence. She initially wrote a blog post about her painful experience, and a couple of weeks later, as she was looking through the photographs of her sons, the face of the young man who violated her in college flickered in her head. She was shocked by their resemblance and the terrifying idea that one day her own sons “could become just like him.” In Boy Crazy, Libert creatively confronts that past and current anxieties.

A striking cover immediately makes this photobook stand out. A photograph printed in blue ink depicts two young boys with their faces obscured, dressed in the same shorts and t-shirts as they pose under a tree. The word “crazy” appears at the very bottom in hot pink and in a relatively large font size, while the word “boy” is placed at the top, crossing from the back cover to the front, both seen and hidden (and in this way, the title of the book can also be read as “crazy boy”). The front endpapers list, in various bright colors, repeated lines of medical conditions and prescribed medications, and at the end of the book, they list excerpts from a phone conversation Libert had with the perpetrator of her assault, appearing in a similar design. Inside, the pages with text are printed on light pink paper and accompanied by older self-portraits. The images range from smaller shots to full bleed spreads, and are usually surrounded by a generous amount of white space. The book easily opens flat, and visible pink stitches add another nice touch to the overall experience.

Boy Crazy is divided into three parts. It opens with reflective writings by Libert as she recalls her college years and shares her memories of her sexual assault. In the transition between the text and photographs, a spread pairs an email Libert wrote to her perpetrator and a small image of her boys, the same one that appears on the cover, this time in color.

The middle part of the book focuses on Libert’s two sons. Depicted through an ambivalent lens of wonder and fear, the photographs document the boys in their daily lives, often with a lush backdrop of flora and fauna or changing seasons. One of the first photos shows a crying blond boy seated on green grass in his underwear, and it is followed by a spread with a larger photo showing a naked boy from the back going into what looks like a dense green jungle. Other images capture one boy’s back filling the frame as sunlight reflects off it, one boy peacefully floating in a swimming pool, and both boys, at a younger age, taking a break on a pile of dry leaves by the fence. This is followed by a photograph showing a boy’s hands, stained red from eating cherries; in the context of Libert’s fears and anxieties about violence, suddenly this innocent image gains additional connotations.  

Libert’s photographs capture the youth and innocence of her boys, while also noticing their feral qualities; while they are largely innocent at the moment, she recognizes that one day they could also represent the same kinds of violence she has experienced. While there are a lot of loving and gentle moments in these pictures, simmering tension is also consistently present in the photographs and their sequencing.  

In the transition between the photographs of Libert’s sons and the final text part, a spread pairs a small photo showing a boy running away on a sandy road and a reply from her perpetrator suggesting a phone call. The narrative that follows includes various fragments, layering together “then, now, and in between” as Libert reflects on her conversation with the perpetrator. A conversation with the artist’s mother is also included, who shares details of an assault that happened to her. In the final reflection, Libert realizes (with some amount of relief), as she is watching her boys playing in the yard, that she no longer sees her perpetrator in their faces; instead, she sees herself as the little girl. “And then I see my mother. And her mother. My cousins and niece. // And, my sons”.

Libert’s book brings to mind the work of Donna Ferrato, who has spent many years documenting domestic violence. Her book Living with the Enemy powerfully documented the lives of women who were the victims of abuse and  domestic violence. While different in their approach and content, both artists reveal the complicated truth about women’s lives, and consider how the traumas can be overcome.

Libert says that “the experience of making this work has granted catharsis, forgiveness, and awareness” and that “ultimately, it planted the seeds of a fledgling confidence as a female, artist, and mother.” By carefully connecting both content and form, Boy Crazy creates space for a thoughtful conversation about sexual trauma and the practices required for a more empathetic world. 

Collector’s POV: Elizabeth Clark Libert does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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