This interview with Julia Peirone was originally conducted in Swedish and has been translated into English by Boel Ulfsdotter and Anna Backman Rogers.
MAI: What is the main focus of your artistic practice? What is it that you are asking or questioning with these images, Julia?
JP: The way things have developed, I have taken an interest in the contradictions that we become subjected to in our everyday lives. What is it to live today? What is it to be a human being today, both in relation to ourselves and our surrounding society. These questions have formed a central theme in my artistic practice for many years now. I have always been very curious to find out more about my surroundings, ever since I started photographing at a very young age. The camera became something through which I could take in and make sense of the world or situation I was living in, at different times. My early influences came from street photography and the manner in which people were portrayed in that particular genre. It gave me an opportunity to enter unknown territory, but also a form of intimacy, which ultimately challenged me to catch the right moment for my images. It was a way for me to see the world around me, which made me want to understand and capture it, as well. Since I grew up in a country in which I was not born, with parents who were immigrants, it was a natural thing for me to study the new society I found myself in, in order to try to make sense of it. The camera then became a natural extension of my own gaze at the world. At a later stage, the practice of photography allowed me to create my own image of the world. Expressing my questions and my analyses of what surrounded me. My practice, as such, has always been intuitive, seldom or never based on the study of an explicit theme or idea. That is not the way I want to work, actually.
MAI: So you don’t work with themed projects? What about the photo book More Than Violet, then? It gave us both the impression of exploring a specific form of girlhood.
JP: Well, that book is a compilation of three different series, actually. What I meant was that even though I would define my practice as being intuitive, it is still based on certain ideas that are very deeply embedded in my artistic sensibility. I am therefore seldom driven by curiosity over a certain topic, but rather by my intuition and the conclusions I draw from my observations of certain phenomena that I see or hear at a particular point in time. It triggers a need in me to investigate playfully that particular situation, which I sometimes do in the form of a counter reading of it.
MAI: Tell us about your artistic relation to female subjectivity and adolescence.
JP: When I started photographing seriously, it felt completely natural and ‘safe’ to begin with my own, personal space, and what it meant to be a young girl. Once I had completed that self-portrait, I wanted to capture the life of other girls in a similar situation, or at a similar age. I then lost interest in myself and my own identity. As I grew older, I came to realise that I wanted to continue working with images of girlhood and female adults, simply because these are ever recurring states in the lives of all women. I started out working quite explicitly with female subjectivity, but also with the woman’s self-reflexive gaze. I now use the girl or woman as a role model for all human life, actually, so it makes me very happy when men say that they too feel embraced by the theme or situation in my images. In my artistic practice, I address the vernacular, but also what it means to be perfect, or unsuccessful, and how that reflects on our contemporary society.
MAI: Would you say that there is a philosophical side to your artistic practice, then?
JP: Definitely. Still, as a photographer, I must follow my motif. My practice is at the same time, also based on impressions, thoughts that play around in my head without any firm shape. All of a sudden, an idea or something I notice grows on me and gets my full attention–a banal or silly incident like young models tumbling over in their high heels, for instance. What can I do with that image? And then I start spinning my own yarn around that idea, you see. I try it out in a test shoot, and that leads to the project as such; casting girls, staging the scene, performing the shoot, and so on. After the shoot, I spend a long time studying, almost meditating over the images, and try to make sense of it all.
MAI: Would you say that you are working with staged photography or documentary images, then?
JP: One could say that I work with both documentary and staged photography, in that I stage the event, but whatever happens in that scene is all between me and the photographed subject. It all depends on the model arriving in my studio, and what happens to her in front of my camera. However, I would not say that I work with staged photography in the sense that I have a preconceived idea about every detail that should appear in the image. The shooting stage is really all about coincidence, the unknown, and the specific moment and what happens in it. I really like that feeling of uncertainty. To play it by ear, as it were. Otherwise, the idea dies on me, photographically and creatively speaking.
MAI: Why do you work in a studio?
JP: Well, I still like the challenge of getting the perfect image in the street, but I mainly try and accomplish that in my studio. What I like about the studio is the opportunity to create the framework for my images. What then happens during the shoot is unknown territory.
MAI: What is your casting process?
JP: In the beginning, I used to work with people I know or the young girls of people I know. But when I started on the project More Than Violet, I found myself needing female models in their early teens, and I could not find any suitable ones among my friends. Then I started to cast my models, and that was very difficult since I did not want the fashion type of model, that already has a lot of experience in front of the camera. I had to advertise through some casting agencies and had lots of responses. So many that I now have put together a group of girls that have very limited experience of being photographed, which I continually work with–this notion of inexperience.
MAI: How do you look upon using the same model in different projects, then? Would it bother you if the onlooker’s reaction were to be ‘Isn’t that the same model she used in the More Than Violet project?’ Is that a problem or concern for you?
JP: That’s an interesting question. I have only ever used a model for one single picture in each project. That’s very important to me because from that point of view the image takes on a documentary character. However, now that I have put together a few retrospective exhibitions, including for example the More Than Violet project, I have become interested in revisiting the group of models I used for that particular project for a new shoot. In bringing them all back together, so to speak.
MAI: Can you tell us a little about your artistic relation to femininity and how it resonates in the image of the young girl?
JP: One thing is that I have been that young girl, and therefore easily recognise what it was like to be in that age. I remember it very well, actually. I’m also very inspired by the fact that these girls experience a transitional moment in their lives. They are about to leave their girlhood and take on the role of being a woman. That transition is one of the most traumatic moments in a woman’s life, so strong and tangible, and therefore is a powerful idea to look at.
The other thing is that girlhood and the fact that they are so young means that they are mainly preoccupied with themselves from a mostly superficial point of view. I like to explore that ‘glam’ side of their person, their emergence or performance through makeup and frills, in view of the fact that their adult life will probably be made up of very different matters, such as a career.
Many artists work with this particular age group just because of its transitional character and all the existential issues it brings up or entails. It’s an age in which the young do not always understand how to take on life or what to expect from it. Those questions remain as we grow older, but they are still very fresh and uncorrupted or undiluted in the minds of young teenagers. Especially with the girls, who really ponder anything and everything, and that is what interests me.
People have asked me whether these young girls will remain my motif forever, or whether I plan to move on to other subject matter. I have answered that they may well remain my main motif for the rest of my career. Why not? Other artists have worked with essentially one or two subject areas for decades, so why shouldn’t I? What bothers me is that no one ever questions why this or that male artist continually creates images depicting an already iconic motif, whereas when I, a woman, do this, it poses, for some reason, a big problem. How can that be? They do not seem to understand that my choice of subject matter has an allegorical side to it, in that its representation depends entirely on the framework I put it within.
MAI: During that first phase, the inspirational phase, which artists inspire your work?
JP: It can be anything really. The publicity in the underground, image sequences in film, art, social media, YouTube, anything at all really. In terms of photographers, street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Cunningham, and Diane Arbus were my very first sources of inspiration. When I discovered art photography, the work of Francesca Woodman, Sophie Calle, and Cindy Sherman became tremendously important for my own professional development.
I should say that discovering street photography made me discover photography as a means of expression. When I later on discovered art photography, it had a direct impact on my own artistic practice and how I developed it. Talking about Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, despite the fact that they represent documentary (Arbus) and staged (Sherman) photography, they both took an interest in that which was not pretty, not facile or easily read, as it were. I think that is basically why they both inspire me.
Methodologically, I was also very inspired by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, an American photographer known for a series of portraits of people passing by on the street, which he took in a mobile studio he had set up. There are so many, and the longer you work with photography, the more you realise how much different photographers have to offer. You revisit their work at different stages of your own development. I recently rediscovered August Sander, for instance.
MAI: Which type of photographic work do you find most inspiring? When you have full control over your work in your studio, or when you are out in the street looking for the right moment to snap your shot?
JP: That’s a very difficult question because I like both. I really like photographing in the street because it is so unpredictable. I really have to work very hard to get going with my photography in the street. It challenges my timidity. Whereas in the studio, you must be both communicative towards the model in front of you, at the same time as you need to capture the right moment for the shot. That whole process depends a lot more on me and my sensitivity in the studio, compared to the risk involved in relation to what goes on in the street. They are very different types of challenges, really, at the same time as it all comes down to finding that perfect mix of respect towards the motif and my own artistic inspiration in relation to both types of images.
MAI: It makes me think of Corinne Day’s images of Kate Moss. I remember an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London dedicated just to pictures of her very famous face. Obviously, many of those images were beautiful and had been worked on extensively by extremely famous photographers. To my mind, though the best images of her were those taken by Day, precisely because they had a very close relationship; that meant that Day captured Moss smiling in her images, showing her imperfect teeth for instance. It occurred to me that the other photographers had not allowed Moss to smile just because of that single so-called imperfection; as a commodity, she isn’t allowed to be human–that’s what this told me. In fact, it was telling that Day’s images were in a separate section before entering the main exhibition space. However, since Day preferred to have Moss smiling (a natural response to their friendship, I suppose), she also really captured the most personal image of her. You could see the grain and texture of her skin. You could see that she has lived a life which is present on her face. What Day managed to do was bring out the personal narrative of Moss, in a way. Which is fascinating because part of her ‘brand’ as an icon is never to speak or to reveal herself as a person. Day’s images of Moss show the relationship between beauty and imperfection and form a kind of life-narrative. In fact, what they suggest rather radically to my mind is that imperfection is beauty. I think that is what you also do in your work, Julia.
JP: Exactly. The confidence that exists between the photographer and the subject is of vital importance. I’m thinking also of the images that Eve Arnold took of Marilyn Monroe, which are the best ever taken of her. Never mind those which Richard Avedon took.
MAI: yes, I love those pictures of her (Marylin) by André De Dienes for the very same reasons. She exists as a person and not as an icon in those images. It strikes me as rather feminist, actually. To free a woman from the burden of iconicity. That’s the stage at which a woman begins to create her own meaning. To write her own narrative. And those images are more interesting because they are always more ambiguous. Images of thinking women, I guess.
MAI: Looking at your own work and, for instance, the images of the young girls in the Violet Vertigo series, how would you characterise them? Are they portraits of these young girls? Is it very important to you that they are not looking aesthetically perfect in these images?
JP: I realise that they are not beautiful in a conventional way, but I really want to work in a manner, which will inspire the onlooker to find the imperfection quality in my images, beautiful. Who decides what is beautiful, anyway? Are we beautiful only when we strike a perfect pose for the photographer? I should like to break down that collective norm of beauty, and how things should be presented in order to be perceived as beautiful. What about our micro-gestures, and our tics or quirks, or our small inconsistencies? They are also part of us and thus belong in the portrait of us. I should like for people to become more aware of that through my work, by taking the ‘other’ portrait image. That is one of the main ideas behind the Violet Vertigo series.
MAI: What is the relationship of these young girls to their own gaze? How did they react when you chose the ‘other’ image over images where they looked ‘pretty’ or ‘perfect’? We’re thinking especially of the ways in which young girls curate their own image via Instagram. They often would not willingly choose an image they find not to be flattering–in fact, that’s a very human impulse.
JP: Well, that’s an interesting question, because I deliberately picked young girls at that age when you begin to be very aware of your own and another’s gaze upon you. How you come across, in other words. I normally inform my models what I’m looking for, and in this case, I informed them that I will not go for the ‘perfect’ image of them when I put the series together because they are not meant to be primarily portraits of them. At least not in the conventional sense. They are, however, meant to represent the mood of young girls at that particular age. They, therefore, seemed to be aware of the fact that they each contributed a piece to that particular image, and that it was not about them as individuals as such. I was creating a mood or collection of gestures of adolescent girlhood
MAI: What about the eye shadows they are wearing, then? The series seems to champion the images where the girls have their eyes closed so as to display these pastel colours.
JP: The eye shadows and tops they are wearing were meant to add to their sweetness, their Lolita effect if you like. I wanted these Lolita-like girls to spit the admiring onlooker in the face, instead of looking perfect and being seen as seductive.
MAI: That’s fascinating from the point of view of the romanticised notion of the Lolita figure, which now prevails in a lot of advertising featuring young girls. In the novel, Nabokov describes her as a chubby fourteen-year-old with braces, glasses, and so on, but we know this isn’t how Humbert sees her. It’s the male psychic imaginary or force of projection that ensures the impossibility of seeing her as a girl going through those awkward transitional phases—which all girls experience. The complete rejection of reality which becomes part of the abuse because it’s necessary to objectify someone to abuse them. I like this idea of Lolita staring back and refusing to be objectified. How do you capture or facilitate this move away from iconicity or objectification, then?
JP: The shooting session in itself depends on us all losing control over the situation after I have explained what it is I’m after. We then lose control in favour of a certain creative mood that comes upon us. The only party that cannot lose control is the camera, which must work incessantly, snapping images of the girls in front of it. These photo sessions thus have two sides to it from my point of view, since I both have to keep the girls in a good mood and look in the viewfinder to make sure it is pointing in the right direction. I then go for the gap or in-between images, by which I mean the less successful ones, in conventional terms. This type of image cannot be preconceived, so the camera just has to keep on snapping, and then I try and find it afterwards. This is a very difficult process since I don’t want the really mad ones, nor do I want the ‘pretty’ ones. I want the ones that reflect their loss of control and the lack of awareness of the situation they actually find themselves in (which is to say in front of my camera). It, therefore, takes some time before I see the gap or in-between image that I find most relevant for the project. I am waiting for them to become less self-conscious, as it were.
MAI: The abstract colour prints in the Infinite series have narrative-like descriptive titles like ‘Infinite (Klara)’, ‘Infinite (Sophie)’—what do you mean by that? These titles lend a sense of mystery to these images.
JP: They are actually unique paintings. I applied the eye shadow directly on aquarelle paper with a brush. I wanted to signal that makeup is their second skin. I decided to apply the eye shadow horizontally in order to invoke precisely the line of the horizon and infinity. That to me symbolises the infinity of these young girls’ inner dreamscapes and their gaze upon themselves, which is without bounds because of their youth.
MAI: I see. These are then very advanced, abstract portraits, in a way. Would you say that these images represent a unique take on portrait imagery? Which do you prefer, to work with the human form, or will you keep on working in this more abstract vein?
JP: Well, I really prefer to work with photography, and that will remain the core of my artistic practice. On the other hand, I really enjoy creating these additional conceptual works, like the shadow images, and the hairband images. From an artistic point of view, they, however, constitute spin-offs from my photo projects. Together with the photos, they represent these young girls’ universe. They are additions to the existing photographic work which adds a further interpretive layer.
MAI: What effect do you think social media and the selfie is having on female subjectivity?
JP: It depends. Before I started out with the Violet Vertigo project, I did ponder whether they would really cope with seeing themselves in this imperfect way once the work was completed. I was therefore fascinated when they started photographing themselves in front of their portrait at the opening of the exhibition, and immediately posted these selfies on Instagram. It made me reflect on the younger generation’s relationship to images, compared to ours. Because there are so many images out there, they seem to have a really relaxed attitude towards the documentary image. I suppose it’s exactly because of the possibility to instantly produce and post a completely different selfie.
MAI: Would you then say that this general attitude towards the image as such, actually does signal that the world we live in, our ‘reality’, has become more ‘real’ or more transparent?
JP: To my mind, that is twofold. One can say that, but it is also a fact that the modern technique invites as many possibilities to fake ‘reality’. Seen from that point of view we have actually alienated ourselves from the reality around us.
We shall have to see what happens, but to my mind, the possibility to create a totally fake front actually brings us further apart. I also worry about the fact that the mobile camera is used more frequently as a mirror for self-reflection than as a camera documenting the surrounding world. That is very worrying, indeed, especially in view of what it does to a person’s identity in relation to others. Not to mention how it increases an unhealthy urge towards narcissism–in all of society at large.
At the same time, this unsceptical attitude towards posting images of yourself for the world to see is proof of a certain self-confidence and pushiness. These young people claim their right to be seen as individuals, also from a more philosophical perspective. The question is where it leads to, and we don’t know that yet. Still, it is certainly a phenomenon of our time.
MAI: Are you present on Facebook and Instagram, Julia? How do you look upon those platforms?
JP: I am present on both, but I use them only for my professional purposes. I have a home page where I post information about my work, or exhibitions, small ads when I look for a particular type of model, et cetera. I never post anything of a more personal nature. Definitely never selfies. I actually don’t much like being in front of the camera. I also absolutely abhor being available at all times or exposing my own life in that way.
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Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers
Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey