In his project Pretend You’re Actually Alive, the New York photographer Leigh Ledare celebrates love despite all taboos. Every shot of his punctures prejudice, destroys the conservative illusion of “a normal family,” and reveals the intimate sensuality, those special relations Leigh has with his own mother, the red-haired ballet, and strip dancer Tina Peterson.
Pretend You’re Actually Alive was exhibited only once, in the Andrew Roth Gallery, and later, the PPP Editions published it in the limited 1000 edition. By the way, the publishers are also responsible for bringing us the works by Larry Clark, and Nan Goldin. These days, the edition is, undoubtedly, a rarity, 240 pages of unadulterated documentation telling the story of the son enchanted with the sexuality of his own mother, his sincere feeling unfurled, the story of his drug-addict brother, his girlfriends, and young lovers of his mother’s.
Pretend You’re Actually Alive is the bold look at everything hidden, and banned, a family album that suddenly speaks freely, without censure, opening a barred room that exists in every family home.
It’s the summer before seventh grade. Mom’s started calling me into her room in the afternoon, “to talk”. Sometimes she’ll even give me a couple dollars to fold origami to display with her fans and perfume collection. But mostly she’s just lonely and pays me to keep her company. She tells me how when she was my age she was dancing with the Joffrey Ballet in New York and practically living alone. Igor Schvetzov, her instructor, was a legend and like a father to her. He’d take her to try on fur coats and would introduce her to famous people, and he slept in a real Russian sleigh covered with polar bear skins. She talks a lot about people in the pictures on her walls too. How Issadora Duncan was riding in a carriage wearing a very long scarf which got caught in the wheels and broke her neck, killing her instantly. I like her picture, but my favorite is the one of Mikhail Baryshnikov, because I can still remember him carrying me on his shoulders when he stayed at our house.
Mom tells me I’m good listener, and I’m lucky, cause girls like that. She says dad is awful at that. Sometimes in the evenings when Mom teaches her aerobics class I visit Dad. Mom found a stack of love letters he wrote to the lady who used to rent our spare room, so they don’t talk anymore. He just sort of lies around in his tighty whiteys on this green couch cushions on the laundry room floor. He refuses to shave or shower. Mom thinks he’s trying to make her look bad, like she married a loser. Sometimes I’ll go sit with him but he doesn’t really have anything to say.
Sometimes I hang out and watch Mom and her friends exercising in their tights. Mom says they’re not really her friends, that rich people don’t know what that word means. Besides, they’re all jealous of her, cause she’s talented and beautiful and they never will be.
Her room smells like perfume. Mom’s lying on her bad, running her fingers through her hair. A breeze is coming in from the curtains. Sinking back in my chair I watch her. I can see the side of one of her breasts through the slit in her robe but I try not to look too hard. Suddenly she pushes herself up. “I’m gonna take a shower to cool down,” she says. She stands up and lets the pink robe slip off her shoulder and fall around her ankles.
She walks to the bathroom off her room and starts the shower. Bending over slowly she tests the water with her hand and I can see the dusky color of her ass. Through the frosted glass shower door I watch her get her hair wet and wash herself.
When the water stops I pretend to be asleep. I hear the shower door shut behind her. My eyes are open just a slit but I see her walk straight back into the room and lie on the bed. She is entirely naked. Her hair is wet and her legs are stretched out and covered with droplets. Her eyes are closed but I can tell she knows I’m watching her. Her nipples are hard. The mound of red hair at her crotch is starting to dry and get fluffy. A few minutes later she stretches and lets out a sigh. “I thought it would feel nice to airdry,” she says.