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Last week I wrote a couple of articles about the Berlinale Filmfestival for Vice and adidas Originals’ new platform : newsfororiginalgirls.com. Below you can read my article (in German) about Alexa Karolinski’s debut film “Oma & Bella”, a very strong and touching documentary about her grandma Regina Karolinski and her best friend Bella Katz, both elderly jewish women, Holocaust survivors and amazing personalities. The two ladies live together in a big apartment in the West Berlin and cook jewish food together, one of the only ways to keep their pre-war past alive. As we watch them cooking, joking and telling extremely touching stories, we get to know these wonderful women, through the eyes of ‘Oma’s’ granddaughter, who captured them with great love and respect.
Photos are by Bella Lieberberg, text by me. ‘Original’ article here.
ALEXA, OMA & BELLA
Von der School of Visual Arts in New York zum Berlinale-Publikumsliebling: Mit Oma & Bella feierte die 27-jährige Regisseurin Alexa Karolinski gestern ihr Festival-Debüt. Nina Byttebier war für news for original girls dabei.
Dass dieser Film etwas ganz Besonderes ist, hat sich längst herumgesprochen. Ein Debüt, das im Rahmen der Diplomarbeit einer jungen, deutsch-kanadischen Frau entstand, wurde in den letzten Tagen zu einem der großen Berlinale-Themen: Oma & Bella.
Der erste Kinofilm von Alexa Karolinski ist eine unglaublich starke Dokumentation über zwei jüdischen Frauen die den Holocaust überlebt haben – Alexas Oma Regina und ihre beste Freundin Bella Katz. Sie wohnen zusammen in West-Berlin, gehen zum Friseur, passen aufeinander auf und kochen unglaublich lecker aussehendes jüdisches Essen. Und genau damit hat das Projekt überhaupt erst angefangen. Irgendwann, es ist schon mehrere Jahre her, begann Alexa die Gerichte aufzuschreiben, die ihre Oma und Bella gemeinsam für sie kochten. Es sollte eine Sammlung von Rezepten werden, vielleicht sogar ein Kochbuch. Aus den Stories zu den Gerichten wurde eine Lebensgeschichte, die Alexa jetzt auf der Berlinale erzählt. Und die Presse ist begeistert.
Das liegt natürlich auch an Kickstarter, einer Website, die Leuten die Möglichkeit bietet, ihre Ideen vorzustellen und finanzieren zu lassen. In vier Tagen hatte Alexa ihr Ziel von 18.000 Dollar erreicht. Im Moment steht der Ticker auf 44.905 Dollar. Oma & Bella ist ein Projekt, an das die Leute glauben – und das völlig zu Recht. Die New York Times berichtete, ARTE begleitete sie bei der Weltpremiere. Die Tickets für die beiden Vorstellungen waren in nur vier Stunden ausverkauft, fast so schnell wie Shah Rukh Khans neuer Bollywood-Blockbuster.
Ich habe mir zum Glück noch schnell online ein Ticket sichern können. Alexa selbst treffe ich schon ein paar Tage vor dem großen Abend. Sie erzählt mir, dass das Publikum Oma & Bella so kennenlernen soll, wie man sich auch sonst kennenlernen würde. Durch kleine Geschichten, Witze, Handlungen – und die sehr harten, emotionalen Geschichten aus dem Krieg, die Alexa mit viel Feingefühl eingefangen hat. Natürlich konnte ich mir im Vorfeld schon ein paar Trailer und Clips ansehen und trotzdem übertraf der Film alles, was ich erwartet habe.
Nach der Premiere spreche ich mit Bellas Enkelsohn, der mir erzählt, dass die Geschichte vor allem eine Motivation für das Leben ist. Ich sehe es genauso. Wir können uns nicht vorstellen, was diese Frauen erlebt haben, aber ihre Lebensfreude, ihre Liebe zu sehen, ist wirklich inspirierend. Es sind die echten Momente des Lebens, die hier gezeigt werden, eine liebevolle Freundschaft zwischen zwei unglaublich starken Frauen, ihre Geschichten, Familien, Kleidung, ihre heimliche Eitelkeit, aber vor allem ihre unglaubliche Energie und Eleganz.
Regina und Bella saßen auch im Publikum, genau wie die ganze Familie und Alexas beste Freunde, und das hat die besondere Atmosphäre des Abends nur noch verstärkt. Es ist schwer zu erklären und kann auch daran liegen, dass ich ein wenig verkatert war, aber ein Film hat mich selten so überfordert – mit Freude, Traurigkeit und Bewunderung. Die Standing Ovations waren mehr als verdient. Der Moderatorin ging es übrigens ganz ähnlich: Als sie direkt nach dem Film, am Ende des Applauses, ein Interview mit Alexa führen wollte, fehlten ihr die Worte. „Das Beste und das Schlimmste ist jetzt, dass der Film so rund ist, dass ich gar keine Fragen an dich habe.“, sagte sie.
„Welcher Teil des Films macht dich am Glücklichsten?“, war eine Frage aus dem Publikum, auf die Frau Karolinski rasch antwortete: “Dass er fertig ist!”. Es war eine lange und emotionale Arbeit, mit vielen Drehterminen und einer Postproduction zwischen Berlin und New York, wo Alexa jetzt lebt. Jetzt ist er da – und ich bin mir sicher, dass Oma & Bella erst der Anfang von Alexas Filmkarriere ist.
JPEOPLE 14 - ARTIST FEATURES - KATI HECK
Ever since we saw one of Kati Heck’s paintings of 3 life-size and very life-like naked women in rather rude positions over a background of medieval Nürnberg in a gallery in Antwerp, we couldn’t get her out of our mind and for this issue we’ve finally had the opportunity to go talk to her about painting, animals and Germany on a beautiful afternoon on her cozy roof-terrace in the south of Antwerp, surrounded by cats, birds and the smell of paint and red wine in the air. Kati is an incredible German artist, living in Antwerp in Belgium. Artist, not just painter, because she can also add to her repertoire sculptures, super-sized brain-shaped puddings, performances, photos and films. Kati’s a very striking, energetic and witty young woman whose art has been bought by Saatchi and exhibited all over the globe.
Let’s start at the beginning, you were born in Germany?
Yes, in Düsseldorf and then I left pretty soon actually, when I was 19. I came to Belgium together with a friend of mine, we didn’t think we would be accepted in Düsseldorf, and we were a bit tired of Germany, too. My mother is fashion designer and we thought about going to the fashion academy in Antwerp, but it used to be in a different building and there was this strange hospital atmosphere. It was all so clean, and I’m more dirty and then I thought, why not painting?
So how was that?
Yeah, very academic. The first year we just had to paint still-life all the time and then in the second year nude drawings and we didn’t have that much freedom. I wasn’t really happy there, it missed some kind of contemporary input or something. Then I went to Vienna for half a year and there everyone felt like an artist right from the start of the first year. That was a good feeling.
Yes, what art actually really is. I also had a good contact with the teachers, also friendly and personally, so that was good. Then I came back and finished the school and I stayed, I can’t really split with Belgium apparently.
I also met my husband here and yeah I don’t know, it’s calm, pleasant. But then I still always listen to german radio and I’m subscribed to a german newspaper, also most of my friends are german, so it’s still really there. It’s pretty crazy actually.
I also don’t really get on with the Belgian woman. A lot of them are a bit ‘schlapp’ (‘weak’), of course I can’t generalize but I have this weird feeling with them. Germany is a bit more brutal, also in art, they just bang their fist on the table and here it’s so very calm and… So it takes a while until you understand that.
Is it also like that with the art scene in Belgium, a bit ‘schlapp’?
Yeah, now there are a lot of young artists that are really strong and decisive, but sometimes I teach in the academy and some people are really lazy.
I think it’s a pity also, this evolution with all that networking. A lot of people are really good at that but for me it was always just about hard work and then you get there. But nowadays you have to talk so much and I really can’t do that. When you talk to the right people it’s ok.
You also have good contacts here in Antwerp, you’ve been here for a while.
Yes. It changed a lot in the meanwhile, my first gallery owner was Annie Gentils and she gave me that first push kind of and Guillaume Bijl, the belgian artist, also helped me a lot in the beginning.
Also because you knew them personally then?
Yes, from parties and we became friends. One time I had a portfolio with me and he said he wanted to show it to his gallery owner and then it went from there. It has to do with luck also.
How long is it ago that you graduated or really started painting full time?
Actually I exhibited in my 4th year of school and then shortly after that it kicked off, luckily I never really had to go and work, I think it was 2003.
So you were really able to live off your art since the very beginning?
Yes, it actually worked well right from the beginning.
Yes, that was nice. A lot of paintings have been sold. There’s a funny story, Matt Dillon, the actor, bought a painting of mine, because he thought the guy on the painting was Marlon Brando. Someone I know apparently knows him and went to visit him. The painting was in his living room and my friend said “Ah you have a Kati Heck, nice.” And Dillon said, “Yeah great right, Marlon Brando” and the guy said “What? That’s just Peter from the Radio Centraal in Antwerp”, hahaha! Kind of sad actually, maybe he wouldn’t have bought it otherwise but yeah, at least now he has Peter.
It’s good that I can live off my paintings but sometimes you feel a bit guilty and you feel like you should do some real work, so I do teach sometimes but I don’t think i’m really made for teaching. It doesn’t really make me happy. I’m ashamed most of the time.
For the students then?
Maybe both, for myself and for them as well. But it can be inspiring too, sometimes they do something and they don’t know it’s good but you see it. And their enthusiasm, it’s very beautiful to see.
So they’re not all lazy.
No, but I can’t spend that much time on people that do it kind of half-heartedly. I’d like to just teach for those who are really good and really want it.
But I guess it can be satisfying as well.
From those 5 out of 20 then, yes, ha ha. Afterwards I miss them too and I wonder how they’re doing.
Can you tell me a bit about your performance group Bissy Bunder?
Yes, we were just three girls who wanted to do something else as well, we felt like bored housewives. I don’t know, we felt like making music and some theatre or something. Now it professionalized a bit. Our strength is that we’re not ashamed to do anything. We’ve just made our second film. Two years ago we made a film in North-America, called “Beyonda”, I had an exhibition in LA, we did a performance for the opening and before that we rented one of those mobile homes and kind of toured around for three weeks and made a film. Really happy about that one.
What happens in the film?
It’s a bit of a road movie and we play all these different characters. There’s one who wants to be like Steven Spielberg and wants to make a movie but he’s very unprofessional and then there’s a story about a stunt man, it’s always a bit tragic. We had weird costumes with pine cones and stuff. It was a lot about this beautiful landscape there as well.
The second film is very different, we were in a defense bunker, like a fort, outside of Antwerp, in Hoboken. It was a very weird place, we all got ill and I got this skin disease, (laughs).
Wow, just from being there?
Yes, there was pigeon shit everywhere and ice-cold inside. It was very sunny outside and we had to wear three coats inside and of course, the whole fort was built as a kind of prison.
Really from the war?
Yeah they never used it, really a shame about that place, it was just never really good enough.
So, we tried to do something with that. I’m curious now what it will look like, we’ll cut it in July, Jan Matthé from White Circle Crime Club will make the music for it, as with the last one. Other people in Bissy Bunder are Tina Schott, Jan’s girlfriend, fashion designer Rani Bageria, photographer Michèle Matyn, fashion designer Johanna Trudzinski and Julia Wlodkowski, who I came to Belgium with. It’s nice that we come from all these different areas, we can do a lot. It’s sometimes tiring as well, when you’re used to being alone and then there’s suddenly 6 girls, there’s a lot of discussions.
I can imagine. A lot of female energy. What did you do in the fort?
Well, we wanted to do something around the digestion process, I don’t know, it evolved, we also had all these weird characters, there were siamese twins who are kind of prisoners in the fort and their dad who was a really creepy man, his nose grew into his pipe, very gross. And there’s a visitor, who we all played once. The visitor falls in love with one of the twins and the other one hates him of course. Then we had a little musical moment, like Meat Loaf ‘Paradise by the dashboard light’ kind of thing. All the rooms there are round and oval kind of, the walls as well, in one room we hung all these tennis strings across the room, really long, 8 meter or something to symbolize the vocal chords. And then one man who tears off his skin, it was very pretty, just the muscles.
So it’s about the human body then?
Is it about the body? I’m not sure, we’ll have to see in the editing. I think it was especially very gruesome and gross. A bit more brutal than the last one, that’s good. The fort was also very difficult and dark, so it kind of happened. I think it will be exciting.
In your paintings that brutal and ugly side also appears a lot.
Yes, true. It’s also the most fun to paint. The beautiful models are very difficult to paint. When everything is right, it’s not so fascinating. I build friendships with people I paint while I’m painting. I only paint people I know because I don’t like it otherwise, it takes a long time to make a painting and I don’t want to spend so much time on a stupid person. That’s difficult. Also family and friends. That circle of friends keeps growing fortunately, so there are always new people.
So you think out scenarios beforehand?
Yes and sometimes the person unknowingly gives it to you already, what should happen. I see someone and I think this would fit with this person. But usually I think I’d like to paint this and then I think about the person that would fit, make a sketch with this person in mind etc. So I invite them over and I make photos here. I used to paint from found photos but I really prefer to do it myself so I can set all the lighting and direct them a bit. You have to get them a bit drunk and then they’re pretty willing.
So you direct them as well?
Yes, but sometimes I want them to do things that are not possibly for every body. Then I ask if they can sit like this or bend like this this, but then it’s not possible, so you have to adapt. Sometimes you just have to wait and something interesting happens.
Painting people is very interesting. When you look at everything so closely. Maybe you have that too… You find the ugly things about the person a bit, right. (thinks) Yeah, people… I don’t like people so much. I prefer looking at animals I think. We had a big discussion recently, about Japan, I said “We don’t have to support the people, we have to help the monkeys and the animals.” Then I just think “Why are we so stupid?” Maybe that’s a bit how I make friends then with the people I paint, because you fall in love a bit with everyone you paint. It’s a bit sensual in a way, when you paint lips or an armpit, it’s so…
You’re also very close to it.
Yeah, it’s so personal, you don’t have to paint a penis for that. Everything is so close.
I think you really notice in your paintings that the people come out really real, as they are, it’s very honest.
Yeah, sometimes, it can be an obstacle. There’s a couple of people that I paint a lot, it gives you a bit more freedom, but in a way, it’s of course ridiculous, but I don’t want to make them too ugly, you know. So then I think, maybe I have to take myself, or one of my models who are not ashamed at all. I can do everything with them, but some people don’t deserve it. So it can be like a barrier as well, so you have to try and mix it that it doesn’t feel like such a hurdle for yourself.
You also use a lot of German in your work.
Yes, I really love that language, I really miss it too.
So maybe it’s out of nostalgia?
Maybe, but it’s also so powerful. When the Belgians want to say something powerful they’ll suddenly use a german word. There are so many funny things… you can invent loads of words.
True, there are many very specific words that only exist in German.
Yes, you can put anything together and make a completely new word. It’s also so ambiguous, you can take it in many different ways and I think it adds something extra to the painting. I’ll never be an “untitled” person, I think.
You also use different sort of canvases and undergrounds. You sew pieces together sometimes.
Yes, sometimes it’s just rests of other paintings. Also with drawings, I only like one type of paper and you can’t get it any bigger so I though the only solution is to sew it together, it seemed most logical. Sometimes it’s also pretty radical, then I paint loads of heads and the seam goes right through the neck, haha. But it’s not on purpose then. Also with painting, I never really use prepared canvases, it just doesn’t really work for me. My technique doesn’t really work then.
Can you explain your technique a bit?
I didn’t use paint for so long, or not a lot of paint. My technique to make it so realistic is not really painting, it’s really rubbing it, so there’s no real brush strokes. It comes with the background or… I change the arms or something, so it’s not exactly like on the photo, that would be boring, right. Yeah, I don’t know, it’s just that rubbing… I have to cut the brush to do that. I buy brushes for 20 euros to cut them up!
How long does it take for one painting?
Depends, I always paint in life-size so when there’s a lot of characters on there it can take a month. Recently I made my first small one, it took 2 days, it was fantastic. ‘Hup’ finished and then I could just take it with me, it was great!
For a while I worked a lot with heavy wooden frames around it. Everything was so big and heavy, hard to move and stuff… But in a weird way, I never think my art looks like art. I don’t know why but art in my head looks white and papier-mâché, maybe like a Franz West or something. Recently I made a painting for Tim (van Laere, her new gallerist, ed.) and I put a word on it in papier-mâché and I thought “Oh, this is art!” It was a great feeling, suddenly I felt a bit important, haha. So maybe I should do more with papier-maché, funny.
So you don’t really think of yourself as an artist?
Nowadays art, the product is so… maybe I miss that sometimes, that manual work, that sweating and suffering. I like that hard work, then you feel useful. Or me at least. But some clean lines or colour blocks can also really fascinate me.
I can imagine when you work on something for a month, it’s so intense. It must be a great feeling when you’ve accomplished this big thing.
Yeah, the last moments, or also in-between I can get this really nice feeling. It’s pretty silly, then I sit in my studio in the evening, with some wine and music, looking at the painting. It’s really pathetic. It doesn’t really make a difference whether I work on it for a short or long time, when it turns out how you wanted it in the end. Intense… yeah, when I paint for two days it’s just as intense. A couple of years ago we went to Austria, in the middle of nowhere, that was intense!
We made these wood sculptures with someone who helped us. It was a Neanderthaler, sitting at the table with a beer and a big döner and a massive gherkin next to him. We were there for three months and it was ice-cold. I painted in one building, on one huge canvas, it didn’t even fit in the room. I arrived every morning, had to heat it up, wait for two hours until it was reasonable warm, and then painting, and I was alone there, my husband was working with the sculptor. I became like a wild animal, I had one coffee mug and it did everything. In the morning I had coffee out of it, then not washing, water, then wine, then coffee again. When you’re so alone, or with the cats, I start eating spaghetti with my hands and I start walking half bent over. But really yeah, it’s nice.
But then I think, just because we put on perfume and we can think better, we’re human. I prefer being an animal. And of course it would be nice with more intelligence maybe,that would be nice. That’s a shame.
So you’d rather be…
An animal with great intelligence! Ha ha! Knowing everything. I miss that sometimes, history and stuff I don’t really know anything about it. I just know those stories from my granddad or my dad, or my neighbor tells me a story and then something comes out of that. But eventually, I know nothing. That’s maybe the problem, with school, when you’re a teacher you have to know a lot. I can tell them yellow and red makes orange but actually yes… I can give energy or something but … That’s a bit sad, well, it’s not sad, it’s what it is.
So you don’t have any desire to acquire more knowledge or share knowledge.
Yeah, I would love to, if they could give it to me with a syringe, yes! In 50 years you’re wiser, automatically maybe.
Yes, of course, by just living.
Exactly, I hope for big wisdom, as soon as possible.
You have a lot of animals around here too.
Yes, I have two cats, some fish and I have 6 canaries and 3 Diamond Doves. I just got some new males and they fight all the time, but the canaries sing really beautifully. You can also train them a bit, I realized when I play George Harrison, they sing along to everything. They like slow guitar songs. I’d love to get a piggy, but I don’t really have space. And a turkey, they make such beautiful noises. I once really became friends with a turkey, “Joske”, he was fantastic.
Do you also like painting animals or are humans still more interesting then?
Yes of course, I’ve made a lot of portraits of my cats! First I painted Gustav, my one cat, and then I had to do the other one too, otherwise he would’ve been angry. And horses, I finally really want to paint a big horse. I’ve been dreaming for a while about a horse that stares at you with a scared look on its face for 45 minutes. In the south of Antwerp there are some wild horses on a field, and I wanted to go take photos there. I thought ‘This can’t be too difficult’, but they just ended up chasing me and that didn’t really work out. It doesn’t have to be a wild horse, it can be really tame, but of course no-one wants you to go and scare their horses. Yeah, we’ll see. Animals make for a good painting. It’s also strange, we know humans so well, and when you paint a dog or a cat, it’s so different, you really have to look very closely. Maybe it’s good i don’t have more animals, otherwise I would only paint animals.
Here’s my article for Vice Style about the Academy Show last weekend.
In the following days I’ll be posting the interviews I did for the “Artist Features” section of JPeople Magazine.
1. JPEOPLE MAGAZINE - ARTIST FEATURES - STACEY MARK
(full, legible text below)
Full text (I know it’s long, but it’s worth it!):
Stacey Mark is an American photographer, based in Brooklyn, New York, one of those genius people that don’t conform to the cliche of “I always knew I was going to be a photographer”, instead she kind of slipped into it by accident, after studying at Sarah Lawrence, working at Steven Klein’s studio and being a photo-editor for Nylon magazine, when she took some polaroids of wild child Asia Argento. She now finds herself shooting fashion editorials for Purple Magazine, Vice, Jalouse and Jacques Magazine. Stacey’s photos have a very magical, sexy aura over them, she almost solely shoots women, ranging from Bridget Hall to Amy Wesson and Juliette Lewis. By looking at her photographs, you feel this instant connection with the model and you wish you were there, at that time and place. We wanted to know why that is, and found out that what we already guessed is true: Stacey Mark is a very interesting and cool lady.
“Shoots, in a way, are like a first date, sometimes you meet someone and the chemistry is just there, you click, you feel like you’ve always known them. And then there are the times it doesn’t and you just fake it till the check comes and you get the hell out of there.”
“We wanted to get some underwater shots so I had no choice but to get in the freezing water myself - in a terribly ugly bathing suit, horrible goggles, icy water, but I jumped right in.”
“Models like Bridget Hall, Amy Wesson, Kirsty Hume - they truly are incredible models. (…) They anticipate what you want before you knew you wanted it. Its something to behold, really.”
Let’s find out a bit more about you, where did you grow up?
I grew up in North East Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Until I was 10 years old I lived in an apartment building, my grandparents were a few floors down, as was my best friend and his grandmother lived in the building as well. I went to private school, wore a uniform, came home and rode bikes and roller-skated in the the basement. We then moved further out into the suburbs, I attended your typical American public school, hated it and spent the next few years hiding in my bedroom listening to music and looking at magazines.
Sounds familiar. How did the place you grew up in influence your work and your personal life?
I think growing up in American ‘suburbia’ can be both inspiring and isolating. There’s very little cultural stimulation other than television, music and movies. Although I was good student, I didn’t enjoy school, I didn’t feel like I fit in with my classmates. I was quiet and as I got older, I became pretty confrontational. I was always looking for a (verbal) fight and it wasn’t that hard to find. I think the isolation I felt, drove me to discover a new world through movies, music, magazines, books. When I was about 14 my mom fell very ill and to distract me from the news, she took me to a Madonna concert. Something about that moment in time, knowing what we know of Madonna’s struggles with her own mother’s illness and my inability to really understand what was going to happen to my own family, I really latched onto to this image of Madonna. I started collecting magazines with her on the cover, listening to her music, seeing her movies. My mother fully recovered by the way. Her influences opened up a world to me that I could escape into. It was also the era of the ‘supermodel’, which I was absolutely fascinated by. I was this really strange looking creature as a teenager and when I was 12, the entire school decided I looked like Sandra Bernhard, which I grew to love but at the time was somewhat of a shock. A few years later a model called Kristen McMenamy became super famous and people started thinking pictures of her were me. As if a supermodel would be working in the local market, but okay… I know a lot of young women are negatively affected by images of fashion and models, and this isn’t to say that I felt confident with my looks or my body or that I felt like a “model” but I did start seeing images of women in fashion magazines - like Sandra, like Kirsten, like Eve Salvail or Almodovar’s muse Rossy De Palma - that I could identify with, who made me feel ‘okay’ to look the way I did. I think it was that circuitous route that led me to love the ‘fashion’ aspect of photography.
Being European, I always imagine it must be very different growing up in America. Do you think if you’d been born in Europe, your life would’ve turned out very differently?
Its impossible to say because my experience of Europe is that of an outsider. Although I have spent time in various cities, I am essentially a tourist. My experience is that the history of Europe is visceral, you can feel it as you walk down the street, sit in a cafe, enter a theater. It’s in the air. I don’t get that feeling in America. When you’re in New York, for example, its hard to believe this is the same New York as the 70s, 80s. You want to feel what it was like to be at CBGB’s seeing Blondie or the Ramones but you can’t. You walk through Times Square and its impossible to understand that it was the seedy epicenter of sleeze, because now its just a crowded, watered down Disney Land.
A lot of the history of American culture we as Americans have to learn and experience, the same way non-Americans have to learn and experience: through books, films, music, photographs, imagination. A lot of my work is influenced by what I saw in movies and what I imagined my life to be like…what it could be like.
I read in a Vice article that your dad is a very special person. Can you tell me a bit more about him and how he influenced your life and work?
Aw yes, my dad is a very special person and I was so excited that Vice was interested in publishing that article. My dad is a first generation American. My grandparents came to America soon after the turn of the century, settled in New Jersey and began building a life for themselves essentially from nothing. My father grew up one of 3 children in what is now considered one of the most dangerous cities in America. His parents ran a clothing store, all of the children worked in the store and the family lived above it. My father was always an avid music lover and decided from an early age that he wanted to work in music and radio any way he could. Early on he would work over night at a popular jazz club, basically doing anything and everything that needed to be done (going out at midnight to get Billie Holiday a loaf of bread was a memorable task) and then working in his parents store during the day. Long story short, he found his way to radio and 50 plus years later he is still hosting the very same show. “Sounds of Sinatra” is the name of the programme and it is and has been dedicated solely to the music of Frank Sinatra who became a great friend and hero to my father. My father has always inspired and encouraged me. His job is so unique and unusual and something he’s so deeply passionate about, so it opened the door for me to consider following my own passion, no matter how unusual or unique it might be. Like myself, the people he grew up with took a much more traditional path and like myself, he knew that was never the path for him. He also taught me so much - whether i wanted to know or not - about the life and work of Frank Sinatra and many other incredible musical artists I probably would never have sought out on my own. I still love listening to Frank, it takes me back to my childhood in a way nothing else does. Nancy Sinatra, however, I discovered on my own. I love Nancy. Maybe that’ll be my show.
That’s beautiful. Let’s talk about your photos, what is it that attracts you in the female shape and form?
I can remember growing up, being very aware of sexuality and the idea of ‘sexiness.’ I dont mean that I felt sexy or particularly attractive but I did understand the power of femininity. It’s something instinctual that I respond to, a certain arch of the back or an outstretched arm… I don’t know exactly how to explain it. Its maybe something that I’m searching for in myself so I’ve studied it in other women.
Can you explain why you mainly photograph women and what the big difference for you is between photographing men and women?
There is a certain shyness I feel when photographing men that I don’t have photographing women. I started taking photographs towards the end of a painful relationship with a man and photography at that time was a very safe place for me. I was heartbroken and confused but something was happening within the photographs I was taking that I wasn’t even aware I was capable of. There was a connection happening between myself and the women I was shooting. There was a power and a strength and a sexuality and an ease and a happiness that I was channeling that I didn’t actually feel myself at that time. But it was there and being exorcised through the lens… Its a cliche but I do feel like a lot of my work, despite the fact that I don’t appear in any of the images, is self portraiture. It’s who I want to be, the way I’d want to be seen, the way I’d want to be looked at. Its not intentional and not something I set out to do because honestly, taking photographs for me was a fluke and a hobby when I began. But I had something inside that I needed to express and expel and I still do, which is why I continue to do it.
Yes, you only really starting taking photos after you’d photographed Asia Argento, how did it happen that you took her picture and what makes her so interesting for you?
I was working as the photo director of Nylon at the time and had taken a Polaroid here and there. At that time Asia was promoting her film “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” the adaptation of JT Leroy’s short stories. I was reading all of JT’s work at the time and had always been intrigued by Asia. One of the Nylon writers back then was a friend of mine and he persuaded the editor to let us two go to the Toronto Film Festival to shoot and interview Asia and JT. How or why this happened, I still don’t know. It was completely out of the ordinary. The editor certainly didn’t consider me a ‘photographer’ and he really had little or no interest in this project but we booked two tickets to Toronto and within an hour of arriving we were nervously waiting for Asia in her hotel lobby.
When we finally got the ‘okay’ to go upstairs we had no idea what to expect, Asia’s reputation was as this hyper-sexual bad-ass heroine and the film she was promoting was incredibly dark and intense so when she opened the door in a dirty RUSH T-shirt and jeans and curtsied, I was totally taken aback. She was warm and welcoming and just like “lets do this.” We were in a little hotel room, I took a bunch of Polaroids of her and she was just so beautiful and easy to photograph and we got so many great shots in such a short period of time. Something just clicked in me, I don’t know how to describe it. Partly it was naïvety, because honestly, it IS easy to take a great picture of Asia but also something happened between us. It was the first time I ever understood the excitement of the instant connection that you can make with a subject and what that connection can bring to your work. Asia became symbolic of that realization for me, all the more important because before that I never really had a direction for my life artistically. I had a great job, I could pay the rent and so on, but it wasn’t something I really loved or that I felt was really ‘mine.’ So while it sounds a little dramatic to say ‘Asia made me a photographer’ its really just shorthand for the fact that that shoot and that trip were a turning point for me. And it was a point in which I understood that underlying magic that existed in photographs I had always loved. It’s what I was responding to without knowing what it was.
What did you want to do before you ‘found’ photography?
When I was a really young girl I was obsessed with the movies Grease and Xanadu and all I ever wanted to do was be Olivia Newton John. Between that time and the day I shot Asia, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do.
You seem to get your models in very natural, uncomplicated and sexy positions, as if you’d been best friends for ages, how do you get to that stage when you’re working with someone you’ve never met before?
That’s such a compliment, thank you. I’d be really interested to know the answer from some of the people I’ve shot - to see what they experienced on set with me because that might give me a better understanding of what goes on in their heads. I think for one thing, I seek out people I want to shoot. Even if I haven’t met them in advance there’s something I see or feel in their photographs or music or films. That said, you never really know how someone is going to be in general or on that particular day. Hopefully everyone, including myself, shows up prepared, open, willing and professional. Nudity, for example, should never be a surprise to your subject and I would never, even if it is something agreed upon in advance, force someone to do anything they didn’t want to do. I think and hope you can see that unity in the eyes of the girls I shoot.
The cover story I shot for Jacques Magazine of Jenna in the pool, it had been a long cool spring and while we got lucky with a nice day, the pool wasn’t heated and freezing cold. Jenna was in there all day, we got lots of great shots and she never complained. We wanted to get some underwater shots too, so I had no choice but to get in the freezing water myself - in a terribly ugly bathing suit, horrible goggles, icy water… but I jumped right in. I think if the subject knows you have respect for the position they’re in, their vulnerability or even literal discomfort, then a wall is broken. If we’re shooting outside in cold weather and the model is in spring clothes I always shoot without my coat. Let the rest of the team stay warm but I need to know and I need the subject to know that I’m with them. Temperature and other conditions aside, the fact is that I’m by nature a very shy person. I’m not very social, not the center of attention and not the life of the party but I am good at observing people and I think that lends itself to having people open up to me and to feel comfortable. Also, shoots in a way are like a first date, sometimes you meet someone and the chemistry is just there, you click, you feel like you’ve always known them and all of those cliches. It’s an unconscious connection that just happens. And then there are the times it doesn’t and you just fake it till the check comes and you get the hell out of there.
Ha, that’s a perfect way to describe it! Your models are usually not the most conventional models, when does someone become interesting for you to photograph?
I can’t say exactly, its just a feeling i get, an instinct and probably some kind of projection of myself onto them. Sometimes its because, for example, its a model who I’ve followed for years and was always inspired by like Bridget Hall or Amy Wesson. Other girls like Laura who I shot as a ballerina for Jacques and have since shot again and again, I booked initially because we needed a sexy model who was willing to be nude and could actually be ‘en pointe’. But as soon as I met her I knew we would be friends and that I would photograph her again, she’s gorgeous and yes, unconventional, but also a sweet super-intelligent goofball who I absolutely love.
I think I become interested in shooting someone when my gut tells me to shoot them and I think someone becomes interesting for me to photograph when they surpass your expectations. Models like Bridget, Amy, Kirsty Hume - they’re hugely famous and legendary in the industry because they truly are incredible models. They can take a character reference and turn it into reality in a split second. They anticipate what you want before you knew you wanted it. Its something to behold, really.
I also look for an element of reality with the women I photograph, I don’t like photographing models who are too young, too plastic or too unreachable. They should be someone who you’d like to spend the day with since that’s exactly what you’re going to be doing.
Which cameras do you use and how did you develop your very recognizable personal style?
I started out using only a Polaroid Spectra camera that I bought at the local drugstore and I was unfortunately convinced by a few people that shooting only Polaroids wasn’t ‘enough’. Although I did move on and learn to use other cameras, which I enjoy and appreciate, I have to say that was probably the worst advice I’ve ever received and the kind of advice I would never offer. Yes, I agree on expanding and experimenting, not being afraid to try something new and not being afraid to fail. But I feel confident now that I could have and will continue to build a body of work completely out of Polaroids. There is an intimacy, immediacy and quality to Polaroids that is the basis of all of my work. It’s instant nostalgia, it’s documentary and it’s dirty. When something feels right you just have to go with it. Otherwise I love my 35mm point-and-shoot Yashica. I don’t know how that little thing makes so much magic but it does. I’m also learning to use and understand digital which I have shot quite a bit of recently. My feeling about digital photography for me is that it’s not necessarily a means to replicate what I do with film but rather a means to a different end. I grew up loving B-movies, bad late night cable shows, public access television, Betamax tapes and I love the idea of creating that kind of world with digital. Something a little off, a little raw and dirty but with a sense of humor, like the Cicciolina story with Amy Wesson, the sweater girl story I shot for Vice or a recent editorial with artist Aurel Schmidt shot for Jalouse.
What do you think of photography these days? Which other photographers do you like?
I’m not into photography that has references so transparent that even their references have references. I like any photographers, new or old, that have their own true eye, that create a world of their own so distinct that if you saw a photograph of theirs with absolutely no context you would know it was theirs instantly. There are photographers that can shoot a girl in front of a white wall and the photograph is unmistakably theirs: from Penn and Avedon to Mapplethorpe to Terry to Ines & Vinhood and so on. That’s the kind of magic that I respond to and that’s the kind of feeling I aspire to .
I read somewhere that “Sofia Coppola is to movies as Stacey Mark is to photography”, what do you think about that?
That is a compliment that I can’t even really process. Sofia Coppola is the kind of artist I was just referring to, someone who has created a world that is distinctly hers. Her films could be set in 18th century France or yesterday at the Chateau Marmont and you know immediately that they are hers. She has a strong visual language that seems very true to who she is, she tells the stories she wants to tell and her approach seems very genuine.
What was the most remarkable or inspiring moment in your life?
A few years ago I was lucky enough to be part of an Antony and the Johnsons production called “Turning” in which he cast 13 women to have their portrait filmed live on stage and projected behind him while he performed and I was one of the women (You can see footage of the original NYC show in Ant’s video ‘You are my sister’, I’m the girl with the black hair and black leather jacket). It started originally as part of the Whitney Biennial in New York City and then later became a European tour that took Antony, the band, the filmmakers and the cast all over. We were in Rome, Paris, London, Madrid and Portugal. Although we saw so many amazing things and met so many amazing people its not worth singling out a moment, a city or a view. That trip from beginning to end was the most beautiful and inspiring experience of my life.
What did you like about and learn from your job as photo editor at Nylon Magazine?
I learned so much there, as I did from all of my jobs. What I loved about working there, and the one thing I really miss, was the team aspect of it. We were all really young and excited and focused on making this magazine every month, we worked overtime together, went on trips, got drunk, got sober, everything that you do in NYC we did together and we really cared about making Nylon the best it could be with the resources that we had. I met some of my best friends there and have watched some of the photographers I hired at the very start of their careers go on to do great things.
There are a lot of magazines around these days, do you still buy magazines yourself?
I have to admit to falling victim to the immediacy and economical benefits of looking at magazines online. I have spent so much time, money and shelf space on magazines and I absolutely cherish them. But at this point I don’t buy an issue of an expensive magazine unless I fall in love with it and have to have it, like an art book.
With the millions of blogs out there, it seems like everyone these days could be a photographer / editor / stylist etc. You also have one, what do you think about that whole blog-trend?
I was a photo editor who picked up a camera one day and decided to become a photographer so I’m really in no position to judge. I love posting images on my blog, its a great place to mix your own work with images, videos that inspire you. Sometimes it feels like writing a visual poem, its not something you map out, if you go through the pages there is a narrative and a thread that pulls you through. At one time I had a more ‘confessional’ blog and I’m not really in that place anymore but I’ll happily and secretly read someone else’s confessions.
Over the last couple of months I’ve been editing a biannual Berlin-based, English-language magazine called JPeople Magazine.
More of the content coming soon.