by Sharon Boothroyd
Airelle from the series Another November by Laura Stevens.
Following the ending of a significant relationship in my life, an undoing began.
Another November is a series of staged performances enacting the all too familiar path of the broken hearted. Based on Laura’s personal experience she directed her subjects to represent her personal struggle in regaining independence and identity after a personal loss.
Laura Stevens is a photographic artist based in Paris. Her work often deals with issues surrounding relationships and has a particular leaning towards cinematic fictions. Her work has been exhibited worldwide including The National Portrait Gallery, London, The Centre for Fine Art Photography, USA, Encontros da Imagem, Portugal and The Latvian Museum of Photography. Laura received Special Distinction in the LensCulture Emerging Talents, 2014 and is a finalist in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, 2014.
Using friends as actors, props, locations and clothing, like in film, you have created scenes of individual narratives that all play part of a wider story. How did you go about finding each image and how did you decide how they held together as a series? In other words what were you looking for both on a micro and macro level?
Another November is a story about heartbreak. The photographs follow my own experience of losing love, but equally they could be anyone’s: the trajectory of loss, although massively simplified, seems to follow a general pattern of emotions – denial, pain, anger, loneliness – which affects everyone in unique ways. My experience was pretty turbulent which I reacted to by making this work. My principal motivation was to express all of these difficult feelings I was going through but, which, through a palatable visual form, use of multiple identities and dispersed gestures, could then be shared more easily by others. I started photographing friends of mine, at first without a clear structure or objective, but after several shoots I began to construct a series of scenes based on different situations within the domestic environment which could then help demonstrate a particular emotion. To create obvious parallels I decided that the images should be of only women, all of a similar age and living in Paris who could ultimately be seen as just one woman. I wanted to stage all of the photographs in the interiors of their homes, without any visual traces of other people in order to make the story about how one comes to terms with loss when alone. Depending upon the woman I was photographing, the look of her apartment and what was personally going on for me, these would all help determine the scene I would construct.
The series came together quite naturally; I would find a subject, see their home and understand what I needed to express. Often I would dress them in clothes of my own which added an element of identification. The scene would be pared down, eliminating traces of history and time so that the emotion of the woman became the principal element. The compositions, tones and colours of the images also helped to bring consistency and compatibility to the series as a whole.
Can you explain your choice of lighting to us please and talk a little about what impact it has on the work?
The lighting plays a principal role and is always very important in my work. Using artificial lights I can have total control in constructing the look of the scene. I wanted to create a cinematic drama which helped to illuminate the sentiments and match the imposing, sombre mood of the women. It’s a story about nostalgia so I tried to make the tones of the images relate to this.
This series grew out of a difficult personal experience for you. How has it been pouring your personal experience into your work? Has it been therapeutic to observe these ‘evolving chapters’ of change in you by distancing yourself through the camera?
In my life as in my work, I tend to be driven by my emotions, so I think it comes naturally to me to work this way. Making Another November gave me something to focus on, diverting my attention towards something active and productive, using difficult emotions and channelling them into something tangible. Seeing them transformed into visual objects made them ultimately easier to understand. I felt that once I had managed to describe an emotion into an image I was closer to letting it go, more aware that things were changing. At the same time, continually focusing on the thing that is the most painful makes it all-consuming, tough to get distance from and hence perhaps harder to let go. Revealing your vulnerabilities in such a way as this is scary and raw, but I think you have to be prepared to be a little naked in your art.
Are your subjects bringing their own stories into your narrative as well as your own or is it a case of them playing out your personal story? What does this blend of fact and fiction come together in the work?
The stories are my own, not those of the women, instead directing them along a narrative I provided. I asked them to put themselves into a role, to act out a scene but to also use their own feelings of loss, which are both unique and universal. Everyone can tap into this, it’s something we all go through at some point. The series was not a sociological study on heartbreak, but a journey through it; one woman’s experience.
What is it like putting this work into the public realm in the midst of both positive and negative criticism? How do you deal with both sides of the coin?
Once the work leaves your hands it becomes somehow set apart from yourself, a distance is created even if it is very personal. It has been obviously wonderful to receive acknowledgement for this project, and a strange shock to suddenly be more ‘present’, but as with the criticism, you have to try and take it with a pinch of salt and keep focusing on the work itself and not on the regard of others, even though I seem to perceive the criticism as more valid than the praise. I have been so touched to have received emails from people with their own tales of heartbreak. It is a huge honour to have strangers entrust you with their vulnerabilities and to know that the work has somehow resonated with them.
You also work as a commercial photographer in Paris with clients such as The Times Magazine, Le Monde, The Washington Post and Forbes magazine…. shooting celebrities and public figures such as Anselm Kiefer, Caitlin Moran, Jean-Michel Cohen and Rupert Everett. Do most photographers you know work like this – working as both artists and professionals? How do the two worlds overlap or clash? What has your commercial practice brought to your personal work and vice versa?
All of my photography friends have countless, different ways of working, each forging their own method of organising their time, energy and resources. I have managed to develop a practice of working commercially which allows me to make personal work alongside it, allowing for the rhythms of each. They both enrich the other, the contrasting approaches helping to create a balance. Working commercially I am able to photograph all manner of people and situations I would never normally encounter and gives me the chance to explore and develop different techniques in lighting and directing. My personal work is fundamentally a means to express myself, and through it I have established a certain style which can help to bring you to the eye of picture editors, so it’s all a positive loop. Sometimes the desire/need for working on one more than the other at times can create a strain, but that’s when your social life takes a tumble.
What are the main pressures of shooting celebrities and working for major publications?
To be good. There is enormous competition and you have to provide the imagery they need; there aren’t any second chances. And being somewhat reserved myself, telling a celebrity what to do is terrifying, but also kind of thrilling.
What would a typical shoot be like? Are you given much creative freedom or do you have to respond to a very specific location in a short space of time? How do you find this?
They are all very different. I might have anything from five minutes to one hour to make a portrait for an editorial shoot, often in their home/hotel, and create something from what I find. The briefs are often loose, so I am allowed a certain degree of freedom. They are a little in keeping with the way I photograph in my personal work too – responding to a person and the environment without lengthy planning. I love working this way, making quick decisions, trying to find a way to engage with a stranger and ask them to open up to you in a short space of time. It’s always an exciting challenge. In French, even more so.
Living between Paris and London do you see how photography in France is different from the UK? (I’m thinking both about how it is produced and also how it is received.) How do the two cultures approach the medium?
I come from a school where I was taught to construct photographs carefully, always aware of the conceptual underpinnings, and in Paris I have found there to be a tendency towards a more poetic perspective, but it’s hard to define. The French approach to life in general has more of an influence on me than the French approach to photography. The texture and colour of life here is different and this inspires me in many ways. For me, it oozes a romantic melancholy. It’s a pleasure to be able to participate in photo circles in Paris but it’s my experience within the city which has the biggest influence. Perhaps I should move to Denmark!