013 / 12 September 2014 / Features
Photography by Jake Sigl
In Conversation with Dana Kopel
Dana Kopel, curator and writer, in conversation with photographer Jake Sigl. Get their take on the model/photographer relationship, femininity, and on the idea behind "non-traditional" beauty.
Dana Kopel: Let’s start by talking about your process. It seems like you work really collaboratively with Lauren, your model, in a way that most photographers probably don’t, at least not in a fashion context.
Jake Sigl: My first photos of Lauren were heavily directed by me, and I got some good ones and then some of them didn’t come out. So for a lot of the ones that are going to be in the magazine, I’d give her the camera and have her look through the lens, and tell her, okay I want you to do this and then act out the pose. And then we’d flip it around and she’d do that, maybe put her own twist on it. It’s a very heavily collaborative process.
DK: How long have you been working with her?
JS: I met her a couple years ago, because my friend was doing a shoot inspired by Harmony Korine, Gummo and stuff like that, and she wanted to use me in it. And she was asking if anyone knew of any people for the project. Her friend that went to Pratt was like, Oh you should shoot this girl Lauren, she goes to SVA. So then we met on that shoot and we were like, This is fun, we should hang out more. The rest is history.
DK: What do you and Lauren do when you’re not shooting?
JS: We hang out at my house or her house, cook food, watch movies or TV. We journal a lot together. She has a collection of like 20 or 30 journals, she’s kept them since she was like ten or eleven. And she’s totally open about it too, like, yeah, you can read it if you want. That kind of inspired me to keep journals. So yeah, we journal together, draw... It’s such a nice way to share. It’s a very beautiful thing to me.
DK: And she’s also a photographer?
JS: Yes. I think we’re in tune to a lot of similar ideas and inspirations, but our photos are very aesthetically different... In my work I try to put an emphasis on femininity, maybe even queering the image. I’m not using a lot of strobes or lighting, nothing is totally set up—I really want the strangeness and the femininity and naturalism to come across.
DK: The photos also feel really intimate. There’s one in particular where it looks like Lauren is mid-conversation with you. There’s something really lovely about that. It gave me the sense that you were engaging with each other as equals, which is not exactly the normal photographer-subject relationship.
JS: Totally. I love that. I’m definitely trying to make it more equal, that’s something I’m constantly thinking about. There’s the history of men looking at women, how problematic that is—and I’m part of that conversation but I hope in a new way, in a different way.
DK: How do you feel about the word muse? Would you describe Lauren as a muse? Because that word has such a complicated history of the male gaze structuring the subject, and the woman just there being looked at.
JS: I don’t know how I feel about it. Muse could be a word [to describe our relationship]. There obviously is such a history to that word, and maybe my take on it would be more forward-thinking. I’m totally inspired by her, but also not just looking at her—our conversations are really important, what she writes is equally important.
DK: What she wrote was a great introduction, for me, to the photos themselves but also to the collaborative nature of your relationship, and to the fact that it’s two people who are close to each other and care about each other and who are working as equals. So she’s not just this female figure in the pictures, but she has a very clear voice.
JS: Definitely. I’m so thankful that Lauren agreed to write an introduction for them, because I was struggling with the sequencing and how to introduce them. I was just like, I can’t just have all these pictures of my friend without her voice in it. That is so wrong to me. I see that all the time and I think, I want to know what the person on the other side would have to say.
DK: I want to talk about the idea of “non-traditional beauty”—which is a phrase I really hate—
DK: —but to include somebody that clearly doesn’t look like a model, in pictures that you’re then contextualizing as fashion photography, that’s a really strong statement. And to do it on a level where it’s not exoticizing her, but to position her as somebody equally worth looking at and engaging with as beautiful, in an industry that’s normally super exclusionary in setting and reinforcing beauty norms.
JS: Yeah, totally. I’m all for that. If I were to envision a fashion industry that’s forward-thinking, I would imagine more body sizes, more genders, more of the spectrum shown. I guess I’m trying to push that. And also, regarding the clothes—since you can’t have fashion without clothes—all of those clothes are either hers or mine. There’s style of course, but most of our clothes are from thrift stores or dollar stores—they’re not aspirational in price.
DK: I noticed in Lauren’s text and then in something you had written that I found online, you both talk about gender and problematizing an easy reading of gender and femininity in the pictures.
JS: One of our mutual interests is androgyny, and I think for us, the images that are more successful and that resonate are the ones that border on the line of feminine and masculine, that have both of those elements in them. I guess in this culture, it’s kind of a strange place to be. It’s something that I see sometimes in fashion magazines, but I think something special about what we’re doing is that we both, or at least I, aspire towards femininity in certain ways. And I know that she, in her writing, she said that she liked when her gender is confused [in the photos].
DK: I think the distinction between your pictures and a lot of fashion pictures that work with androgyny is that there it’s more like an aesthetic decision, whereas with yours it feels more like lived experience. You’re engaging with androgyny less on a surface level, and more as something that’s important to consider in the way we conceive of gender and identity. I wanted to talk about that too, partly because it’s the identity issue of the magazine, but also because Lauren talked a lot about identity in her text—thinking of identity as something that’s fragmentary and constantly in flux, as opposed to something fixed.
JS: Yeah, definitely. Having a fluid identity is so strange and wonderful and deserves to have visibility and be celebrated. I guess for this set of photos I was thinking about how I’ve never seen a fashion-oriented magazine that’s not emphasized the clothes. I mean, clothes are definitely a part of it, but with this I’m more interested in the strangeness of it. I hope people open the magazine and think, I’ve never seen that in a fashion magazine before. The model’s not an empty vessel, you know. In a lot of fashion stories I see the girl going through different times or there’s a narrative, which I understand, but I also hope that there’s not a complete narrative to mine. There are narratives inside the photos, but overall there’s not one story I’m hoping to tell.
DK: Are there other photographers that you look at generally? Or books, movies, music?
JS: Yeah, I look at a little bit of everything. I love everything Patti Smith does... Lately I’ve been looking more at films—I’m taking this filmmaking class focusing on women directors, and like, one percent of all films are made by women, so it’s a very slim...
DK: That’s insane. That’s so upsetting.
JS: I know, right? Less than one percent... Agnes Varda has been super inspiring, Miranda July—I love everything she creates. In The Future, there’s a part where the moon talks to the main characters, and it’s just so perfect—the way she plays with time is very strange, pushing the non-linear narrative. And then I really like Harmony Korine, although he’s not a woman (laughs). Specifically Gummo—for the aesthetics and for showing weird kids. There’s something I’m really drawn to about that.
DK: Do you feel like you were a weird kid growing up?
JS: Oh my god yes. I used to do a lot of theatre, very intense. That was my focus from ages 8 to like 16. I was always very elaborate and performative. There are obviously still things like that going on.
DK: I want to ask you about nature, your relationship to nature and shooting outside. Where did you take the pictures?
JS: They’re all taken around New York City. Surprise!
DK: Seriously? They look so rural. Just so far outside of the city.
JS: Yes! That’s what I’m going for. They’re all taken in places that I could reach through the subway. I’m really attracted to parks and the botanical gardens, the one in the Bronx is massive—it’s amazing. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is really amazing too, and Prospect Park. And then, I live in Ridgewood and Lauren lives within walking distance of me, and sometimes we just walk around our neighborhood and find weird places that haven’t been touched on. Just today we were shooting, and we found this weird parking lot—I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not a parking lot but it’s a place where people park. There’s always these weird spaces in Bushwick and Ridgewood. I love stumbling upon them, and shining my light upon them I guess (laughs).
DK: I think there is a sense of discovery in the pictures.
JS: I definitely go into the shoots open-minded. Maybe I have a small vision in mind, or sometimes I have a picture set in my mind, but I never say no to a photograph that I want to take. I’m always open to thinking, oh, that corner looks amazing, let’s go over there and climb on top of that. Talking about nature, though, I think it’s really important to show, for me, because there’s something that I want to convey about gender fluidity and queering of the photos being tied in to this natural world. Because that’s not something that I see often. I hope that nature functions as a signifier of acceptance, like, This is okay. You can grow like this.
DK: It’s true, most photography and photo documentation of queer scenes and queer communities has been in cities, I think. Or at least it often seems like a very urban thing. But it’s interesting to take that and move it out, back into nature, back into somewhere that, even if it’s still in the city, doesn’t look like it.
JS: Yeah. I saw that on your website that you included Colin Self in one of your curatorial projects, and I was so excited to talk to you because I’m a big fan of Chez Deep and all the work that they do. That’s another thing I hope to touch on, allowing queer situations [like that] and not just in an urban environment. Because urban environments aren’t for everyone, obviously. A lot of these cultures that push the borders—queer scenes, progressive scenes—are rooted in urban environments, and I think it’s really important to show that they can exist in smaller cities or communities as well. Because that’s what needs to happen for us to move forward.