Alex Nelson finds meaning in the fragmented biography of a late musician’s tumultuous life

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This article was printed in the Power & Empowerment issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos takes Judee Sill’s troubled past as its starting point with enigmatic images tracing moments and motifs from the late American singer’s existence

Alex Nelson likes to chase ghosts. In her ongoing project, Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos, Nelson chases Judee Sill, the late musician (the project’s title is named after a song on Sill’s first record). Sill was born in 1944 in Oakland, California. Her childhood and adult years were troubled and tumultuous; she struggled with drug addiction throughout her life and died of an overdose in 1979, aged 35. Her music was overlooked for many years, but the collective interest in Sill’s tragic life is what drew Nelson towards the singer and what continues to compel her.

“After falling in love with Judee Sill’s music, I started obsessively researching her and printing out any interview or article I could find. A lot of what I read could be true, or it could be a story passed down through so many people that it’s now been warped,” says Nelson. Her early infatuation stemmed from an unfulfilled desire to be a musician. As a photographer, she acts as a biographer while investigating how fandom and obsession manifest.

In her studio, Nelson keeps archival images of Beatles fans who could be mistaken for religious devotees. For those unfamiliar with Sill, the images of serpents, baptisms and Christian iconography read like a theological story. The photographer creates a new visual language for the concept of worship, one that makes concerts look like church services, and worshippers like music fans. The work acts as both a visual and speculative biography. “I imagined it as a tree with branches,” says Nelson. “Judee is at the root of what I was doing, but other things happen alongside that.”

Madonna with two spiders. 2019 © Alex Nelson.
Morrison Street. Los Angeles. 2020 © Alex Nelson.
Untitled (Fingers). 2020 © Alex Nelson.

Nelson takes advantage of the gaps in Sill’s biography to create her own flexible narratives. She read that the musician’s dad owned a piano bar in San Francisco, so photographed a piano bar in the city. A man’s vision of seeing Sill turn into a serpent on a bed translates as an image of snakes on a blanket. After hearing that a music producer baptised Sill in a pool, she photographed a suburban baptism. Nelson exists somewhere between Sill’s archivist and obsessive fan.

In addition to fandom, the series explores the relationship between a photographer and their muse. Nelson employs Sill doppelgangers and self-portraits to access a woman who passed away over 40 years ago. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work of Roberta Breitmore, and Barbara Loden’s film Wanda were influences. “I think about how to take on the persona of [Sill] or someone like her. That idea of creating a co-identity and living as someone else as an artistic act,” says Nelson.

Chapel of the Chimes. 2020 © Alex Nelson.
Animal sanctuary. 2018 © Alex Nelson.

The casual nature of the images suggests that Nelson wants the viewer to question their origins: where are these photographs from, who took them, and most importantly, does it matter? Ephemeral images, such as fake ID cards, snapshots found on the street, and newspaper clippings, create metaphors while remaining tethered to Sill. Nelson points to the images of caves: “I’m thinking about them as entrances and exits, or portals through space,” she explains. 

Overwhelmingly, Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos straddles extreme dichotomies – light and dark, photographer and subject, past and present. When Nelson reaches a conclusion, a new question appears. “I like to work in the elliptical narrative. One that is never complete,” she says.

Untitled (Shrine). 2020 © Alex Nelson.
Caroline Tompkins

Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Caroline Tompkins received a BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts, New York. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, and the BBC, Vogue, and The New York Times, among others, have featured her work. Tompkins worked as a photo editor at Bloomberg Businessweek for five years before leaving in 2019 to pursue her practice. She is currently a professor at the School of Visual Arts and a freelance photographer for editorial and commercial clients. She lives in Queens, New York.