One sister becomes another’s muse

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Liv Liberg was 10 years old when she began photographing her younger sister. The activity became a 15-year collaboration: a compelling series of images that reflect the sisters’ ever-evolving relationship

The bond between sisters, no matter how close they are, contains an inevitable drama. Power dynamics are established early on. Often one leads, and the other follows. Liv Liberg was 10 years old when she started photographing her younger sister, Britt. The endeavour began as an act of play and imagination in their family home in the Dutch countryside, but evolved into a 15-year collaboration. In Liberg’s first book, Sister Sister, published by Art Paper Editions, she charts this visual continuum, which weaves multiple lines of inquiry through the language of fashion and performance to animate her sisters coming of age. “It was never planned,” Liberg explains. “It was just something we always did. Even if my sister was in a bad mood, we would still do it. We are super close and connected, and I can achieve things with her that I can’t with other models. It’s about being sisters.”

Looking at Liberg’s pictures, I think about the expression of young womanhood and how raw, fragile and tender these photographs are. Raw because they remind us of the physical and emotional discomfort of a body in flux – an intense journey of self-discovery growing into ourselves and finding our power. Naturally, this involves a sense of trial and error, which plays out in Sister Sister with palpable force. Some of the most powerful work is the tightly cropped portraits, which describe the macro and micro physical shifts that take place with time. And, as Britt gets older, we watch her expressions transition from an angelic passivity to an active, sometimes suspicious or critical, participant in the work. 

© Liv Liberg, courtesy Art Paper Editions.

Their mutual love of fashion, particularly the influence of their mother as an icon of femininity, also shapes the sister’s collaboration. “We would sneak into the walk-in closet of our parents and always discover something new,” Britt remembers. “At some point, our parents put a lock on it because, although we often did it secretly, they found out we were using Yamamoto suits in the rainy forest or Comme des Garçons dresses on the farm near the cows.” The images conjure a sense of fantasy and admiration and describe how we metabolise the influence of the leading figures in our lives. “Apart from trying to imitate fashion photography, I was also looking at our mom,” Liberg explains. “She is really beautiful and was never without her red lipstick and pearl earrings. I always admired her femininity, and I was always trying to recreate it.”

The work also celebrates the nuances of the sister’s relationship. Liberg’s photographs capture a childlike sense of inhibition framed within their closeness as siblings. And this is grounded by their “free upbringing,” and an unrelenting desire to perform and play. “The shoots were always dramatic,” Britt shares. “We were either laughing so hard that taking photos was impossible, or we were fighting like sisters do. But actually, these were always the best ones. The fighting was not without reason, though. It happened when my sister decided to cover me in Vaseline or when I needed to stay in some weird pose that I didn’t even know my body could hold. Once, she put me outside in a laundry box in the snow. But I guess that’s just what sisters do.” Britt’s malleability as a subject derives in part from her devotion to her sister and her artistic vision. The willingness to exist in discomfort, to reveal herself and her body, is the sort that can only manifest within a profound foundation of trust. 

© Liv Liberg, courtesy Art Paper Editions.
© Liv Liberg, courtesy Art Paper Editions.
© Liv Liberg, courtesy Art Paper Editions.
© Liv Liberg, courtesy Art Paper Editions.

The passage of time is what makes the work so remarkable. The book presents the archive in a 12-month framework, enabling a muddling of time and space in each chapter that transports viewers years at the turn of a page. The sequencing serves the project well by animating multiple narrative threads and reinforcing the obsessive nature of the work. It also conceptually foregrounds an emotional tempo, the ebb and flow of an intimate relationship. As you move through the months, it becomes harder to discern where Britt’s performance ends, and Liberg’s vision begins. The two become mutually entwined, animating the unique power in picturing familial bonds. And reminding us that a photograph is something anyone can take, but accessing a relationship is sacred.

Sister Sister is published by Art Paper Editions. An exhibition of SISTER SISTER by Liv Liberg will run at Multiplemadé, Amsterdam, from 12 June to 21 July 2021.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.