The work of the American photographer is not often mentioned in the same breath as Cindy Sherman, Joel-Peter Witkin, Sally Mann and John Coplans. Recently, her color photographs were in exhibit in SFMOMA. After her exhibition in the photo gallery, van Campen & Rochtus in Antwerp, Photo Plus had an intimate meeting with this artist, who delves her inspiration from sexuality.
Its easy to spot the red hair of my interviewee, as she exits the airplane with the gray American business people, who are speeding to the closest taxi cab they can get. She is not in a hurry, she has arranged her own private driver, me. “Are you Flip?” Underneath her red hair, I see her face, a broad smile that will accompany me that day. A kiss and a hug before I realize that I am Flip. Blind dates have the advantage that both parties are able to get along as good as possible. We exchange favors, jokes and compliments. “I am so happy to meet you,” we say at the same time. “And great that you want to ask me questions about my work, and is it possible when we are in your place to take a picture of you?” For a moment I think that this sexually-inspired artist has developed a very quick seduction scheme, but I correct myself and say, “Of course, I would like that.”
On the way to the interview and the shoot, I ask her how she became connected with photography. “I was very young and lived for a while on a farm in the south of France. By the suggestion of my father in the commune in Northern Belgium, I rushed to the United States to begin Photography. By staying abroad, my intense experience was like a self-therapy. I was the youngest in the commune, and the only one of North American descent. There was an atmosphere of psychosexual manipulation. To not lose myself, I had a constant need to write about it. Still, I had severe nightmares. It became unbearable and I went back to the United States to study. In the US, I was in culture shock. Writing didn’t give my piece of mind or safety and once I took a girlfriend to the forest to photograph her. I photographed her strange skin allergies, which I experienced up close and personal together with my friend in unnatural positions. My mentor at the time was the renown photographer, Joel Sternfield. I owe him a lot.
Question: Are you inspired by him?
Everyone influences everyone else a little bit, but in my case I am more influenced by the masters of painting: Peter Bruegel, Bosch, Picasso, and my own mother and my father, as well as American art and art from Congo.
Although I am an Iyengar Yoga instructor to make a living, I truly feel a full-time artist. I am constantly making photographic prints, organizing new exhibits, and maintaining public relations with collectors, galleries, museums, artists, and also with international journalists (hé Filip.)
A firm slap on the buttocks followed by a solid scream.
It was only after I moved to San Francisco that I was able to focus on my career as a photographer. I had come to the understanding that, for example, the gay community is more liberated, accepted and infiltrated in the world of artists. There (in San Francisco), sexual upbringing (and/or education) has been accepted as an art form through performing arts and visual arts. Another main aspect in my professional life as an artist is my collaboration with other artists. I often collaborate with a choreographer and an improvisational poet.
The perception as part of reality
What is the connection between her work as a photographer and her private life? How does she develop her work and how is involved with the vision? If you know that my favorite pose is the headstand, then that should explain quite a few things. My world is a vertical reflection, which creates a kind of upward gravity. Even though I don’t like is when the art critics describe my work as abstract. I strive to amplify the absurdities, chaos and contradictions from daily life. I do that, for example, by creating a new atmosphere in a recognizable atmosphere: put body parts out of context, and then put them in a strange context. For example, naked pregnant women together, often more than fifteen, located where you would not expect them.
When I started with photography, I mainly was searching for people with a physical attitude that had something special. I’ve gotten to know my best friends that way. Some of them have been modeling for ten years. I also take pictures of my family and myself.
Question: Are these composted images reflective of the complexity of your inner self?
I am interested in creating an awareness of seeing in the observer, to wake him up, as if I were to put him to work. Be putting body parts and parts of the body in one composition, sometimes accompanied by organic or synthetic materials, this should lead to confusion and doubt. The result is that comfort zone of the viewer is being questioned, causing friction in the psyche of the viewer. It is strange, but in the United States, many people feel fear and discomfort with the phenomenon of ambiguity, simply because they can’t judge the consequences. When they can’t give something its place immediately, they are overwhelmed by fear of losing what is recognizable. And because of that, twice, my work has been censored. My experiences in the commune, scientific research concerning deviant sexual behavior, the history of pornography and censorship, as well as the cultural analysis of how Jews, gays, prostitutes and other groups, at a social level were marked pathologically disturbed and because of that needed to be adjusted. Becoming aware of this part of history explains the main aspects in my work in which I question how the abnormal, the unknown is being shielded by society by looking at it as if it is pathological. Because of my run-ins with censorship, I learned a lot about the narrowing effect of perception. Reality becomes a superficial obstacle as soon as people disconnect their spirit and choose only to see what they want to see. Through my work, I hope that the viewer will see reality beyond perception.
Question: Very interesting, all this stuff, but how do work like this?
“I got two brilliant ideas,” she says, “I take a picture of you at the high stairwell along with your son, and this poster. After that, you can go sit in the loft.” She probably enjoys forcing me in all kinds of clumsy positions. “And, of course, you would like to see me undressed,” I think, to beat her to the punch. “But not in this case.”
A little shocked, I immediately adhere to her wishes. On top of the loft, I see how she has her camera from a bird’s eye view, a 1968 Hasselblad which replaced her Rollei SL66. She uses Fuji 120 ISO100. She doesn’t use digital cameras and she doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. “It is important to me that the public understands that my photographs are not being manipulated in a darkroom or in a computer. I am for a photographic style which is unique and more than that is confronting because it has to bear witness on how our world is put together. Furthermore, I present my work in different ways. Sometimes, the classic way, hung on the wall, light-boxes, sometimes three dimensional constructions, and also performances. The exhibition in Antwerpen, (this is the third two-person exhibition with my mother) is very important to me and my personal life history, it has come full circle.
The drive to express myself creatively started in 1989 in northern Belgium. The seeds that I sowed then finally sprouted and blossomed in the United States of America, and our re-growing now in northern Belgiun. I have to interrupt her now, my cell phone is ringing. It is the gallery, who notifies us that the press, including television, is expecting her. “No problem,” she says, I have taken the shots.” Too bad there isn’t enough time to finish the rest of the photographs, so we can use them for this article.