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My interview of Darren Holmes, a talented Canadian photographer, has been published on the online magazine Les Editions du Faune.
As far as the English version is concerned, it can be found below.
Darren Holmes, the punk tailor of photography.
Like a Pandora’s box, his intimate and exhibitionist boudoirs release disturbed and disturbing, graceful and clumsy characters. Their insolence and vitality dance to the rhythm of psychological improvisations. A magnified glass that never lies and that gets us addicted to the recklessness of humans. Photography meets painting, with grandeur, humour and power.
Aina and Ameliana
Before starting photography, you were a painter and a drawer. What was missing then that pushed you toward photography? At the same time, how were these disciplines helpful in photography?
I grew up thinking I’d be some visual artist. I was never high technique, very undisciplined. I never took the time to develop it. Cross-hatched pen and ink drawings like mad. I think what pulled me toward photography was...maybe, the ability to create images without having to look through whatever sort of colouring that you get from....mechanics, like drawing style or whatever. There were things I could see in my mind that I couldn’t draw, and even as a kid it always seemed to be a more interesting challenge to manipulate people or objects to create some scene for a camera.
How do you proceed? Is it first an idea that makes you seek a specific model? Or does it also happen that an inspiring model should activate your artistic process ?
I used to work in the moment without any agenda to start…that was early on. That's just reaction isn't it? There's no thinking there. Over time I then began developing the subject I wanted to create then find people who could potentially fill the roles. I’m more relaxed these days. I work with my repetitive general notions, which are like world views or attitudes and then leave room for the energy, the kind of presence someone is. It’s always a cooperative effort, like learning to dance with someone and the push and pull of that.
Dancing on Tombstones
You seem to have a liking to natural light. What is there in it more than a studio shooting ?
Yeah, I have a weird thing with flash, I use it all the time now but these big window boxes that don't impose. Artificial light is like lightning, sometimes I think of it that way. You're lucky when it starts a fire nearby and you can work with it. Natural light has always said to me “this is a real moment”…even if it’s staged it’s with the feeling of a real time and place. It can say “we were just here, doing this thing. And then it looked like an interesting story so I picked up the camera”. When it came to using flash I needed it to feel like that.
What part does editing take in your work ?
I don't feel any attachment to what the camera sees as something “real” it's kind of a raw material for me. Of course the story has to be in the image. I see work where the story is actually the editing, that seems backwards to me. You're supposed to be seduced into believing someone's truth, not marvelling at the trick...at least for me anyway. The images need to have a familiarity, like a real space to them. Maybe like a shot of a theatrical production in progress, in front of you.
In some of your shots, the colours and the contrast are very sharp, while in some others the treatment is tone on tone, even at the limits of desaturation. How does your choice work?
I used to have more variety but I started to feel as if they were just aesthetic self-conscious choices. I don't want people to see the photograph, I want them to see the scene and kind of ignore the photograph, if that makes any sense. I like the idea now of these images being little dioramas that you carry around with you, maybe it's a box with miniature people in it, sleeping. And you pull it out and turn on the light and they wake up and get into position, just for you. A photographer friend just mentioned to me that they loved the skin, loved the emotion of the work…so maybe that says something about all of this.
Some persons may feel uncomfortable when facing some of your photographies (I'm thinking about Cherlyn Jeff Zephraim). The erotic patent of your characters happens to be odd, even disturbing. Why choose this two-level reading ? What would be your answer to them?
Eroticism is a whole brain thing, it doesn't live in our crotches...we screw that up all the time I guess because our release valve is there. It’s not an appreciation of beauty really…it’s an appreciation of some scene as a whole entity, what someone says or doesn’t say, how people carry themselves. Hey, someone who is...maybe brash and aggressive and powerful and expressive is more 'erotic' than someone in some languid self-conscious pose. We should let everything open that channel. Admire a tree but also admire the bed of millenia of living things that lived and died to put it there. When you admire beauty you admire that soil. They need each other. It's not a morbid thing for me, just a plain truth.
Cherlyn Jeff Zephraim
In recent photographies of yours underlies a critic of society and religion (I'm thinking about A Fairy Presidential Portrait or Theologian, Skin and Bones). You tackle these topics with humour, could you tell us why?
Theologian, Skin and Bones was a portrait of an actual student of theology. We had a great conversation about his studies and it's really not about just accepting what you're told, it's about rolling something around in your mind, questioning it, looking for cracks, debating with yourself. That isn't what you see in pop religion, which seems to be polarized and this idea of you're either with us or against us. I've always wanted to be irreverent, tear down your idols kind of thing. When I used to draw I had an almost manic sense of humour, how can I stick something in here that’s just strange and completely outrageous for the scene? A lot of that comes into the work, but less like poking a stick now, it’s really guttural for me. I don't overthink anymore, if I just see myself naked wrapped around a woman’s head then I do that. There's probably a lot of subconscious quoting or inspiration from just living a life, but it can also be just an interesting idea. So you can enjoy this at whatever level you wish.
Some years ago, your photography was very close to painting. Today, you add a lucid realism about human nature. Could you tell us how you've come to move towards these more 'instantaneous' scenes?
What a great description, instantaneous. I think that describes it…I used to be very inspired by certain things, you could say impressionism. I started to feel like I wanted to get out of the way and stop telling people what to think. I can see now that I’ve been in a process of getting rid of any style in my work, just trying to let the scene speak for itself. The photographer shouldn’t be telling the viewer how to interpret the scene, it should just be what it is and you make up your own mind.
Reclining on Ikea Carpet While Chrissy Contemplates Superherodom
You have no will to hide the backstage. Why, for instance, showing the tape or an Ikea carpet? You appear to be set free from any constraint now...
That’s it …there’s no disguising that these scenes are invented reality…if I spent time trying to hide the fact that it’s a stage with wires and other equipment it would be like trying to tell an obvious lie to your face. I want to give the viewer as much information as possible. So I’m asking you to witness my actors and the production, and assess it for what it is. And decide if it says something you are interested in hearing.
There happens to be a hand or a foot coming in from outside the frame of the picture, as if to play down the importance of the action that is being played or, on the contrary, to reinforce it. Is it humility or a certain sense of humour on your part?
There’s a sense lost in most photography that we are witnessing a point of view…we seem to always forget that. It's a really long series of choices and yet some people still talk about photography as being able to show reality. I don't get that. For me the frame is part of the image and reminds me that just outside of this there are things going on. You know I could have moved the camera one way or another but this is the choice I made.
Pre-Motherhood Passion Play
This takes me to the originality of your frames. They either overhang, or show the space normally reserved to the photographer, or even remain at ground level. Is it your will to demonstrate that one may easily stumble and fall in a clumsy but graceful moment? Even that one should do so?
I’ve had more stumbles than graceful moments but that’s really what we are, socially kind of awkward, nervous, just wanting to fit in? Years ago I spent more time making frames perfect, but I love the rough edges. I think you are onto something, by not pursuing perfection I’m coming to some acceptance. Just let it be what it is. I guess most of us are trying to just figure that out.
Some other shots also give us a great feeling of dizziness and depth. I believe you like to play with the viewers' sensations.
Do you mean images shot from above ? You can defy gravity, and release yourself from some literal world, just a bit. Maybe it’s a way to step away from those constraints….
This Is What Artist Statement Are For
You don't make their job easier, do you ?
I don't like to make the subject's job any easier...I'm always asking for sort of the image between the two posed ones. I don't want you ready, I like unsteadiness, looking uncomfortable or cold or something. Seeing that on a face is real truth.
Your characters are very contrasted. Strength and frailty, invitation and reserve, provocation and resistance. They either defuse or envenom the scenery. How do you get the models to express that?
You know it is like a dance, like I mentioned, and usually I just met the person for the first time or maybe I've known them for a long time but not where they're standing in front of the camera and not knowing what to do next.
The Story of Olex
How much time and confidence does it take?
I never know until I'm with the subject, I don't know what to do either. So we start this slow thing, circling, building up a conversation, I start to see little jewels like expressions or things they do that really interest me. It's almost always different than I imagine so I try not to think ahead about working with a subject, it just gets in the way. I just meet them and then cue the [imaginary] band, and start.
While the poses, the accessories and the costumes refer to classicism, the expressions and the relationship between the characters are more modern. Is this blending of static and dynamics, of narration and concept, a voluntary approach, or doest it rather result from accidents in a shooting?
The things that aren't planned is the good stuff. I like seeing unconscious mannerisms, you can really build on those things, how someone prefers to stand or relax. It's something I developed over time, not to hang on to an idea but to work with what's in front of you.
Miss Shaman Cristina
Some of your characters eat their hair, have a foot on their head or throw up leaves and ropes. What is this attraction to incongruousness ? Do you reckon that humans are moving and captivating only when exposing their flaws? A little bit like broken dolls or injured animals?
I'd be interested to know what you remember of our shooting in Paris years ago and that approach. I'm obsessed with some images, having to do with insides coming out, outsides going in, voluntary restriction, pain, ecstasy, not talking but just...channelling something. We're only honest when we're in some explosion or crisis aren't we? Isn't that when we really know ourselves? The rest is just performance. I've heard myself at functions laying out words in sentence form, slowly and carefully so others will understand, when all I think is, somebody's got to be fucking honest in this room! Why are we not saying what matters?
You seem more provocative and playful than before. Why this apparent casualness? Have you gotten tired of academicism?
I didn't realize it but that could be a good way to describe what I was doing. I would love to peel off people's intellectual, civilized layers and see them as the grunting beasts they are, spewing every dirty or aggressive little thought in their brains. If there was a drug that could induce Tourette's for a while I'd be the first to try it. I understand that civilization needs more than that to function. But we need the people who abandon it as well, to see the things we don't see anymore because we're all too important and grown-up for these silly games.
Theologian, Skin and Bone
Apart from that, you've been invited to speak at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, also at Kiev and Moscow. What was it all about ?
[Darren's wife] Chantal and I were invited over to Kiev and Moscow to speak, exhibit my work and to write a story for Photo Masterskaya which is a Russian photography magazine. Statues of Lenin everywhere, it reminded me that there's a different story that people are raised with there, alternative points of view. They have a thousand years of Russia, Lenin, the revolution and everything else. Our backgrounds are totally different...even if we look and act the same. I was at MICA to speak along with several other artists and show my work. The thing that occurred to me was how insular I work, spending my time inside my head, and then to get out and realize that I had been letting a whole bunch of people see into my private thoughts as well.
You've been commissioned to create book cover artwork, such as the hard cover for The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani. Would you like to do this again? And/or for music albums maybe?
The thing is, that it's kind of backwards from how I normally think. When I do my work it's about my own sort of view of the state of things and then find a way to deal with that visually. It's really a gut thing. I guess if someone wanted that from me, and let me just do my thing, why not? It gets to feel weird when someone asks me to take some little sliver of something I do and then fill it out with something else to fit their purpose. It would depend on whether they wanted my work or a parody of what I do.
Have you ever thought about creating short films and/or videoclips?
One of my plans is to create videos but it's about around the still image look that I love...I haven't gotten very far on that yet.
Don't you have any intention to publish a book about your work ? Or is it too soon to your taste ?
I've been working on material for a book, which will be a collection of modern myths or fairy tales, very short stories paired along with images. They're meant to be mostly cautionary tales in some ways. The way that they used to serve a real purpose....those stories were always about teaching people about behaving in a decent way, like treating the poor stranger with dignity because they might be an enchanted prince and they could reward you later. In the end it was always about being civilized for selfish reasons, wasn't it? I guess whatever held societies together was what mattered. We don't seem to have a lot of those kinds of stories anymore and my work has always felt to me like being a slice of time in some longer drama, in my mind at least, so this is my way to finally finish a story for some of them.
Interview by Oriane G.