PHOTO + MAGAZINE
I read that Charbonneau studied anthropology and music and French studied art history. How did each of you decide to become an artist?
Jeff: Art for me has been primarily a private passion. A means of communicating ideas and thoughts non-verbally. I engaged as a means of diversion from my daily chores and work routines, which are in creative fields, but under the mandate of someone else’s vision. I felt that psychologically I needed to express some of the things that haunted me; nightmares, my personal assessments of our cultural milieu, conceptions of archetypes and personal histories. A couple of different people saw some of the things I was working on and encouraged me to start approaching galleries and submitting for group shows.
Eliza: From a young age I was drawn to the arts, and I have always created work in one way or another. I studied both screenwriting at New York University and Art History at UCLA because both subjects appealed to me and I worked in related fields after college. It wasn’t until I met Jeff and started seeing the product of our collaboration that I felt I could make the jump from working in the art world to producing my own art. For me, the act of producing art will always be essential to life. If I couldn’t make my own stories, or my own pictures or have my own imaginary world, I think this life would be too sufferable. Producing art gives me an outlet for my grief, my misgivings about the world, and a place to develop my desires, my fears and my longings in an effective venue.
How does your background affect your art and your life as an artist?
Jeff: My background in music taught me discipline through rigorous practice and that subtleties are important in the interpretive process. It also taught me the importance of structure and performance in the portrayal of emotions. That perhaps art has its voice in the individual performance of common themes. Studying anthropology taught me that there are a multitude of interpretations of the human experience and also many common themes. I learned a lot about the semiotics of individual cultures and how to become a more objective viewer. Living in cultures and environments that were exotic to my western upbringing opened my mind to different assessments of time, space, aesthetics, spiritual dogma and the tools of survival. It taught me that our thoughts, perceptions and aspirations have been extensively mediated by our cultural heritage and that our experiences are bounded in cultural rhetoric. That in order to break those boundaries one must honestly admit to an observational bias and commit to questioning it. In essence, we will never really understand everything and we can never truly be objective, only experiential........so for me to feel honest I prefer to refer to my background as experiential and my view of the world as “interpretive”, which perhaps ambiguously led me to art.
Eliza: I don’t think my education had any affect on my work as an artist, in fact, as an art history student I was exposed to many things which were inspiring, but when it came time to be a photographer my sources were primarily personal or fantasy driven. My childhood and my family history, on the other hand, have affected my artwork in several ways. For one, I was very sick as a child. I stayed in bed for months at a time and entertained myself by reading science fiction and fantasy stories and by living largely in my imagination. I think this forced me to daydream and I learned to draw upon these daydreams to create powerful images. I was also the youngest in a family of six daughters, so there is something that fascinates me about the energy between sisters. I think this is one reason why I have a tendency to make images populated by young female protagonists.
When did you guys meet? Tell us the history of how you starting collaborating.
Jeff: We met in a community darkroom in 2003 and I asked Eliza if she would like to work with me on a photo series about mythological female archetypes. She became the primary model. During that series we realized that the process required a great deal of collaboration in design and performance, so we embraced the concept of working together on all the aspects of production. From there we decided to collaborate on a narrative portrayal of one of her ancestor’s history.
Eliza: Jeff and I met in a community darkroom in west L.A. in 2003. I was printing assignments for a photography class at UCLA and he was working on a portfolio of black and white images that were moody and romantic. I thought his printing technique was beyond anything else I had seen in the darkroom and so when he asked if I would model for some photographs, I agreed. At first, he used me for a series of pictures about iconic women in history. I became Matta Hari, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette, and others. During the time in which I was modeling for Jeff, he was teaching me advanced techniques in shooting and printing black and white photographs. We were experimenting and producing work constantly and eventually we were always in each other’s company. The more we worked together, the more it felt like we were collaborating, except that I was not supplying any input in terms of the subject matter. When we finally made a conscious decision to be partners in the work we began making images that became our first major series, “Massillon”. At that point, we started conceptualizing, designing, shooting and printing everything in tandem and something magical happened.
Is “sevensistersasleep” the name of your collaborations? How did you come up with this name?
Sevensistersasleep for now, is simply the name of our website, but in the future we will be making a series of pictures with the same name. It is inspired by the myth of the Seven Sisters of Sleep, and the book of the same name by Mordecai Cooke which was published in 1825. Both the myth, and the book, refer to a group of sisters who are given the power to dominate men’s dreamtime through various means, including the use of powerful narcotics. We will be making at least one image representing each sister sometime in the future.
Could you describe yourself as an artist in a few words (modifiers or adjectives)
Jeff: I have been heavily influenced by the early pictoralist photographers and the surrealist movement. I like formal composition, minimalist design and organic color. Narratives, ambiguities, fantasies and delusions.
Eliza: I am fastidious, ever-changing, tempermental and thrive on experimentation. I prefer to work on many things at once and like my photographs to be seductive, hallucinatory and otherworldly.
When did you first become interested in photography?
Jeff: I had a friend whose father was a photographer and let us experiment in his darkroom when we were teens. I then was assigned the role of documenting one of the cultures that I lived with as an anthropology student. I learned a documentary style of photography from that experience.
Eliza: My mother used to take old black and white photographs of her ancestors and blow them up to nearly life-size and she hung them in our house as works of art. So, from an early age, I respected the medium of photography as a transmitter of life through space and time. In my early twenties someone gave me a 35mm Nikon F and invited me to take photographs of a movie set. After that, I went back to school to learn the craft of photography. At first, I used the camera to document events around me, but quickly discovered I liked the storytelling capabilities of photography more than anything.
Why did you choose photography? What is photography to you?
Jeff: I chose photography because of its spontaneity in capturing a performance, concept or design idea and the somewhat immediate gratification of the rendering. I also like the flexibility of being able to study a subject from a variety of POV’s and the ability to record natural light and shadow. Photography is the capture of a particle of time that represents immortality at the same moment that it kills that particle of time.
Eliza: The medium of photography has a distinct relationship with time, truth and death, which makes it the most attractive of all mediums. The capturing of an image onto film signals the death of a specific and true moment in time which will never again be repeated. The moment captured, then lives as a simulacrum of the real thing in a variety of forms including photographic prints and digital images. I think of photography as a way of creating ghosts; a way of dealing with death that can be very appealing.
What kind of photography do you prefer? With which do you feel most comfortable and why?
Jeff: I prefer photography that depicts a departure from conventional phenomenon. Be it in a play on composition, an aberrant thought or an extreme juxtaposition of content or context. I also prefer photography that presents itself as a beautiful object, precisely executed and magnificently printed or presented. I love photography from every genre, but tend to lean towards fantasy, tableau and surrealist photography.
Eliza: I prefer images with a little mystery and seduction. I want to be haunted by an image. With my own work, I am most comfortable making photographs that involve an act of performance or play because it makes the entire process more interesting and fun from beginning to end.
What makes your work different than another artist’s?
Jeff: This is a tough question to be objective about and maybe best left to an art critic. Perhaps our work is different by virtue of it being based on personal experiences, an attempt at creating a unique style, look or ambiance for each series and the choice of staging a live performance that is captured in situ for each image.
Eliza: The effort we put into the design and conceptualization as well as the printing of our images often sets us apart from other people working with photographs. We see the photograph as a way of capturing a performance, so a lot of energy is spent finding the right location, the best objects and creating special costumes for each arrangement.
How would you describe your photos to someone whose never seen them?
Jeff: Our photographs are fantasy based renditions of family or personal mythology interpreted in the context of our collaborative contemporaneous bias. It is heavily designed into a tableau that is performed on location and captured as an actual moment in time. It is manipulated and printed in a traditional wet darkroom on silver gelatin paper, chemically toned, rephotographed, enlarged and printed as a C-print on metallic paper. The prints are then mounted on dibond for exhibition.
Eliza: I would describe the series “Massillon” as Nathaniel Hawthorne meets Edgar Allan Poe meets Ingmar Bergman. I would describe the series “Playground” as Robert A. Heinlein meets Alice in Wonderland meets Buckminster Fuller.
What’s the most interesting comment you’ve heard from a viewer?
Jeff: The prints have an almost 3-D quality from different angles. The images are haunting. They felt like they had entered a different planet or universe and one seven year old girl told her father that she wanted to be the woman in the picture when she grew up.
Eliza: At our last exhibition a woman said that the images from the series “Playground” represented (to her) every important stage in a woman’s life, from childhood through adulthood. In addition a lot of people say that the photographic prints look three-dimensional in person.
What was the most intelligent thing that someone said or wrote about your work?
Jeff: “I came across this artist duo while perusing the internet for art/artists and instantly was drawn into the work that they have produced. What originally drew me to the work was the repetitive spheres in this series. One of my recurring dreams is of sphere like objects slowly growing as I'm in a confined space until they grow so large that I'm ready to suffocate and then I wake? Seeing this series of images by Jeff Charbonneau and Eliza French is both mesmerizing and mystifying in their approach of integrating the sphere's into a variety of landscape environments. The relationship between the spheres and the characters interacting with them is kind of a ying/yang relationship of involvement and detachment. The spheres themselves assume personalities in their surroundings and seem almost more human than the human characters that share in their space. Who's space is it? Beautiful attention to detail as the artists seamlessly blend reality with imagination.” - Note: this comment is from a website
And the dumbest?
Jeff: “They did this all in photoshop.” Although this isn’t a dumb comment, it felt bad hearing it because we had spent so much time perfecting and capturing the live performances/stagings and were proud that we hadn’t used photoshop to accomplish the compositions.
Eliza: That two people can’t make one photograph, it just doesn’t work that way.
What artists have influenced you, and how?
Jeff: Man Ray; composition and printing style. Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte; composition and concepts. Juliet Magaret Cameron; tableau context. Robert and Shana Parke-Harrison; tableau settings, concepts. Robert Mapplethorpe; composition. Andrew Wyeth, Joel Peter Witkin, Harry Callahan, Arthur Tress, Cindy Sherman, Ray K. Metzker, Rocky Schenk, Josef Karsh and a plethora of others.
Eliza: The artist Lisbeth Zwerger, who is an illustrator of children’s picture books. There is a sadness to her work that is very moving. I found the same sadness in the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and in the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and was attracted to it. These artists make pictures that are simultaneously playful and melancholy, and that combination is powerful. They influenced me to create pictures filled with the duality of yearning and resignation, madness and hope, melancholy and delight.
Where else do you find inspiration?( films, books, movies, music etc.)
Jeff: Alfred Hitchcock films, Eisenstein, Kubrick, Bergman. Mid-century modern design and Buckminster Fuller. Science fiction novels, namely Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury. Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Holst, middle eastern music, early renaissance music and Primus, straight ahead jazz and industrial ambiance. Also love storms, tornadoes and the sounds of howler monkeys in the jungle.
Eliza: I love classic American storytellers like Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Emily Dickinson, Joyce Carol Oates, and French writers Jean Cocteau, Rimbaud, and Artaud. I am fond of children’s literature and often flip through picture books by Chris Van Allsburg, Shaun Tan, and Ana Juan. I also draw inspiration from daydreaming, staring at clouds, and from looking closely at old objects. Many of our images are inspired by objects we find in antique stores which seem to have their own stories to tell.
What do you do for fun (besides photography)?
Jeff: I am an amateur acrobat/gymnast. Bicycles, hiking, bowling and animals. Enjoy traveling.
Eliza: Travel! Jeff and I go on a lot of road trips. We love driving to Northern California and to the Southwestern United States. Besides that I like to read everything and to write.
What other media have you tried or wanted to experiment with?
Jeff: I have worked in the film industry for twenty years as a music editor. I have also made sculpture and have built furniture at random intervals.
Eliza: I make pencil drawings. I have also worked in video and motion picture and would like to begin making video pieces in the style of our current photographic works.
Why did you title your current series "Playground"?
Jeff & Eliza: We wanted the title to reflect our fantasy interpretation of classic greek mythology in the context of the gods and goddesses controlling the state and position of the celestial bodies in the known universe. We also felt that the most common context of the sphere in contemporary culture is as a toy or sports apparatus. So we felt that designing our shots in minimalist environments represented the notion of playing fields or playgrounds.
What gave you inspiration for the work?
Jeff: My father worked in atmospheric research when I was a child. He would bring home giant weather balloons for us to play with, so it is in part an homage to that memory. We also wanted to play with the shapes in a variety of contexts and were fascinated by the interplay of light and shadow through the translucent material that the balloons are made of.
Could you share with us your Artist Statement (introduction) about the series?
As the artists’ first foray into the world of living geometry, the photographs of Playground play with primary shapes and their literal and symbolic relationship to human subjects and the natural world. In these highly-designed panoramic pictures, Charbonneau and French stray away from the emotionally driven narrative that characterized their previous series, Massillon, to create visual poetry through experiments with proportion, distance, and repetition.
Each picture begins with the artists’ intervention into a found landscape or surface through the decisive placement of objects such as large monochromatic spheres. From there, a scenario is performed which transforms the shapes into effigies of mystery, devotion, and superstition. Fanciful female characters return in Playground, but their diminutive figures are set upon sweeping and stark landscapes as if in a play-space one might comfortably reach into and rearrange on a whim. The spheres to which their attention is often transfixed become reminders of the planetary system which envelops them and perhaps the eternal desire to render it in a familiar plane.
What are you trying to represent with this series? What do you want share with people who see your work?
Jeff & Eliza: When we create a series, we are engaged in a process of experimentation and discovery, and rarely do we set out to make work that represents or says something definitive about our subject. Instead, we try to make engaging images that play with themes or objects that happen to interest us and ultimately the meaning of the pictures is left to the viewers. If anything, we want to convey a sense of wonder to anyone who looks at the images in “Playground”. Perhaps people who look at the pictures will be inspired to think about the way that we humans attempt to depict our universe. We have tried to create scenes that evoke the idea of celestial planets coming down to earth where they can temporarily exist on a human scale. We have also tried to create scenes where our characters are confronted by something mysterious and it is fun to think what they will do in the face of it. Will they become blindly devoted, or use rational thought to make sense of it all?
We also want to demonstrate that it is possible to create illusions with photography without relying solely on digital manipulation; that with a lot of experimentation and effort we can do things in-camera which might seem implausible.
Can you take us through the process of preparing and shooting the series? Set design and props(big balloons), models, location etc.
Eliza: Before we began work on the series we had to do a lot of experimentation with a variety of inflatables to find the right look for the floating objects. At first, we attempted to make our own UFOs using mylar and other materials, including pinwheels and giant balloons covered in reflective plastic. When we finally settled on using weather balloons we consulted an engineer (my uncle) who gave us an equation to use when calculating how much helium and how much oxygen to put into the orbs to make them lift without giving them too much power. Some of the orbs were eighteen feet in diameter, so filling them entirely with helium would have been extremely expensive and also quite dangerous. The second step was finding the appropriate locations. One of the biggest difficulties that we run into is finding places to shoot in or around Los Angeles that can appear vague, generic and timeless. We finally discovered the Sepulveda Dam, a large concrete water spillway, which we used for several of the main images and for other shots we traveled to the Owens Valley near the Sierras, to the Leona Valley near Palm Springs, and finally we made a long road trip to White Sands, New Mexico to finish off the series. Before we go out on location we secure permits, and make conceptual drawings and scale models using small plastic orbs and wooden mannequins so we have an idea of what we are shooting in each place. We take digital images of these models with us to the location to refer to when we are there working. We also make costumes and have models go through multiple fittings to make sure we feel confident about the look of each of our female characters. For shoots where we use large props and multiple models we have one or two assistants along to help. If Jeff is behind the camera setting up the shot, I will work with the models and direct the assistants in the placement of props. Then, for the next shot, we will switch, and I will be behind the camera, and Jeff will direct the models and look after the finer details of the picture. It works really well this way, especially when you are working on a large scale with a variety of complicated elements.
The atmospheres you create are vintage, retro, antique. What make this style attractive to you?
Jeff & Eliza: For each series we study the look, style and materials of the period we are depicting. So in the case of “Massillon”, which took place during the Victorian era, we mimicked the photography of the period by using softer focus lenses and toning in chemicals that were used during that time in history. For “Playground” we attempted to mimic the aesthetic of the Mid-twentieth century in terms of design, photographic style and the interest in space exploration via the use of the weather balloons. We are both trained in traditional black and white photography and feel very comfortable working with it. We like the tonal character of black and white and the stark contrast it produces. We also are fond of antiques and artifacts and find pleasure in searching out objects that exemplify periods of vintage style.
Did you use real big balloons? If you did, I guess it was really hard to shoot. Was it?
We used real weather balloons for this series and it was definitely the most challenging thing we’ve ever done together. Extremely difficult in fact. Some of the balloons were three feet in diameter, but many were larger, up to twelve and eighteen feet. As you can imagine, they caused a lot of problems. Inflating them with oxygen and helium was laborious. Tying them properly and harnassing them with clear monofilament so they wouldn’t fly off was also problematic. We used ten pound weights that some of the models are standing on or over so that you can’t see them, or we hid them in the grass or in the trees. Unfortunately the balloons wouldn’t stay still. They swayed back and forth even in the lightest breezes. We had to wait very patiently until the balloons all drifted into a position where they weren’t blocking any of the models and where they all looked aesthetically pleasing, then we snapped the shot. The images titled “Long Before Pluto” and “Dividing Suns” were the most challenging because of the number of balloons we used combined with the number of models. It took us at least three hours just to get the balloons in place, and after two hours of shooting, we started losing balloons left and right. Several of the largest ones flew into space, and when the sun got hot at midday, the black balloons began exploding. It was very disappointing but we did get the shots we wanted. We were fortunate to be working with models who were patient and understanding and who didn’t mind holding their positions while we waited for the balloons to settle.
Share some trivia or specific anecdotes about several of the images in the series.
“Dividing Suns” can be interpreted as exemplifying a period in history when the major creation myths [religions], all of which are based on the same fundamental worship of the sun, divided, leading to the modern day disciplines that most of humanity subscribes to.
- This staged performance was shot at the Sepulveda Dam in Los Angeles.
- The largest sphere was about 16 - 18 feet in diameter.
- Featured in the photo are actresses: Samira Mebrek and Renee Newbury, fine-artist Claudia Parducci and performance-artist Tiffany Trenda.
- The models are all wearing vintage clothing with geometric designs, found and recreated by Eliza.
“Varuna”. In Vedic religion, Varuna is a god of the sky, of waters and of the celestial ocean, as well as a god of law and of the underworld. Just beyond our solar system, Varuna is an object of some prominence floating in the Kuiper belt which lies just beyond our asteroid belt and it is comprised of remnants from our solar system's formation.
The random floating spheres and sky in this picture represent the scattered chaos of the the universe in formation and stand in contrast to the central figure’s internal state as she ignores the natural universe and rigidly concentrates on defining it in human terms.
- Shot in the Sierra mountain range in California.
- The model is Eliza French
“Vega & Altair” is a myth about a peasant boy, the star Altair, who is allowed to cross the River of Heaven (the Milky Way) to unite with his lover, the star Vega, on the seventh day of the seventh month of the year. In our image the lovers are parted by the vast expanse of white sand, which is representative of the Milky Way, which was formed in greek myth by the spilt divine milk from Hera's breast (Zeus's wife) when she rejected the nursing infant Heracles, who was borne from Zeus's liaison with a mortal.
- Shot at White Sands, New Mexico. This is the only color image in the series; the sand is actually this white, it is not altered.
- The “sand” at White Sands is actually gypsum, which is a soft mineral that is pure white. We shot this image in White Sands National Monument which is a 275 square mile stretch of gypsum dunes (the largest in the world). The park is adjacent to White Sands Missile Range, where the U.S. Military tests missiles on a regular basis.
- The day after this picture was shot, there was a sandstorm with winds up to 80 miles per hour. We attempted to work through the storm, but it was impossible. Our equipment was getting blasted by sand and so were we.
“Gamma Leporis” is a multiple star system about 29 light years from earth in the constellation Lepus.
- In this image the layout of the "spheres" take the shape of the stars in the constellation as you would see them in the night sky. NASA has labeled this area as a high priority target for its Terrestrial Planet Finder mission. In other words, there might be something similar to our planet earth within this constellation.
- Staged and shot in White Sands, New Mexico.
- In the photographic print of this image, you can see how the gypsum sparkles in reaction to the bright sunlight.
- This was the only image in the series where we used heavy latex spheres instead of inflatable weather balloons.
- In the sky near the horizon you can see our favorite type of cloud : lenticulars. These are clouds that often form into the shape of flying saucers.
“Long Before Pluto” was designed with wooden models, styrofoam balls and artificial lighting in our studio prior to shooting on location.
- It became more spontaneous and performative as we assembled the elements and the models at the location.
- The costumes are unique in that we used womens’ vintage undergarments on the outside of their clothing. If you look closely, you will see that on top of their dresses and leotards, the women are wearing corsets, hoop-skirts, and panniers. We wanted this image to have an inside-out feeling in terms of the costuming.
- Everything in the photo is factual; the moment was recorded on film; all of the spheres are live.
- The image is partially inspired by a mathematical discussion of the relationship of "spherical" forms to triangular and box forms, and the tendency for humans to design and think in a linear pattern even though we are part of a vast universe governed by an elemental force that tends to force matter into "spherical" forms. Our most common constructions of these forms are of toys or things to play games with. Hence the series title:Playground.
- Shot at the Sepulveda Dam, Los Angeles, California.
What camera are you currently using and why? And what camera and film did you use for the work in Playground?
Jeff & Eliza: We are currently shooting with a large format 4X10 inch camera with a Fuji lens for our panoramic photos and a 4X5 inch camera and Hasselbad 503 camera for our portrait style work. We use Kodak TMAX 100 and 400 black and white film. For the 4X10, we cut sheets of 8X10 film in half in a darkroom and load them into special film holders. The film is all processed in Xtol and printed on Ilford paper. We tone in Gold Chloride, Selenium and sometimes Sepia. For color photographs we use Kodak E100.
Why did you choose B&W for most images in this series?
Jeff & Eliza: We are both trained in traditional black and white photography and feel comfortable working with it. We like the tonal character of black and white and the stark contrast it produces. In our recent series we chose to mimic the character of the photography during each period depicted.