006 / 01 August 2014 / FEATURES
Photography by Elena Montemurro
In Conversation with Ale Tarver
Elena Montemurro doesn't just photograph outcasts – she turns them into muses. Creating a cast of misfits and unconventional heroines, Elena's images evoke a world that challenges the viewer while remaining intimate, poignant, and humorous. She met up with New York based painter Ale Tarver to discuss her relationship with her subjects and her art form and why sometimes it's not a good idea to do your friend's makeup.
Ale Tarver: Judging by your portfolio, one of your main interests seems to be youth, young outliers of society, staged in certain locations. Are there cultural connection between the subjects and the sets you choose to photograph?
Elena Montemurro: Yes, definitely. All the images have their own story: some come from specific memories, some from specific movie scenes. For example, I shot a picture of my friend hanging out at this dairy barn drive-thru and I made sure she was dressed in pajamas. I chose that because it was a reflection of how I grew up in the suburbs, not really caring what you look like.
AT: So they are all staged? Because while they have a candid quality that feels very natural, when you look in their eyes their body language or their focal point, there is that setup tension that exists.
EM: I actually was speaking to someone recently about how in all of the photos, none of the subjects are making eye contact with me, which really separates me from being a documentary photographer, but also me being a voyeur versus me being on set.
AT: Are you a voyeur or do you associate with your subjects?
EM: It’s not only people I come into contact with. Usually I’m the one watching, but it’s been an event in my life before.
AT: Do you tell the people you photograph to think of certain things? Because there is some “weird” stuff going on with their faces.
EM: I have specific idea in mind, I tell them scenario, I’ll create a weird scene that just happened before the picture and explain to them, “Okay you just came from such and such place and now you feel this way…” Sometimes I step in their place and demonstrate “Show this look of fear, anxiety” and act it out. They’re all friends of mine, so it’s easy to direct.
AT: I feel like a lot of the pictures come from this relationship to the state of “hanging out.” The non-event. Can you speak to this at all?
EM: I think, once again, reflecting on my life, in the suburbs there isn’t much to do…a big part of my photos are being narratives in a way that it’s not really specific to what is going on, but for the in-between moments.
AT: No real story, just moments… staged moments.
EM: That’s why I feel comfortable with photography rather than a full video because of the mystery it provides for viewers, never saying too much, but allowing the viewer to build up this story.
AT: Have you ever tried to make a movie?
EM: I have actually. It’s really funny, I actually used the girl from the corn dog picture. It was very makeshift; I used my iPhone then edited it.
AT: What was it about?
EM: It was still based on this idea of “nothingness.” There was a young girl in the suburbs living with a beautiful stepsister. They didn’t like each other, the mom didn’t give a shit, but the main girl was strange-looking and had low-self esteem. She was addicted to eating chocolate pudding. One day she realized one of the ingredients was gone and she had asked her mom over and over again to make sure everything for the recipe was always in the house. She was screaming at her sister, saying, “Where is it?" The mom comes home and she lets all the anger out on the stepsister and shows her mom how she really feels in a screaming match. At the end, she ends up rolling around in the pudding.
AT: Were you thinking of any artists while you made it? Sounds a bit like Matthew Barney how you described it…
EM: Yes, a little bit, I think that was a time when I was super interested in video… movies, more so. I was watching a lot of Larry Clark and I had just seen Ken Park, a really disturbing movie with beautiful lighting. John Waters was also a big inspiration. I mimicked the ridiculousness of his style.
AT: So you said most people you photograph are your friends?
EM: Mainly people I grew up with and with whom I have a strong relationship…They know me and what I want to portray. I have trouble expressing what I want them to convey, so it’s harder with strangers. Sometimes I genuinely feel bad because I don’t realize I’m dressing them in a way in which I see them, but perhaps a way in which they haven’t seen themselves. I don’t want to bring out the worst in them, but at the same time I am so attracted to strange looking people that if I can have them look that way, while still being themselves, I think it’s interesting. Their acceptance is the tricky thing.
One of my friends who was modeling for me, went into it thinking, “Oh, Elena is going to make me look beautiful,” but that’s not what I have in mind. She is very into makeup and was trying to take over and I kept telling her, “No you need to let me cake on this eye shadow! It’s the only way I’m going to feel accomplished!” She was really pissed, but after she saw the shots, she loved it.
AT: Do you think most of your work is reflective of an aesthetic ideal rather than actual life?
EM: It’s actual life, but I think the way every artist portrays people is a mix of stereotypes and extreme versions. I have a specific style in my head of what I want them to look like which is where my preference in fashion and design come in.
AT: It’s definitely a twisted, gruesome beauty. For me when I read a lot of the pictures, I see this sense of wonder. Since they aren’t looking at the camera, it’s read as a reaction to something else, whether it’s an internal drugged-out wonder, or looking away while sitting next to someone. Can you speak to that sense?
EM: I want viewers to think not only about what’s going on in the pictures, but what is going on in themselves. I think that watching someone else do that forces you to reflect internally. I don’t want it to be instant gratification where you understand immediately what is going on in the images. If they look like they are on drugs, I want the viewer to ask, "What drugs are they on? How did they get to this place? Are they happy about it?" I like being able to relate to people who aren’t necessarily “artistic.” A lot of art ends up being only for artists. I prefer when you are instantly attracted to a piece, even if it isn’t aesthetically pleasing, because it makes you think.
AT: Especially in photography, because it’s more or less the most democratic of all mediums. With what I do, not a lot of people look at paintings…
EM: I also feel painting is always an art, because you have such an obvious talent. Photography has so many different versions that when I try to explain my work, I have to approach it being an artist.
AT: You’re into portraits, photos of people, self-portraits and the artists who you look up to, Cindy Sherman, Nicki S Lee, are experts in that field. In my work, there’s no people at all, just objects. I’m curious, what about making an image of a person is important to you?
EM: I suppose it’s because I like seeing emotions in people. I enjoy seeing what different people look like. Living in NYC, you come across so many different types of people, I enjoy seeing the variety out. My view is very specific and so is my look. Another photographer has a completely different idea. For me the important thing is how a work makes the viewer feel about his or her own place in society.
AT: How do you articulate the vision to yourself? Do you write?
EM: Sometimes if I have an idea, I write it down, or if I see something and take a picture with my phone that I use as references. Even for mood and characters, writing is also important to me, so I look at literary references.
AT: It’s interesting because that process is so foreign to my own. I have my apartment in a way where half of it’s studio, half is living area. For me, it’s more making the decision to set aside time to work three hours for six square inches of space.
EM: It’s different when you’re alone doing art, which is why I don’t like working with so many other people because I feel like it takes away from my photos since the subject is so aware of everyone around them.
AT: In order to craft, you need less people.
EM: I really feel that way. Sometimes I have to be left alone and do what I have to do.