Anja Niemi’s new series “The Woman Who Never Existed” channels Italian actress Eleonora Duse, celebrated at the turn of the last century for the roles she played around the world. On view at Photofairs San Francisco, which runs from today until January 29, the images are all about the act of disappearing, whether into a role or into thin air—despite her tumultuous life, Duse famously told a journalist that “away from the stage I do not exist.” (The series travels this spring to Shoot Gallery in Oslo, Galerie Photo 12 in Paris and The Little Black Gallery in London.) As in her series such as “Short Stories,” Niemi is both photographer and model, creating a fictionalized version of an actress who only exists in front of an audience. In the images, a figure disappears from the painted wings of a theater or dissolves into a lush mural. Or she is transformed with face paint and costume into enacted characters.
Duse was a contemporary of Sara Bernhardt, with whom she was often compared. Where Bernhardt was outgoing, Duse was private, preferring to pour herself into the roles she played, an intriguing idea for a photographer who also performs her images.