David Ambrose on Emma Bee Bernstein’s "self-portrait with red eyes"

During the pandemic, I have been thinking a lot about separation and division. When you open my front door, you’re given the choice of two doors. Turn left and you enter my studio space. Turn right and you enter my office space, a room filled with two sources of inspiration: my art collection and my library. The past few months I have struggled to balance those rooms. Buried between the stacks of books, you will also find a small television set which has lately carved out its own space, as I ritualistically watch the evening news while eating my dinner. Across from my chair is Emma Bee Bernstein’s Untitled (Self-portrait with red eyes), a photograph taken in 2006, when she was twenty-one years old. Bernstein, too, is seated, legs crossed, but without a table and only a beige hallway in front of her. She appears slightly below my eye level wearing a red silk bathrobe, black stockings and high heel shoes. Her chair-back is pressed up against the wall. To her right, a floor lamp with teetering lamp shade casts a wayward halo in her direction.

My line of sight meets her smoldering gaze. She is both confrontational and welcoming owing to the warm, ambient light and saturated, high-key primary colors. The photo’s composition, on the other hand, is a chromatic earthquake caused by shifting fault lines of blue and red that mirror the current political state of the nation. Bernstein’s relaxed arms are spread akimbo; each hand is weighed down by a large ring. Her hands balanced like the scales of justice. What you wouldn’t know, is that the young woman in the photo would take her own life at age twenty-three, in 2008.

She judges me from her leather throne with much of the power and awareness of the Velazquez’s Portrait of Innocent X. And like that far more famous portrait, this photograph is perfect. I wouldn’t quibble with a single inch of it — not even the red-eye caused by the flash. I have no idea how many attempts this self-portrait took to make, I only know that it haunts me daily, as I am sure Velazquez haunted his contemporaries. To paraphrase a jealous rival looking at a Velazquez painting, “There is nothing there and there it is.” In the Age of the Coronavirus, the same can be said to all of us as we deal with this invisible contagion.  


David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey.