Harry Callahan wrote: “the photographs that excite me are photographs that say something in a new manner”. You can take a good picture of anything, but the most important criterion to evaluate a photographer’s work is originality. Stephanie Gonot‘s photographs are deceptively simple. Her latest two series consist of images that desecrate and usurp reality by combining a thematic obsession (food) and an aesthetic vision both original and personal (a predilection for pop colours of modernist taste). They are pictures that show us an “inflated” reality with new points of view and without empty clichés.
Let’s talk about your latest series, “Food” and “Fad Diets”. Irving Penn used to say that you can get obsessed by anything, if you stare at it long enough. In the past, you have worked in an ice cream sandwich truck; was your obsession for food born out of that experience?
Working in an ice cream sandwich truck definitely triggered my obsession with food as an object to be photographed. And there’s actually one photograph that started it all… Shortly after beginning to work in this truck I had the idea to take a picture of my friend holding McDonalds vanilla cones over her breasts. That picture then got me interested in using ice cream in other contexts, and from there I moved on to using food products in general. I realized that with food you not only get color, texture and a cultural context but that you get the thought of a flavor and how that food makes you feel when you eat it. Food can be a powerful object in a composition.
These two series are composed by photographs of foods and objects savvily arranged, with a graphic precision and a relationship among lines, volumes and colours that creates an explosive mix of pop and surrealist suggestions. How much is there of improvised and of previously elaborated?
I tend to have at least a general idea of what I’d like to include in a photograph before beginning. However, I never know exactly how the materials (mostly the food) are going to act, so sometimes I have to change plans and end up making a completely different picture with some of the same “ingredients.” For example, I had the idea to make a pyramid out of 40 or so Jell-O cups removed from their plastic containers, but didn’t realize how unstable Jell-O can be (I mean, who thinks of Jell-O as a good building block for a pyramid??). The structure collapsed on itself once I started on the third level, but instead of throwing everything away I added an over-ripe frozen banana to the mess, re-framed my camera and found an entirely different image.
Your gaze is not austere. The ironic touch always includes stirring ambiguity and a point of view about objects’ physiognomy that catches the spectator off-guard. Sandwiches pierced by needles, cigarette stubs put off on cakes and ice creams squashed or melted on the ground – they are pictures of convulsed beauty and charged with tension.
I keep little lists on my phone and in notebooks of different food/objects which pique my interest. I guess I just think of objects and look at objects until I find combinations which make me feel a little strange. I want to make images that stick in your mind or make you look twice. Or make you think of a certain object or food in a different way.
What is your technique when photographing? Do you use analog cameras, or have you welcomed the digital age?
I started out shooting black & white film with an amateur SLR in college and printed in a darkroom but moved to a digital camera for most of my work a couple of years ago. Shooting digitally helps me make the still life work that I do because it can take a lot of time to set up some of the shots and get them just the way I want. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the patience or the resources to work the way I do if I were shooting on film. I’m much more about the final image now and how it fits in with the rest of my work than whether I shoot on film or not.
I do, however, still develop black & white film in my kitchen when I can and scan to my computer. There’s something exhilarating about developing your own negatives… And I like pretending I’m a chemist.
You have started your activity in L.A.’s cinematographic industry, and only later you got into photography. What has remained to you of that first experience and how much did it influence the formation of your photographic language?
One of the great things about Los Angeles for me is that I’m surrounded by people working on creative endeavors, whether it’s music, filmmaking, comedy, photography, etc. Many of my friends work in the film industry or are making their own video projects and it’s very inspiring to see their efforts. But I don’t think there’s much of a carry-over from working in TV commercials to what I work on now.
Are there any subjects that you absolutely avoid to photograph?
I’m not terribly fond of taking headshots. But for some reason I am strangely attracted to product photography… like, really “bad” product photography. Lately I’ve been interested in the way cultures other than my own display food and other products. I have some pretty amazing nail salon posters from the 90’s that I found in a Vietnamese-owned nail supply store here in Los Angeles. Nowadays the blemishes would be photoshopped out but on these posters you can see all of the creases and pores on the woman’s hands.
Will you devote your work again to the theme of food or do you have other projects?
I am still currently working with food in my images, but I would like to get back into doing portraiture more often. Working with food brought me into the world of still life and now I would like to apply what I’ve learned about composition and lighting from making still lifes to making portraits.
I had the chance to hear photographer Stefan Ruiz speak at the 2009 PhotoEspaña festival in Madrid and he told the audience that he tries to set up people sitting for portraits as objects (almost like a still life) in order to make graphically appealing images. This information, plus what I learned from a master course with photographer Roger Ballen during the same time, has informed my picture-taking since then. Roger Ballen’s message at the end of the course was that everything in the frame should be there for a reason. I feel like that’s how I treat my still lifes but not necessarily how I deal with portraits.
Tell us about your activity of curator and your project in this field. How do you decide who and what should be published or exhibited? “Do you have any exhibitions planned for the coming months?”
I started a little “photo of the day” blog a few years ago, Please Excuse The Mess, to catalogue the photographic work I was finding at on the internet. A year into the blog I had a small print show of about 30 or so of my favorite photographers who had been submitting to the blog. I asked the photographers to mail me a select 8-10 small prints for the show and to my surprise almost everyone I contacted said yes. Since then I’ve curated a handful of projection shows and photo events around Los Angeles.
As far as future exhibitions, I’m looking at putting together a week/weekend of photography related talks here in Los Angeles, possibly set for next spring.
How is a standard day of yours, and which are your passions, besides photography?
A: Coffee. Comedy. Colors. Plants.