Maya Deren and the Skin Between Us


I joke that she is my girlfriend now. I suppose this feeling of intimacy is not uncommon among biographers, although biography sounds too proper a term to describe this process. To be intimate implies that a kind of mutual understanding between people, an agreement of sorts that barriers might be negotiable, semi-permeable. One person gives permission, utters the secret password allowing the other at least an attempt to pass beyond the skin. Maya Deren has not consented to my investigations, my insinuating closeness.

My crush is time-tested though; I have been in love with her since seeing Meshes of the Afternoon in a film history class in 1979. If one develops feelings of intimacy and the other remains cold, something is amiss or someone is dead. I am a trespasser, a kind of necrophiliac stalker. As my research into the minutiae of her life has inevitably developed into a primary relationship, I sometimes even harbor resentments that might be more appropriate for the living: “Why am I doing all the work? You never ask how I’m doing. What about my feelings?” Nevertheless, I continue my digging.

White cotton gloves allow the researcher to rustle through cardboard boxes, unpacking the paper remnants of a life. She was born Eleanora Derenkowski in Kiev in the year of the Bolshevik Revolution. Her parents called her “Elinka”.  She became “Maya” in 1943. Beyond what is generally known about her life and work, I discover the odd bits.  As a young girl she was self-conscious of her thick legs, always wearing knee-high lace-ups and calling herself “Bootsy.” In her late teens she was the national secretary for the Young People’s Socialist League. She single-handedly set up a kind of socialist summer camp on Lake Cazenovia, near her home in upstate New York.



During her Greenwich Village years, she would leash her cat and take it out for a walk in Washington Square Park. She was an obsessive list maker. Late nights on Benzedrine, she wrote down everything she had to do the next day, week, and month. She listed the people she had to call, write. Endless shopping lists, and then if she were still awake, on vertical index cards she would list every product in her cupboard, closets, drawers, and medicine chest in alphabetical order. An unmarked file contains numerous letters from her landlord complaining about the stench of cats. In return, she wrote voluminous manifestos full of literary references, outrage, and embarrassment at the clogged drains when Dylan Thomas or Anais Nin was dining at her apartment on Morton Street. Frayed legal pads, spiral notebooks of every size, mimeographs of manuscripts, drafts of letters to editors, bank records, invoices for film rentals, fragments of poems scribbled on napkins; the density of paper artifacts seems to clog the eyes as much as the ink irrevocably smudges the white cotton gloves.

Minor shocks of a slowly unfolding revelation pinch me awake from a library-induced trance when I discover fragile silver gelatin prints tucked in the gutters of the manila folders that constitute her archive.  Among the film stills and PR glossies are the miscellaneous personal photographs. This sporadic array of images punctuates the abstract timeline of the forty-four years of her time on earth, 1917-1961.



On occasion, as I opened a folder, errant 16mm frames have fallen to the floor like fingernail clippings. I pick them up and hold them up to the light, fragments of her canonical films.  1/18th of second of Ritual in Transfigured Time, I have to resist the temptation to slip the orphan film frame into my pocket.

A photograph from 1921, the year before the family’s escape across the Polish border, the four-year-old Elinka is wrapped in a velvet coat trimmed in chinchilla, a proud toddler of upper middle class parents. Skiing in Switzerland in 1931 at the lip of a steep slope wearing a black leotard- a flowery sash circles her hips, her hair wild corkscrews. May Day 1936, Eleanora marching down the streets of New York City in formation with her comrades from the Young Peoples Socialist League. The men behind her carry banners, she swings her arms, perhaps in rhythm with political chants. Severe-looking Irish cops line the parade route separating the young activists from the fedora-headed crowd gawking from the sidewalks.

The gray field of the contact sheet proves the negatives were underexposed. I bring the contact sheet closer to my face, squinting. The images are faint, ghostly, and thin like smoke. Almost hidden among the salt-and-pepper graininess I can discern candlesticks, bath bubbles, a champagne glass, and glistening skin. A hot flush of embarrassment engulfed me as if I had inadvertently thrown a door wide open, catching a private moment. My head jerked up to frantically scan the quiet room of the archive, worried for prying gazes. It seemed inappropriate for my eyes to be viewing such personal photographs, me, who had been fantasizing about her for over twenty years, much less some unworthy film scholar.

Is there a relationship between intimacy and embarrassment? Is embarrassment a flight away from intimacy? Is intimacy achieved only after getting beyond embarrassment? Again, I had to fight the impulse to shove the pictures into my jacket pocket, to protect her from potentially less discreet eyes. But my ethics, guilt, and/or superstition got the better of me, and I left the revealing images in the bland camouflage of the manila folder.  Who took these photos I wondered.  Maya had three husbands and many lovers.  She, who spent years both in front of and behind the movie camera, was certainly aware of the dance of seduction between camera and subject.  I wished it had been me, setting up that tripod, behind the lens, temporarily distanced from her intensity, but soon to relinquish.

With my discomfort settling down to an occasional vague twinge, several days later I find myself drawn to a photograph of her in the early 1940s. It is a close-cropped image; black-and-white of course, it appears to have been taken on a beach. The photographer was probably her second husband, Alexander (Sasha) Hammid or maybe it was Hella Heyman, Maya’s assistant who would eventually marry Hammid). The exposure was most likely made on a Long Island beach while they were shooting her second film, At Land. It may have even been the same day that Maya met Anals Nin, right there in the surf while Maya, Alexander, and Hella were shooting what would be the opening scenes of At Land.

In the photograph her hair is wet, ropey, and dark, curls looser, more relaxed than when dry. She stares directly into the lens. She is enveloped in a bright and hazy light. I stare at this picture and I am moved, stirred even, in a visceral, lovesick way. No, this picture was not made for me, but something in her gaze suggests that she was aware that others would see the image.  She is projecting her self-awareness, her challenge into the future, creating a posthumous recognition of this exchange of glances between us.

The picture though tantalizing, is not enough. My fantasy must include narrative. Language has its own distancing devices, but for me there is the possibility of a deeper connection through storytelling. Yes, I imagine her private moments and intimate spaces yet I cannot separate my physical attraction from why I was drawn to her in the first place.



She was a filmmaker of extraordinary power. Her films mesmerize, draw the viewer into her spell, into the intimate space of her film vision. Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, Choreography for Camera, Ritual in Transfigured Time, Meditation on Violence, The Very Eye of Night, and even her unfinished epic on Haiti all share an aspect of trance, of the narrative of the unconscious, of movement in relation to transcendence.

Whether it manifests itself in her international politics, her experimental spirit in filmmaking or as an initiate of Voudou, she searched for a way to transcend the isolation of the individual. She believed that we might move our bodies, open our eyes and our souls in such a way that we might expand beyond the limit of our skins.

So I fixate on that image, that bright bubble of a time capsule as I picture her back on the beach on Long Island on that day in 1943. A photograph is a transaction between different modes of time. I want to open negotiations with that sealed moment. I try to push beyond the transparent barrier, the hard and shiny surface of the photograph, slip through the emulsion, to emerge from the fixedness of the film and pass through the skin between us.

The photograph resists like the surface of a soap bubble, then, without breaking, it relents, temporarily parting as I slide in followed by a little whoosh as it closes seamlessly behind me. I am momentarily blind as my other senses become engaged. I am granted full sensual access to the moment, no longer only subject to the tyranny of the eyes. I am benevolently allowed to feel the humidity and warmth of the day, to smell the saline breath of the sea air and to touch the sand-papery coating on her skin.



With a jump cut, my perspective shifts as I hover above two human figures scurrying in and out of the waves like sandpipers. A third body rocks lifelessly in the surf. Has there been a drowning. As I draw closer I sense a lack of urgency in the scene, the standing figures do not seem panicked. To the contrary, they appear curious yet detached as the body is pushed and pulled by the moderately breaking waves. The beach is proscenium, a space of enigmatic gestures. Suddenly the drowned figure rises of its own volition, the sodden dress clings to Maya dramatically.

Sasha cradles the 16mm Bolex camera, his un-tucked white shirt billowing and trousers rolled up to just below the knee. He consults with the dark-haired Hella, who carries a different camera strapped around her neck. Both are barefoot, grains of wet sand clinging to their ankles sparkle like gritty gems. The hiss of the wind and grumbling of the sea are the soundtrack to this otherwise silent film. Sasha and Hella point their fingers and lenses down toward the sand and water panning up to the body that has again deposited itself further into the surf. The sea goddess rests on her side and then flops on her back; the incoming waves wash over her in a chaotic rhythm, the nest of her curls unraveling and slithering around her head.

Sasha winds a knob on the side of his camera; he stands unnaturally straight with a slight bowing out at his chest as if his body were being pulled toward the heavens by an unseen force. He lifts his arm in a salute or only to shade his eyes. Hella positions a small hand-held light meter over Maya’s body as if it could conduct talismanic power. Hella bends and points the device, straightens her back and holds it in front of her face while her lips move with great deliberation. Is she mouthing a prayer? A command? A plea? An observation? A curse? Like a supplicant performing an alien ritual, she repeats this sequence of bending, pointing, straightening and mouthing, until she finally steps aside and the man with the movie camera swoops down to survey the reclining water-borne body as if it were an undiscovered island.

At the end of the day when all the exposed rolls of film have been taped back into their metal cans, Maya unsheathes herself from her clothing for a final swim. The Rolleiflex comes out of a camera bag; without verbal response she turns toward Sasha ‘s angular body and stands facing the slanting light, staring into the lens as if questioning the random eyes of her future admirers. The sea meets the sky in a sharp line, the color washed out of the scene by the overbearing sun. The blues of ocean and air seem a faint memory, seen only on postcards. In Maya’s faceted blue/green eyes the turbulent gray of the Atlantic slaps at the flat blue/gray of the cloudless dome. The requisite gulls soar and plunge like white punctuation marks animating the otherwise empty sky. The whitewashed clamshells are underfoot, the drying strands of seaweed feather the shore. She thinks, why isn’t the blue blazing? Why does this scene appear contrived? How funny it is when reality becomes a pale imitation of kitsch.

She waits for the shutter to finish nibbling at her surface. Like a detective listing clues or an anthropologist dispassionately recalling the details of a ritual, Maya assembles a mental list of what happened that day on the beach in Amagansett.

– Was it four or five sprints down the shoreline?

– Five. It would have been four but Hella forgot to wind the camera motor, she did not hear the calls of “Cut, Cut!” over the wind and surf.

– Running very close to the water line so that the incoming tide would erase the footprints between each shot.

– Running until calves cramped, the muscles contracting into a tightly knotted ball.

– Salt in mouth, sand in hair, the murmur of Sasha and Hella’s voices in the distance as she walked back toward the camera alter one of the running scenes.

– Was that a twinge of jealousy? Their voices seemed to belong together.

– Submerged in the surf. The water was cold and violent; she had to offer herself to it repeatedly for the opening sequence.

– Cold graininess clogs her ears, muffled surf; the sun begins to burn her forehead.

– Sasha said that he watched new freckles being born, new patterns, latent constellations on her face.

– Waves pushed the dress up beyond her knees, with her thighs she pressed down into the sand to prevent the hemline from rising higher.

– Gooseflesh, what an odd term.

– It was an effort not to squint while being filmed staring toward the zenith.

– The light unnaturally sharp as if the earth were being illuminated by a substitute star more severe than our own.

– Anais! Between clamping her eyes shut in the surf and forcing them open in the salty brightness, she materialized, an almost unholy apparition swathed in black lace.

– A passing fright, a clenching in the solar plexus.

– Standing, the sun begins to warm her sea-pickled skin.

– The voice of Anais provided secondary warmth; she felt her own charm begin to kindle.

– Sea, wind, Hella, Sasha, and Anais’ companions becoming incrementally peripheral.

– Space stretched and warped creating an unnatural distance. For a few moments all that mattered was this connection, a dialog between two women, playful and tinged with minor threat.

– A vision of Anais in a future film, her face soft-focused and severe simultaneously.

– Odd, a coincidence, both the opening and closing scenes of At Land were shot today.

– The final scenes of Meshes were shot in the Pacific, the opening scenes of At Land in the Atlantic. Spliced together the films could almost merge, her character stepping from one watery dream to the next.

She turns away from Sasha she is done with the camera, at least for today. Tomorrow there will be new images; of gathering more stones than one can hold in one’s arms, of silently walking down a sandy path with John Cage, of climbing the withered roots of a beached tree, of stealing a pawn from two lovely women playing chess by the shore.

As Maya walks toward the Atlantic, I experience another sudden shift of perspective. A violent gust propels me backward toward the future. I am being sucked away from the moment, rejected by the past, compelled to return to my own time. As if I were watching from the wrong end of a telescope, Maya is a tiny silhouette rapidly diminishing against the expansive surf. I want to stay and maybe swim with her, to ignore the presence of Sasha and Hella, to exchange breath like lovers, to lick the salt from her lips. But I am backed up against the photograph’s membrane, pressed against the emulsion. The skin gives, stretches and strains until it silently expels me, like an exhalation back into the muffled stillness of the library archive. I am outside the photograph.

I keep a photocopy of that picture taped to the back wall of a canary yellow bookcase that faces the pillow-end of my bed. Whenever I glance over, there she is, burning that young woman stare. A horizontal crease cuts across her lace just below the bridge of her nose. Sometime in the past the picture was folded in half, causing a ragged interruption in the seamlessness of the photographic window. The illusion of the photograph’s transparency is shattered, yet the power of her presence remains undiminished. Perhaps it is even stronger, like a stranger refused entrance staring through the broken shutters. The crease makes a slightly ascending horizon line over which her eyes hover like twin spheres. Her shoulders are bare, without evidence of a strap to secure the top of a bathing suit. Just beyond the rivulets of dark curls, the line of her left shoulder trails off in shadow down to her breast that softly rises just beyond the frame. My eyes (in utter agreement with some yearning deep in my own breast) ache to finish the descending journey of that line. It begins again.



This essay first appeared in Camerawork, Vol 30, Number 2, Fall/Winter 2003