Who is Tom Wilkins? That is the question Sébastien Girard has been trying to answer since 2011 when he acquired 900 enigmatic Polaroids, which were later published in 2017 under the title My TV Girls. This series of television captures, ranging from 1978 to 1982, consistently features women and concludes with the only self-portrait in the series where Tom Wilkins portrays himself as a woman. Found in an house in Boston, United States, the acquisition of this extensive photographic series gave rise to the almost detective-like investigation that Sébastien Girard pursued for nearly 12 years in order to unravel the mystery of Tom Wilkins.
What we know about Tom Wilkins can be summed up in a few words: he is believed to have lived from 1951 to 2007 and likely resided in Boston. So how should we interpret his body of images? They serve as illustrations, albeit with a certain rawness, of how television, and American society along with it, shaped the image of the desirable woman at that time. It becomes apparent that Wilkins raises much deeper questions, ranging from the quest for identity to the sublimation of libido. Wilkins’ self-portrait, taken in a mirror with his face obscured by the camera and dressed in a bra, acts as the key to this enigma. By sifting through and assembling these Polaroids like an editor, Sébastien Girard discovers the main clue hidden at the heart of the work: Wilkins’ signature placed on the white frame of the photograph. This final Polaroid seems to overshadow the entire body of work, opening up the complex realm of the gender question.
The work is both unique and kaleidoscopic, absorbed by its sole subject, carrying passion to the point of methodical, applied, and studious documentation. It possesses the magnetism of the stars he photographs, through an eye that one can imagine is transported and ecstatic. With a gesture that is fascinated and enamored, becoming as natural as a reflex through repetition. Shot after shot, Tom Wilkins transforms into a snapshot of femininity at the turning point of the 1980s, embodying the comfortable and anticipatory voracity of the television viewer. Wilkins goes as far as constructing a memory. The immediacy of the polaroid, which instantly captures an image with a single motion, responds perfectly to this endeavor—unlike Miroslav Tichy, whose voyeuristic obsession relies on the accidents of development, variations in aperture, and exposure time.
Through this methodical collection of female subjects elevated to the status of icons, Tom Wilkins simultaneously reveals and eludes himself, leaving us ultimately alone in front of the bluish beauty of his captivating ensemble. By turning this collection into a book, Sébastien Girard adds a fictional dimension to Tom Wilkins’ documentary photography, made available through his enigmatic story. In the realm of publishing, it forms the script for a film yet to be made or unearthed.