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Disturbing Pointy Hats

My work is the result of an intuitive creative process. I don’t plan or pre-construct my images- they emerge from a purely visual exploration where I am responding to what I am seeing through the camera on a visceral, gut-instinct level. When I see something that strikes me, I photograph it.

Because of this immersive process, the images I find myself analyzing after a shoot are often a surprise to me as much as anyone else. And often times, I find an image striking, or it speaks to me on some level, although I’m not entirely sure why or how…

Another recent image, Untitled #05-07-21-273, had a similar effect, albeit a very different expression. I immediately responded to this image. It grabbed me. It haunted me. I hung it on the studio wall for weeks, living with it, and trying to understand and articulate the complex feelings it provoked in me. On the one hand, I found it to be a powerful, somewhat mythological image. It stood out on the studio wall among the dozens of other work prints I pin on top of one another as I feverishly edit my favorite images from shoot to shoot. Something about it made me hesitant to share it, however. Perhaps one reason was because I didn’t fully understand it yet myself. Another is because I wondered if people would find the hood-like shape reminiscent of a KKK cloak. When you’ve worked with the nude for as long as I have you run up against a LOT of censorship issues and questions of offensiveness, so with respect to the tragic recent events shedding light on systemic race issues throughout our history, I didn’t feel like the image was advocating racist sentiments.

Untitled #05-07-21-273

What did cause me to ponder, however, was where this image came from in my mind – if that makes sense. Why did I respond to it? Why did I see this hooded, pointy-hat type of form and react? Why have I looked at it every day for months?

The more I lived with it, the more I began to consider the history of this cone-like, hooded shape. It may sound silly at first, but as I began to find the words to query this impression, I found that there is surprisingly thorough origins to this “pointy-hat”. An article from the BBC about the tall pointed hoods worn by La Borriquita Brotherhood in Spain during the run up to Easter sums up its background in saying:

“Wizards wear them and so do dunces. In ancient Rome, freed slaves donned them as a sign of their emancipation. In the 15th Century, noblewomen in France and Burgundy wore them as a status symbol, as did 19th-Century women in the eastern Mediterranean, who elaborately encrusted them with pearls and precious stones. Iron-age mummies known as the ‘Witches of Subeshi’, excavated from China’s Tarim Basin, along the northern Silk Route, were found to have fashioned them from black felt – their characteristic steep spire tapering to a peak nearly 60cm (2ft) above their heads.”

As I continued to look into it, my initial research showed most connections to the “pointy-hat” are on the darker side, conjuring associations with evil, magic, witches, Satanism, dark rituals and black magic. It has often been referred to as a “horned skullcap”, coming from the Latin “pilleus cornutus”, and relating to the “Horned One” himself…

– The first known people to wear the pointy hat are called the “witches” of Subeshi, whose desiccated corpses were found in East Central Asia. These women were sisters who were accused of practicing magic in Turfan between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE, and this connection is the first to associate the pointy hat with the archetype of witches, although it was truly the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz who popularized the witch hat in the way we see it today.

– Throughout my research, I continued to find connections to anti-Semitism: in 1215, the Fourth Council of the Lateran issued an edict that all Jews must wear identifying headgear, a pointed cap known as a Judenhat. HOWEVER, prior to this, the Judenhat (which was often white or yellow) appeared in Hebrew manuscripts and even within the coats of arms of German Jews, most likely in observation of the requirement that the head should be covered at all times. In this case, the pointy Judenhat would be more an element of traditional garb, rather than forced discrimination. Sadly, attitudes towards the Jews as far back as the Middle Ages would associate the religion with evil and/or Satan, and so the pointed hats were connected to this view.

– Another connection I found interesting is that to the Quakers of the mid 1600s to 1800s. Puritans believed the Quakers to be evil magic practitioners, and so associated them with wearing pointy hats – an association that STILL exists today. But get this: the Quakers DID NOT EVEN WEAR POINTED HATS. My interpretation of this is that if you voluntarily wear a pointy hat, you are seen as evil, BUT the flip side is also true- if you are seen as evil, you are associated with a pointy hat!

With all of these connections, it is no wonder this image stood out so much to me. All of the associations with the pointy-hat, the cone-like hooded figure, have been there in the background of art and culture throughout hundreds of years. Interpretations of this garb, of this shape, have been passed down through what Jung referred to as the Collective Unconscious, his theory of a third layer of consciousness where we store patterns, symbols, and information that describe our basic humanity. He relates the notion of the collective unconscious to instincts, stating that while our unconscious contains our personal trauma, the collective unconscious is complete at birth and hereditary in nature, and informs our behavior although we’re not consciously aware of it. I go a little more in depth on his theories and other connections, resemblances, and associations here.

I’m sharing this all now and curious to hear what your reactions to this image may be. How do you respond to it? What do you see in it? Independent of anything I have expressed in this post, is there a feeling this image stirs in you, or an association you have with it? I would love to hear your feedback!

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