Exclusive Interview: Anna Marie Tendler Ruminates on Loss in ‘Rooms in the First House’

Though she usually prefers to communicate through her art, Anna Marie Tendler spoke exclusively to Observer about her recent work, the isolation we all feel, and what the future holds.

To Be Haunted by Anna Marie Tendler
Anna Marie Tendler

With its soft, lamplit scenes and carefully posed curios, Anna Marie Tendler’s debut photo series, “Rooms in the First House,” evokes much older art. Inspired in part by the Dutch masters and Renaissance — mainstays at her childhood trips to the Met — the photos overwhelmingly evoke gothic, haunted paintings and grainy film stills. 

The series, set primarily in Tendler’s home, is lit near-exclusively by tungsten lamps of her own design — a multidisciplinary artist, she also creates handmade Victorian lampshades. Her interest in textiles and patterns is only emphasized in the photos, set across a number of different, visually-rich (and oft-wallpapered) rooms, from the living room and bedroom to a mirrored dance studio and the hallway stairs. 

Tendler is a social media pioneer, an early Tumblr star whose daily make-up looks earned her 350,000 followers and a YouTube series titled ‘The Other Side’ that combined beauty with the paranormal in a way that would foreshadow the haunted aesthetics of her later work.  In the weeks ahead of her smash success at Other Art Fair LA,  Tendler spoke exclusively with the Observer about themes of loss, isolation and the way the specific can feel universal during these troubled times. It is the first interview since her well-publicized split from her husband, the comedian John Mulaney.

“The house that I live in, where I take these photos, was sort of a realization of my personal aesthetic when I designed it,” Tendler told the Observer. “When I was doing that, I didn’t quite realize that it was also going to become a character in my artwork.”

She began to ideate her series in January, and started sharing photos online a few months later. “Dinner in March” — a long dinner table set for two, with only Tendler seated, head bent to her wrist in distress — struck a chord among the fellow isolated. Her series’ throughline entails “the often non-linear experiences of loss, anger, and powerlessness, as well as a reclamation of identity,” and though that sounds wrought, there are definitely moments of levity. (See: her re-creation of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” album cover.) 

SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 23: Actor Molly Shannon and Artist Anna Marie Tendler photographed during The Other Art Fair Los Angeles presented by Saatchi Art in partnership with BOMBAY SAPPHIRE at Barker Hangar on September 23, 2021 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for The Other Art Fair)

“We’ve all lost things in the past year and a half. I think that a lot of people have experienced feeling isolated and feeling powerless against what’s going on in the world. It feels like just a very heavy time for humanity,” Tendler said. “I was sort of surprised, once I started sharing the work, how universal it felt.” 

She added: “When we’re dealing with grief or when we’re dealing with loss, we often think that we’re the only people that are having those experiences … we probably aren’t as alone as we think we are.”  

And this universality finds a home, too, in one of her core interests throughout the series: astrology. “Rooms in the First House” references Tendler’s astrological house as much as her home. A number of photos are explicitly titled after astrological events, while several others were taken during an astrological event. 

‘Love Letter’ by Anna Marie Tendler Anna Marie Tendler

“I would say [my photography and astrology are very entwined] … this year I am in the first house,” Tendler explains. During astrological events, “it sort of became my ritual to set up and do a photograph that was kind of like me writing down my intention, or you know, letting go of something or manifesting something.”

She takes “at least an hour” to compose some of her images, “pulling things from around my house that are sort of meaningful to me.” Frequent appearances include flowers and notably, decorative sets of antlers, which are often symbolic for regeneration — a clear match to the first house, known too as the house of the self.

“The pieces where I’m not in them, they still are very reflective of me or hold a lot of symbolic meaning. However, because I’m not physically in them I feel much more comfortable zeroing in on them,” Tendler said. These are taken with a portrait lens, unlike those photos where she’s included —  shots that include her body are distant, shot with a wide angle lens; she calls them, to some degree, “voyeuristic.” Even as the creator, she explains, she feels an extra degree of space from them.

A former dancer, Tendler’s very aware of how she poses her body for photographs; in “God, It’s Brutal Out Here” she’s in a suspended slide down the stairs, legs nearly floating above the steps; in another image, she’s adjusting a pointe shoe with her leg bent into a right angle onto a piano bench, tutu flaring black around her, a spot of tulle just barely concealing her eyes. It’s the attention to detail that renders the photos so painterly and immovable. 

‘God, It’s Brutal Out Here’ by Anna Marie Tendler Anna Marie Tendler

It’s easy to picture her as the ghost haunting the house; the waif pressing her hands to her eyes, clad only in lingerie. But it’s countered by other works in the series: In “Good Mourning,” she’s regal and authoritative, singular in a space clearly meant for many; in an untitled work, she tosses plates from a high window, distant from their shattering; in another eerie work, her bare back’s to the camera in what could be a seance or sacrifice or summoning, candles lit and antlers placed.

“A lot of [the series] just has to do with female identity in particular. There’s so much that lives inside of us, and we sort of have so many different characters that either we play or that society forces us to play,” Tendler said. “Partially, it’s sort of a nod to that — kind of experimenting with all of the selves that live inside of us.”

Those selves appear in different positions, different outfits: eating takeout in bed, lighting sage in a silken gown, collapsing into a chair. In one photo, Tendler gazes slyly at the camera as she lights her cigarette with a candelabra. 

In capturing a multitude of selves that strengthen and falter, find independence in empty space and suffer in its vastness, Tendler has seized upon not just a personal experience but the recognition of the self in such an isolated period. And with a magnitude of grace and wisdom.

“When I was young, l loved ‘The Secret Garden’ and these sort of haunted spaces, and these old like abandoned castles — they felt very romantic to me, or like places I wanted to live in. I wanted to live in a haunted attic or something, or an old Victorian house,” Tendler said. “I’m not sure I can really put my aesthetic exactly into words, but it’s certainly informed by a Victorian haunting.”

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Exclusive Interview: Anna Marie Tendler Ruminates on Loss in ‘Rooms in the First House’