Many, if not most or perhaps even all of us strive to comment on the human condition with our art. Some do that by focusing on things humans have built, some by focusing on things humans have cultivated, some by focusing on things humans find beautiful and some by focusing on actual humans.
Then there's Eleanors, a photographer based in Vienna, Austria that focuses on ersatz humans in the form of mannequins. If you haven't seen her work, you're about to.
Steve: Eleanor, there are any number of words that could be used to describe your work: "artful", "edgy", "dark", "macabre", "glamour", "reflective"...these are but a few that came to mind when I thought about it.
What words would you use to describe yourself? Who is Eleanor; where does she come from? What is your family like? What was it in your early life, your formative years if you will, that guided you to the place you are now?
Eleanor: A few words I would use to describe myself with: I am an observer, my work is driven by intuition, I like to get to the bottom of things, and I find humor very touching.
I grew up in a small Austrian village, a childhood dedicated to playing and exploring mountains and wood and to all kinds of sport, an absolutely "art free" environment if you will.
Secret Society No 6
I can´t remember how I got hold of my first camera, a Kodak Instamatic. I was about 10 years old when I started to document my family´s life. Soon afterwards I also began to stage funny and absurd scenes featuring dolls, cats and whimsical stuff as well as my poor brother and sister. I have to say that the photos look funny now, but at that time it was a matter of great importance to me, which I took very seriously.
Later when I moved to Salzburg, school and study became more important and it took me quite some time to revive photography.
S: So, you got your start in photography when you were about 10. How old were you when you put your camera away and what was it that inspired you to pick it up again? When was that?
E: I never actually put my camera away, it just became less important. It was in my last years at university when I really got interested in portrait photography. Heaven knows why... At that time I also was the front woman in a punk band, and it was kind of getting away from limitedness of mind and mountains:)
I moved to Vienna where I took private photography classes, did quite a lot of self study to find out how lightning works and all the technical stuff to use a proper camera. Since I wanted to learn as much as possible I declined to shoot with cameras that would have done the job for me. After starting with an old Agfa and Canon, the Nikon F2 and several Nikon prime lenses became my constant companion. I was lucky to get to know excellent professional photographers who taught me the workflow in a traditional darkroom.
After portraying almost all of my friends (many of them artists), I was asked to freelance for a magazine; I also did commissioned work for artists, documented the trip of an European delegation to refugee camps and prisons all over the country as well as political conferences.
New contacts and friends constantly established new fields of research and interest. The first "big" thing that I worked on for a couple of years was music. I was only interested in rock and punk, then I discovered something new: the so called “avant-garde”. I hardly ever failed to photograph a concert of John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Henry Rollins or Lydia Lunch - just to mention a few. I quickly got bored doing the common stuff and experimented with multiple layers and images in camera as well as in the darkroom. Well trained in sports I managed to conquer barriers at big festivals to get on stage for unique shots. But at the same time I was well known for not being noticed by musicians at work; even nearly touching their instruments. This was new to them and they appreciated it very much. Now I am a proud owner of a large archive of black and white portraits of musicians.
At the same time I also worked for theatre productions, shot rehearsals, performances and took pictures for posters. And I photographed on the set for fellow directors.
I am a person constantly looking for new challenges. So one day the moving image came into my mind. A friend of a friend was imprisoned for refusing military service and I was asked to do a documentary about the issue - which I did. This turned out to be the beginning of my later film career; I did and still do documentaries and experimental films, often not only the directing but photographing as well. Music still plays a big role in my films and I did some with and about some of the musicians I have photographed.
Playing With Fire
S: What subject matter do you find yourself drawn to? What is your inspiration?
E: I like to get to the bottom of things that constitute life in general, so I´m drawn to explore microcosms. Whether it´s little gestures of human interacting or attitude, a bark or branch of a tree that tells it´s history of development, abandoned places and little things left behind or how damaged mannequins and their body parts get stored. I get touched and inspired by these little incidents, each of them carrying a story and being heavy with mood.
Apart from that I get inspired by the work of other artists, by music or just one single frame of film I discover when editing.
S: You know, I really get that; using a "microcosm", as you say, as a metaphor for the "big picture". I often find myself pulling in too. Many times less really can be more.
The mannequins; now there's a metaphor if there ever was one. Clearly your Etsy shop is all about the mannequins; what got you started on this theme? What keeps you coming back?
E: My fascination with mannequins started by mere chance. With our gas stove out of action and in desperate need of an alternative means to prepare the morning coffee, I was in a large store in search of an electric coffee maker; a group of undressed mannequin torsos lying upon each other caught my eye. I could not help but notice that these figures were perfect subjects for a photograph. The coffee machine went right out of my mind. Head over heels I went home to come back with my camera. It took me quite a while to assure the store´s chief of marketing that I simply had to photograph these figures! Probably blown away by my exuberant enthusiasm she finally allowed me to take photos. However, this should be just a small taste of what was to follow.
Secret Society No 1
You know, sales assistants sometimes get bored by daily routine and appreciate any uncommon incidents in their shop. Some got interested in what I´m doing. I was asked by one of them if I´d like to photograph more mannequins - what a question! I was conducted to the basement where she opened the door to a near ghostly scene. And she left me alone with a more or less damaged plastic population and its body parts. Nobody cared, and I was able to take pictures for several hours. I shot on high-speed black and white film with available light. What I found in this breathtaking basement is featured in my Secret Society collection.
It´s hard to say what keeps me coming back, it may be the eerie lifelike nature of many of the mannequins. They are sort of mysterious; it’s often a question of "real or not?" When watching decorators working on the figures, at first glance I often can´t say which of them is human and which is not. At the very beginning I even experimented with self portraits taken next to the models, hoping to find essential differences between us humans and our "representations”. Apart from that, I am drawn to beauty, or rather to vulnerability of beauty. New or perfect display mannequins I am not interested in, they don´t suggest having a "soul".
My work with mannequins is an ongoing process. I can find many different aspects of the subject matter. In the beginning, a more documentary approach was predominant. Later on I continued with studies of one single figure experimenting with lighting, textures and multiple image editing. These days I am dreaming of putting on stage an entire group of mannequins dealing with a special subject. This definitely will be a big challenge and much fun!
S: "Real or not"..."mysterious"; I totally understand, and I think many would agree. I don't know if you're familiar with it, but many years ago, here in the U.S., there was a television show called "The Twilight Zone", and one of the most memorable episodes for me was called "After Hours" and dealt with mannequins coming to life (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_After_Hours); kind of "spooky" to be sure, especially for a young lad, but it was well done and made one think.
You certainly seem to have hit on an enduring subject with your mannequins; I would think the potential avenues for exploration would be vast. Do you find yourself trying to evoke certain emotions, feelings or ideas? What themes do you find yourself pursuing and do you have any favorites, ones that you come back to?
E: Unfortunately no, I’m not familiar with the show. The story sounds great though, I absolutely have to watch it some day!
You are right, potential avenues for exploration are vast. Many artists including, Cindy Sherman, Helmut Newton or Man Ray - just to name a few - have been experimenting with mannequins.
Humans are obsessed with self-representation. Even while we understand they are inanimate objects, when mutated, manipulated or uncannily accurate, they have tremendous power to attract and repel, and - as especially for my work - function as a "projection screen" as fellow artists that know me well once told me, even to the point of being the basis of my entire body of work - not just my mannequin photography. If I manage to do something well I succeed to address the unconscious. Most likely they are right. I have to admit that I deliberately try to avoid evoking emotions, feelings or ideas. I also don´t pursue any themes. If something comes to my mind that doesn´t give me any rest I just put it into practice. I would say I am intuitive in my working methods.
Angel of Revenge
S: Intuitive working methods; I can appreciate that. Get into "the zone", plug into your "muse" and see what develops.
Aside from mannequins and rock bands, what else do you photograph? When you get that itch to go shoot, where do you go and what attracts you?
E: Aside from mannequins I am drawn to minimalist and abstract photography. All kinds of structures I find interesting, and especially trees are my main subjects. I also really like abandoned places with a lot of "emptiness" around them. Less frequented urban places and the countryside are my favorite locations to shoot; they are free of distractions that prevent elevated concentration.
Additionally I do product photography for small companies where I am luckily permitted a creative license.
S: Let's talk about your equipment for a moment. What do you carry in your bag? If money were not a concern, what would you like to add?
E: I’ve been traveling light for a few years now. Shooting on film most of the time, I bought my first digital camera, a Nikon D90, only a couple of years ago. I own a few Nikon lenses that I can use on both the analog and the digital model. Even though I still love my previous equipment, shooting digitally is fine for me too; it provides more flexibility and fits well my desire for independence.
HP Zinker live on stage
You are clearly familiar with this funny game - that I actually loved to play with a friend at least once a month: one person is asking the other "what would you spend the money on in case you win xxx millions?" Well, first of all I would buy a lot of time to pursue my projects; second I would rent or rather buy a large daylight studio; and I´d like to add a Hasselblad medium format camera, most likely a H2F. Hmm, Christmas is coming soon!
S: Having a full body of work on film, and having turned the digital corner a couple of years ago, what are your thoughts on film versus digital?
E: From a technical point of view I am certainly fairly traditional. When I was forced to have my images processed, at the expense of handling the chemicals myself, my world fell apart. It took me some time until I was very happy with the new achievement.
Times are changing, and we are changing with them, that´s just how it is. I am trying to appreciate the huge options of shooting digital; it saves time, it´s cheaper on a certain level, and offers possibilities for many more people to be artistically active. To be honest yet, I personally still like pictures taken on film much more.
S: I totally understand and appreciate your ambivalence; on the one hand I relish the immediacy, flexibility and range of possibilities of the digital medium; and yet, I miss the almost alchemistic magic and tactile nature of the analog medium...but not quite enough to go back on a full time basis.
Tell me, which photographers do you most admire and what inspiration have you drawn from them?
E: There are two photographers whose work first and foremost created my enthusiasm for photography at the very beginning, and I still deeply admire. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the so called father of modern photojournalism, and Robert Frank. Especially Cartier-Bresson´s photographs of ordinary daily life and seemingly unimportant moments still touch me deeply. I share his belief that there is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment, and he should be the one gaining extraordinary mastership in capturing these moments.
The other one "after my own heart" is Robert Frank, notably his divergence from contemporary photographic standards capturing "The Americans". The subtle irony of his pictures, Frank´s use of unusual focus, low lighting and cropping fed my need for exploring new ways in photography.
The next milestone in discovering photographic examples happened to be while I was working for a movie company in London. Victoria & Albert put an exhibition about the history of fashion photography. Primarily I got deeply impressed by post war fashion photography. It was while there that I was introduced for the first time to the work of photographers like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Lillian Bassman. The social and political upheavals after the Second World War were echoed in fashion photography´s attempt to break with the romantic excesses of its past. Photographers switched their preoccupations to the pose and expression of their models, and began to appreciate that it could comment on, as well as reflect, its subject matter. The temporary opportunity to describe more than simple fashion information however has secured the participation of great photographers. As Avedon declared "Fashion photography must be about something." Things like how Avedon was experimenting with movement, Penn using natural light or Bassman utilizing elaborate still simple darkroom techniques to create that special mood, once more broadened my photographic horizon. Returning to Vienna I decided to become a fashion photographer and I directly started to prove myself shooting fashion scenes with a medium format camera. The pictures looked quite promising, yet a new film threw a monkey wrench in my plans.
Most likely my continuing passion for black and white photography arises from these great photographers. Whenever I use color in my work muted colors are my favorites. Color sort of seems to stifle imagination.
Here we come to a more current photographer, whose work I admire: Masao Yamamoto. Capturing suggestive, observational images, Yamamoto provides the viewer with an experience quite similar to that of reading haiku (I love Haikus!). His pictures are seemingly mundane and unremarkable, suggesting a deliberate disregard for the technical prowess that is common merit in the world of photography. I like the lack of color in his work and the almost sublime sensation of timelessness that strips away the particulars of life and puts the viewer in touch with things both familiar and eternal.
Responding to my growing interest in mixed media, I stumbled upon the artwork of Doug and Mike Starn who combine traditionally separate disciplines such as sculpture, photography, painting, video, and installation. I am especially thrilled about their “Absorption of Light”, comprised of four bodies of work where the Starns explore the metaphors of light through real symbols such as leaves, trees, moths, and a Buddha sculpture.
Finally I also have to mention directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Luis Bunuel, the father of cinematic surrealism, whose films certainly have an impact on my "world of visual imagination".
S: Eleanor, what's next? From a photographic standpoint, what does the future hold for you?
E: Primarily I am busy with getting organized and financing a big project with the mannequins. It will take place in a studio with a larger number of the figures. To make this happen extensive preparations are required. I am very excited about this; it will be a big challenge though. Beyond that I plan to acquire specific painting techniques to utilize along with photography.
Secret Society No 17
S: Eleanor, I want to thank you for spending this time with me; I've very much enjoyed learning a bit more about the woman behind the mannequins! Best of luck to you!
E: Thank you very much Steve, it was a pleasure for me!