Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Being Kate

Photographer searches for herself in a world of Kate Bowen

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When it comes to stereotypes, local photographer Kate Bowen is not afraid to explore them. From what she calls her "angsty bangs" that border dangerously on hipster to her bad-hair-day hat that looks like the 1920s must-have accessory of the year, Bowen is the first to acknowledge her fascination with stereotypes. "Stereotypes are kind of how we shape our world," she explains, occasionally flipping the brim of her flapper-esque chapeau up and down.

If Bowen were a stereotype, she would be the hyper-motivated college art student. She just received her bachelor's degree in art for photography from Boise State and is applying to graduate school at Yale, New York University and Columbia, to name a few. While attending Boise State, she lived in Eagle with her parents, commuted to school, drove to McCall every weekend to work as a bartender and came home in time for community soccer on Sundays. She likes her multifaceted lifestyle and says she is happy so long as she doesn't have to commit to being just one thing. "If I want to be a truck driver, I'll go be a truck driver," she remarks with deadpan sincerity.

For one year, Bowen took on the task of impersonating the Kate Bowens of the world, and now her life is filled with them. She found this world of namesakes by doing something many of us do but are embarrassed to admit: she Googled her own name. "I was just curious to see what I'd find," she confesses, "but I never in a million years guessed it would lead to this." Bowen received over two million hits, almost none of which were about her. In fact, she says, it took a while to find herself, and this idea of being anonymous in a crowd of Kate Bowens is what became the impetus for her project.

When it comes to family, she likes to explain hers as "four engineers and me." Her parents work as chemical engineers, as do her two younger sisters. While Bowen believes that chemistry is a "beautiful profession," she prefers the artistic aspect of chemicals, electing to spend her time in the darkroom.

Bowen says she likes to think of herself as having been a photographer since age 8. "I had my Mickey Mouse camera, and I shot my little brains out," she says, making a clicking motion with her fuchsia-tipped fingers. Now she uses a medium-format camera, which she says can never be replaced by digital. Photoshop isn't nearly as interesting as a darkroom to Bowen. "It's not the reason I started loving photography," she says. The process of developing a print is something she holds close to her heart, and her most recent project is testament to her ambition with a camera.

"Google sorts things in order of what it thinks is relevant to you. You never think about it when you're searching an object, but when it's a person, it's something completely different." Knowing that Google found these other Kate Bowens to be more relevant than her was difficult to come to terms with. "Somehow, I just assumed that my computer would know I was searching for me," she laughs. When she realized how many strangers were out there with her name, she decided she wanted to get to know them by becoming them, and photography seemed to be the most logical way to go about it.

The Google description of one Kate Bowen reads like a promotional video script: "Kate Bowen is a very talented female from Canada relocated in Atlanta, GA she plays Keyboards, Saxophone and Percussions along with her beautiful light airy..." Another sounds as though it comes from a pop-up advertisement: "Kate Bowen : find the latest news, photos, filmography and awards at Yahoo! Movies." Kate Bowen is also an "experienced corporate strategist" and a "far prettier Garth Algar." The diversity of these women's lives got the Boise-based Bowen thinking about who they are and what they might look like.

She bought an at-home light kit and carefully chose her setting for the series in which, using herself as the model, she photographs what she thinks the other Kate Bowens might look like.

Each Kate Bowen is set against a stark white background and shot in a way that eliminates shadow. By doing this, her series obtains a sterile, other-world quality that she says represents the "Internet personalities," because these women don't necessarily exist in the way Google portrays them. "Any one of these Kate Bowens could be the same person, but in Google, they exist just as a musician or a teacher or an art professor." What looks at first to be a series of 20 photographs about 20 different women becomes a many-layered collage of what-ifs and personal identity questions.

Bowen changes her clothing and hair to suit what she has determined is the stereotypical look for a high-school soccer player or dancer. The only detail she does not change is her makeup. "I've been told all my life I have a really pliable face, so I didn't do any makeup for these." The result is eerie.

At first glance, the high-powered businesswoman Kate Bowen looks to be a 40-something executive. Her hand is extended, eyebrows raised, hair clipped short, mouth twisted into an over-the-top grin. She looks like she's meeting a client on Wall Street. It's somewhat disconcerting to look at the 24-year-old photographer and try to match her up with the woman in the picture.

When asked how she felt portraying these women, Bowen says, "I feel connected to these Kate Bowens. They're different from me, but we share the same name, which is a lot." Bowen feels very strongly about her name. "I hate it when people call me Katie ... Not that I have anything against Katies, but it just doesn't suit me." To Bowen, a person's name is part of his or her persona. "Kates are headstrong, stubborn and strong-willed." She cites Katherine, or "Kate" in The Taming of the Shrew as being a good indicator of what her name represents.

One adventure on which Bowen plans to embark is contacting the women she portrayed in her series. She says she would like to wait until she's in graduate school to do so. Bowen likes the idea of contacting the women she's portrayed to show them the photographs, but she seems nervous about it too. Maybe her stereotype of them might be completely wrong, or completely right.

Find out more about the Boise Kate Bowen at Myspace.com/katebowen2.