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Photographic Fictions

OL: So tell us a little about Useful Fictions. How did your ideas come together, what was your process working with those models, and how long did you spend shooting? And where were you shooting? And with what kind of equipment?

Adrianne: I became fast friends with writer Maggie Ryan Sandford just as she decided to move to the West coast to tend a lighthouse. We decided to keep in touch anyway, and quickly that turned into talk of a collaboration.

It just so happened that she was visiting from the West coast just as I was struggling to meet a deadline for a photo class I was taking at the Mpls Photo Center. We really wanted to see each other, but I was desperate to get this assignment done, so I asked if she’d be willing to have a photo shoot be our hangout time. She was totally game. Suddenly this assignment wasn’t stressful any more, it was fun; I wanted to make it something epic, something worthy of our brief time together. I looked up abandoned houses in Minnesota (did you know this is a thing you can just Google? it is the unfortunate future) and found directions to a place about an hour and a half out of the city. I wrote to her:

“How do you feel about kinda trespassing?
“If this sounds like too much, my other thought is I rent a convertible and take pictures of you driving around the lakes with like an elephant trunk or something on. Maybe go to an ice cream parlor. Rent some roller skates, some fucked up Norman Rockwell shit.”

She wrote me back:
“Dude, BOTH these ideas sound amazing, so whichever one we don’t do, can we please do it later?”

We decided to break into the abandoned house that weekend, had an amazing time, and I was so incredibly happy with how the photos came out. I felt like we really had the same vision in mind, the same mood, and so little about that was even articulated. I’d just say something like “how do you feel about hanging from that tree?” and she’d wander over and ask “like this?” and it was either exactly how I’d pictured it or better; or we’d be poking around the back and she’d say “I feel like I should do something with this stick.” We had gotten up at 5am on a Sunday (after the typical Saturday night fare, pfft, we’re young, I think, right?) to get the good light, and we were a little nauseated and bleary-eyed when we started, but we just had fun with it, all day.

Then she moved back to Minneapolis! And one of the first things we talked about was that elephant trunk, the fucked up Norman Rockwell shit. I borrowed some Halloween masks from my parents and we decided to make this happen pretty much as soon as possible.

The tricky thing to me was, “how are we going to recreate that awesome collaboration, without giving it the exact same feel as the last shoot?” I thought it might help if we put another person into that mix. That’s when I contacted my good friend Steve Hertzog, who’s an actor and a generally aimable strange person. He was in, and he made the brilliant suggestion: “I have an old tux and I don’t care if it gets ruined. Should I wear it? Into the water?” Sunday again, 6:30am this time, at Lake Calhoun!

He and Maggie had only met very briefly before, and now they were facing one another at an ungodly hour with full face masks on as a lioness and troll. So . . . they hit it off pretty much right away. From there on out it felt a lot like that first collaboration, but with even more ideas and playing around. We shot for 9 hours; at a couple of playgrounds around the lake, then we rented canoes and paddleboats, then we rented a tandem bicycle, then we drove downtown for a picnic, then we went into the Guthrie Theater, then we went back to the lake so they could enter it in costume. The two of them were pretty ballsy I think, wearing those masks the whole time; Midwesterners don’t generally call attention to themselves this way. At one point they really terrified some children on the beach. Also it was ridiculously hot, and difficult for them to hear me or each other through the plastic and fur. There was a lot of gesturing and intuition.

I was shooting the “You’re a Monster” pictures with two cameras — my digital Canon 40D, and a toy film camera, the Black Slim Devil.

When I shot those abandoned photos, the assignment had been to try using two mediums, so I’d used my digital and borrowed my dad’s Diana — another toy film camera.

I’m loving using film but this is only the second time I’ve shot with it as an adult, so I’m still very nervous around it. It’s like learning a manual transmission after driving for years on automatic. Part of you is just constantly shocked. “Wait, this is how everyone used to drive? And how a lot of people still do? There’s so much to think about, AGH!” But there’s a forced mindfulness to it. I like that. Sometimes I feel like me and my digital camera are like a toddler with a machine gun.

OL: Do you digitally manipulate the shots after you’ve taken them? And, if so, how does that change for old-fashioned film. Presumably you can just scan them in and fix them up in the same way, but does it feel different somehow? More sacrosanct?

Adrianne: I process everything in Photoshop; usually small things, like bringing up the contrast a little, decreasing saturation, occasionally bringing more details out of the shadows or highlights. I have barely any experience in the darkroom but I’m told there’s very little you can do in Photoshop that you couldn’t also do in a darkroom.

So far with film I’ve just scanned the negatives in and continued to do my process work in Photoshop; it’s just the medium I’m familiar with, and the darkroom is this whole new language. I’m excited to learn it — there’s such alchemy and magic there, any time I see something change in the darkroom I just keep shouting “COOL! COOOOOOL!” — but unfortunately right now that’s pretty representative of my entire darkroom vocabulary.

It doesn’t feel different to me to process a negative in Photoshop; the difference is more in how I shoot. There’s no immediate reward or punishment, so you have to trust, and hope, and fear. And each shot just cost you a little money. Sometimes afterwards that can feel a little like a curse jar. But mostly it’s like a lottery ticket.

OL: You do a lot of backstage photography (as readers can see from your website), does this ever feel intrusive for either you or the actors? How do you avoid getting between them and the makeup, or the mirrors? And what sort of things do you look for, or do you love to shoot, in those situations? The seem in a way like non-traditional venues for photography since everything is in a process of flux, of becoming, which is quite different from traditional, posed portrait work.

Adrianne: Taking pictures of people backstage and getting into costume/make-up is totally my jam; it’s how I got interested in photography in the first place. I was performing in my first burlesque show — a bawdy rendition of The Nutracker called The Slutcracker, at The Somerville Theater in MA — and I was just looking at the visuals around me in awe all the time — these lush, bright costumes, sparkly high heels, the incredible make-up, the patent leather thigh highs and dildo props. I also kind of felt like I was doing something truly interesting for the first time in my life and I wanted to show off on my blog and Facebook. Like ya do!

So I brought my camera to rehearsals, and then to dress rehearsals, and then backstage for the actual performances. In the majority of pictures where you see a mostly-naked person covered in glitter, I’m mostly naked and covered in glitter behind the camera, too. I never felt like I was in anyone’s way; it’s pretty easy to tell when someone needs to get where you are. And the great thing about most theater people is, they’re doing this to be seen. They don’t mind the camera; most of them welcome it. Maybe because performance is inherently transient, and this is a way of memorialization, creating evidence.

How our identities influence our appearances, and how our appearances influence our identities, is a dead horse I can’t really see stopping myself from beating. Facades are so rarely facades; at most they’re a dormant side of you, some long-absorbed embryonic twin. Maybe that person is sexier, more dominant. Maybe that person is frightening or loud. Maybe they’re another gender, maybe they’re fifty years older, maybe they’re a demon or a child. We all have these pieces of ourselves and it’s wonderful how costumes can liberate those personalities, give us the permission to embody them.

I look for that sense of discovered power and play in the pictures I take. I love finding performers in full, polished costume looking otherwise themselves or even ordinary: the heavy fake-eyelashed lean against the wall, the tutu’d stretching of hamstrings, the slinkily dressed woman with her head thrown back in laughter: these moments where the fantastical self coexists with the everyday self. And I love in-between moments: the wig hovering over the capped head, the lips pouted for the first application of lipstick, the corset laces tightening.

How does the face change at that moment? Who are you about to become? And how different from you is that, really? What will you draw upon to evoke it?

OL: Your remarks about hour our identities influence our appearance reminds me of your line, “Growing inside of us always are infinite potential faces” The context of course is quite different (in your poem, the meaning is literal), but I do wonder to what extent you feel as though your poetry and photography explore the same country?

Adrianne: This is one of those really excellent questions that I’m kind of surprised I have given NO THOUGHT to before. I had to go back and reread some recent poems to figure out what the hell I write about, anyway.

I find that I’m generally drawn to these grey areas between dream/fantasy and reality. In both my writing and photography I try to find or create a twist: to set a scene of normalcy, humor, innocence or happiness, but reveal an undercurrent of unease, sadness or horror: a baby I would eat. Or to reverse that, set a horrifying scene only to reveal a kind of playfulness about it: monsters dancing in a lake. I love those contrasts, I love how they heighten and emphasize one another.

And similarly, how tangibly real the unreal can be: from dreams to substance-fueled escapes to the simple power of empathy, listening to a friend’s story. So often we categorize our experiences as reality or fantasy on auto-pilot, but they can bleed over, influence and inform each other — and why not? Empirical evidence is so limited. A few years ago I started sleepwalking, and (while inconvenient) this is kind of exciting to me, because it’s pretty much exactly the mood I’m going for in anything I create. My eyes are open, but something’s off. I say uncomfortable things to roommates, turn appliances on and off, hide my own possessions (never to be found by my wakeful self again) open and close blinds. Jesus! Where am I? Who is this person? What’s going on? Am I awake yet? … How about now?

I take a lot of pleasure in inspiring conflicting emotions and perceptions of reality, both in myself and in others. Not, I hope, as a dick move, but an attempt to make peace with that tension, to embrace and play with it — to normalize it, even.

____
Adrianne Mathiowetz
 is a poet and an event, documentary and performance photographer currently residing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a Spring 2010 photo graduate of The Salt Institute of Documentary Studies, and her work has appeared in Wired, the Star Tribune, the Boston Metro, Stuff Magazine, on MN Original, and has been exhibited at the Mpls Photo Center. She works as the web manager for the public radio program This American Life, and blogs at openopenclose.net.

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