by Sophia Kreuz
You might be surprised to learn that the images above are actually made from none other than menstrual blood, itself. Cue gasps, cringes, and covering your children’s eyes. Now take a breath and have a closer look. What do you see? Jen Lewis, the Denver-based conceptual artist behind the images, sees beauty in blood, specifically menstrual blood, which is why she has aptly named her series of work just that, “Beauty in Blood.”
In 2012, Lewis switched to using a menstrual cup on the advice of her doctor. It was not long before she started seeing the beauty in it. In the bowl were shapes, ideas, and images to be taken.
Last June, Lewis was part of and helped organize “Widening the Cycle: A Menstrual Cycle & Reproductive Justice Art Show.” It brought together art from 36 different menstrual artivists from 10 different countries around the world. It was a described as a “social justice art show that threads together global voices to raise consciousness about menstruation and reproductive justice through feminist art.” She is at it again this year, and is helping promote the Blood Cycle Conference, a conference that aims to re-write the significance of “period” from taboo to holistic. Lewis is one of the featured artists speaking about her work at the BCC in September. In the run up to the conference she has been doing Q&A sessions in the BBC2016 Facebook group and on Twitter.
These sessions have brought up a plethora of questions from people all over the world interested in the conference and in Lewis’ work. Lewis didn’t shy away from any questions, no matter how personal. Her enthusiasm and openness no doubt makes it easier for new viewers to open up themselves to the ideas and questions she is addressing through her work.
Lewis’ images are vibrant and outstanding, but some might dismiss the careful work that goes into creating such thought-provoking pictures. As easy as you might think it is, simply pouring menstrual fluid into a toilet bowl can’t always garner the best photo, even if that was where Lewis saw her initial inspiration. Lewis did start this way, as seen in the picture above, but as the series progressed, she refined her craft. While this is still a bold image that stands out in her collection, Lewis says that it is not as dynamic, and is flatter than the others she took later. This happened because of the angle, the sides of the bowl, and because it was taken from above. Photos that come later in the series took place in an aquarium filled with water.
Initially, photos had to be taken in quick succession as menstrual fluid, like many women will know, sinks to the bottom quite quickly when dropped in water. After doing some research on how to photograph liquids in water, her collaborator discovered that salt water was one way to stall the fluid from sinking to the bottom of the tank. Through trial and error, Lewis discovered the perfect formulas to use for her pictures (although I find all of her photos have a special quality to them).
However, using the aquarium doesn’t come without its challenges. In the most recent Q&A, Lewis spoke to the difficulties that vibrations could have on a picture. Simply having another person walk into the room while shooting could change the entire aspect of the shoot. “The slightest vibrations will cause the water to move and ripple, which in turn causes the menstrual to react. The motion is hypnotic to watch and was one of the elements I was most interested in capturing,” Lewis said. You can see this movement in action for yourself in two videos available on Vimeo, “Beauty in Blood: Motion” and “Beauty in Blood: Untitled #1.”
Lewis has also gone back and forth between shooting with fresh menstrual blood and storing it for a later time. After she started using a menstrual cup, she realized that she really didn’t have that heavy of a period each month, having a light to moderate flow for about three days. This made it important to have each shoot count and be prepared to capture everything she could with the smaller amount of menstrual fluid she had.
Although her work is controversial, and can create some initial shock and recoil in viewers, Lewis has found that it does open up a dialogue and engages her audience into the bigger questions and the not often-enough talked about issues around menstrual health and social issues. Curiosity gets the better of her art’s viewers, Lewis says, and they start engaging with her work. She receives questions like “Why menstrual fluid?” “How do you get it to look that way?” “Do you add anything to it?” “Why isn’t the blood that rusty red color?” Lewis herself has been pleasantly surprised with the positive response, engagement, respectfulness and curiosity that viewers have had, and says that the “in-person response has always been amazing.”
On the topic of balancing formal and aesthetic considerations with its political purpose, Lewis says that her “primary focus is presenting the aesthetic elements of menstrual fluid, but the result of doing so is a radical political statement so I think the balance happens naturally. Just by wanting to display menstruation in a way people haven’t seen before ends up being an activist statement.”
Going forward Lewis would like to continue to develop her work and examine menstrual health and activism through the lens of her camera. She hopes to start “working with other menstruaters and do a series that is more comparative,” asking questions around whether menstruation all looks the same or is different from different women. What does it look like across different age groups? Or how certain menstrual or reproductive issues like endometriosis affect the color, texture, or consistency of the menstrual.
Jen Lewis is slated as one of the featured speakers at the Blood Cycle Conference. If you would like to join in a Q&A session with some of the great and knowledgeable speakers for the conference, be sure to check out the Blood Cycle Conference Facebook page for more details and dates. And don’t forget to support our Kickstarter. This conference can’t happen without you!