Immediately after a relationship ends, we say a person "goes through" a break-up, as if a break-up is a physical place, some gruesome field of emotion one must walk through before emerging whole on the other side. For all the long-winded analyses and rage sessions with friends, a person walks through that field alone. Only you can bear witness to your pain and process of recovery — until now. With the help of some of the most famous actresses working today, photographer Caitlin Cronenberg and art director Jessica Ennis captured raw, emotionally saturated images of 28 women passing through relationships’ ends in their book of photography, The Endings, out September 4 from Chronicle Books.
Each of the 28 character studies is comprised of an evocative title and a series of photographs. In the seven-photo sequence entitled "He Said I Was Embarrassing at Parties," for example, Eleanor Tomlinson travels home wearing a ball gown, her face streaked with makeup and a look of grim disappointment. In other stories, Patricia Clarkson meets a younger lover in a private library; Jennifer Jason Leigh wades into the Pacific Ocean wearing beachy clothes; Sarah Gadon lights Ennis' actual "boyfriend box" from high school on fire; Danielle Brooks sits on the fire escape of a new apartment; Keira Knightley takes a melancholy bath.
Despite the range of settings and differing levels of surrealism — a pastoral shoot with Bel Powley in Victorian Era clothing looks like something out of a fairy tale — all the shoots have something in common: They contain visual depictions of emotional reckoning. “Each of these stories starts at the moment after you knew it was over. This is how I’m processing it. This is how I’m going through it," Cronenberg told Refinery29 of the photo series. "People have cried looking at the photos. They can relate to it."
For Ennis, who designed the look for each shoot, the book also refutes the common notion that it's important to be strong, above all, when experiencing a break-up. "It's okay to be ridiculous too," Ennis said. "You can express your emotions."
Because of its open-ended format, The Endings becomes an exercise in imagination, like a short story that replaces words with photos. While Ennis and Cronenberg's official synopses are located at the end of the book, part of the fun is meeting the book halfway and forging the story yourself.
The stories' "plots" aren't hard to detect — they're written all over the actresses' faces. Each actress fully inhabits her character, which was developed through conversations with Cronenberg and Ennis prior to the shoot. "This is an acting part, not a modeling gig," Cronenberg recalled telling participants.
In the early days of the project, Cronenberg would present potential participants with a handmade flip-book of the book's first photoshoot, which featured Toronto-based actress Christine Horne. Since the project was highly unusual, some actresses were initially wary of participating. "They said, 'I don't do photoshoots. I’m not a good model.' Cronenberg quickly worked to dispel those worries. "I was like great, don’t worry about it. You don't have to model. You don't have to pose. You just have to act. They loved being able to act and improvise with a story we had, and not having the pressure of nailing dialogue and hitting all their marks. It’s like a theater exercise."
After taking over 2,000 photos for each shoot, Cronenberg and Ennis had to embark on the toughest component of their journey: Narrowing down each story to no more than 10 pictures. The challenge was to choose the photos not for their beauty, but for their narrative value. “We both worked in fashion photography, and you have to pull yourself away from, ‘Oh she just looks perfect in this photo,” Ennis said.
Accompanying The Endings is a short film, also entitled The Endings, depicting a woman experiencing the tumultuous conclusion of a relationship. The camera is meant to be the perspective of her lover. To elicit a reaction from the actress, Melanie Scrofano, Ennis acted the part of the lover and exhumed all the most exhausting comments she'd heard from men in her own dating history. "I'd say, ‘You’re being crazy. Don’t you think you’re being a little bit emotional? You’re going in circles,'" Ennis recalled, laughing.
For Ennis and Cronenberg, the conclusion of this project also marks the end of a phase of their lives. For the past seven years, they've been writing break-up tales, recruiting actresses, preparing photoshoots, and working on layouts. They've seen their project grow from a fun side gig to a big side project to the job. Now, it's over. “It's a time capsule for us," Cronenberg said of the project. "I got married and had a kid. Jess had a kid and got divorced. All through the past seven years."
But, as The Endings shows, endings inevitably bleed into beginnings. We're excited to see the next phase in Ennis and Cronenberg's creative partnership.