Spotlight #12: Gretchen Heinel on her taboo-breaking photography

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In this 12th edition of ‘Spotlight’ I want to introduce you to the work of New York based photographer Gretchen Heinel. Gretchen works mostly analogue, and her work is all about exploring taboos such as body modification and sexuality. I love how Gretchen’s work isn’t about making models look pretty: her work is raw, emotional and very dark. I’m always curious to learn more about work with a mysterious aesthetic like Gretchen’s, so I’m happy to share this interview with you today! Gretchen really opened up and tells extensively about her photo series, influences, techniques and inspiration. As you might have guessed some of the photos featured in this article might be a bit NSFW, so save this article for later if you’re in the office. Enjoy!

Gretchen Heinel website

Bleaq: Could you introduce yourself and your work in a few sentences?
GH: Thank you for the opportunity you’ve given me to speak about my work! Hmm, so my work is my escape, much as I think other people’s work can be their own escape. My photographs are snapshots of those escapes, each created in close collaboration with the models (and occasionally stylists, makeup artists, and such). I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re alternate realities, they’re very much informed by each collaborator’s own reality, but they are a nice change of pace from the daily sights and routines.

I spend the majority of my time as a web developer in New York, sitting comfortably indoors with my consciousness plugged into what’s on my computer screen. My escapes–whether through photography or other pursuits–bring me back inside my body, for that I’m grateful.

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When did you get into photography? Did you have a specific moment when you knew that photography was a career path you’d like to follow?
GH: I’m not so sure I would consider photography my career path, and I don’t know what steps I would have to take in order to make it a proper career. It’s certainly more than a hobby, though… I think I loved photography from the moment I started, which was probably around autumn 2010. I didn’t start working with models until the following winter/spring of 2011. I did a large number of shoots in the summer and autumn of that year, which really solidified my love of photographing other people. Some of my favorite photos are from that time period, when I was still very much an amateur (well, even more than I am now), but the energy levels of the shoot were so high and everyone worked together so intuitively.

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You work analogue only an don’t use Photoshop or edit/manipulate your pictures in any way. Can you tell about your preferred technique? Your photos are often set in dark places, do you use only natural light or artificial as well?
GH: I verrry occasionally shoot digital (or digital infrared), but for the bulk of my “real” shoots I don’t even bring my digital camera with me. That’s not to say I haven’t gotten some photos I love from my digital camera. I enjoy experimenting with film stocks, though, and I love the element of surprise. I often shoot with expired films, especially expired slide films, because of the strange color shifts that occur.  It’s so lovely to have a photo come out looking completely different, and taking on a completely different tint, from how you remember the place… Sometimes that “different” can feel more true to the spirit of the shoot, it’s almost as if the film feels like it’s interpreting and translating the energy and experience of the shoot into a distortion of colors.

I’m not against basic color correction with my digital photos (I find they can look really lifeless or fake without a little help… digital still doesn’t have the warmth or character of film), but I try to leave my analogue ones well enough alone.

Except in very rare cases (read: extremely dark situations) I use found lighting. I generally shoot in abandoned buildings, which create absolutely incredible lighting. Sometimes they diffuse the light, sometimes you get these incredible beams of light coming in at odd angles, the options are far more interesting than anything I could set up!

I recently acquired an enlarger and darkroom materials. What you currently see on my site is primarily scans from slides and negatives. I intend to refine my print-making process, so I can also include scans of prints in my portfolio. The print-making process will put some aesthetic control back into my hands, thinks like tint, contrast, and so forth. I’m not yet sure how that will fit in with my past work, but I feel it’s important to learn. After all, I’ve only been doing this for a few years, and I certainly don’t think I’ve refined my work into a cohesive style or aesthetic. Right now what makes these photos “mine” is more in the process than in the result.

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Your work deals with many taboos: body modifications, real human blood and sexuality. Can you tell a bit more on your interest in these themes? How do you come up with themes or ideas for a shoot?
GH: I am endlessly fascinated with floating signifiers. I think many things which we take for granted as having one meaning actually stand for completely different things outside the context of our contemporary society. Sex, for many people, is seen as shameful or private or some sort of weakness of the flesh. For others, it is seen as a transaction of goods, a trade of sorts. Those common contexts for human sexuality aren’t universal throughout histories and cultures. There can also be power and liberation and connectedness, whether “love” (another floating signifier) is involved or not. Similarly, blood can be seen as dirty or contaminated or a visual representation of the pain that the bleeding individual is feeling. But pain does not inherently come with suffering, and sometimes people seek out pain for many of the same reasons they seek out pleasure.

I love seeing people be truly in the moment and present in their own bodies (and I love experiencing that myself!), and it’s especially rewarding when people can do that in spite of social stigma or perceived cultural limitations.

My work is going through a transitional phase, and not only because I acquired a darkroom. I’m trying to be a little more consistent about actively coming up with a theme ahead of time rather than playing it by ear on-set. Both strategies provide different challenges… I think I prefer the former, but I need to figure out how to keep the crazy high energy of the latter. I don’t want my planned shoots to feel stale in comparison to the spontaneous ones. Part of that is in working with models who truly connect with the themes.

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Your work is very emotional. You dare to show raw feelings and create an unsettling atmosphere for your models. How do you get your models to drop their boundaries and give their all?
GH: I’m pretty sure models work with me precisely because I facilitate an environment where they’re free to drop their boundaries. I don’t want to force anyone to do something they’re not comfortable with. My photography is itself a weeding process, as people who are unwilling to push their own boundaries generally will find no benefit to working with me and thus will not contact me. My pictures are not pretty, and they are generally useless to a modeling portfolio.

At this point, I’m almost exclusively working with friends I’ve made through photography. There are a lot of repeat offenders on my site!

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Can you name three of your favourite artists? How do they inspire your work?
GH: I adore Joel-Peter Witkin’s work. Talk about playing with cultural taboos! But I also think his work has incredible atmosphere and real beauty to it.  It’s reminiscent of the old masters’ paintings.

For so many reasons, I love Zdzislaw Beksinski. Perhaps the only direct influence his work has on me is in color palette, I find many similar colors inside abandoned buildings.

I’m going to cheat and treat Black Metal, especially Pacific Northwest and American Black Metal, as the third artist. I am deeply in love with bands such as Agalloch, SkagosFalls of Rauros. Their work has huge influence on my thoughts and processes, even though I don’t think those influences are immediately apparent when viewing my work. Perhaps if I lived in the Pacific Northwest and had access to beautiful nature blanketed by fog, my work would better match theirs aesthetically.

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It’s probably like asking parents which of their kids they like best, but do you have a piece or pieces from your work that you like best? If so, why that one?
GH: I think my shoot with Gisella Rose, titled Evocation, is my favorite, mainly because it acted as a catalyst for many changes both to my photographic process and my personal life. I love working with styling. Generally speaking, designers won’t lend their pieces out if the pieces might get blood or spit or some other bodily fluid on them. This was the first shoot where I realized it was possible find and work with stylists while also being free to explore those in-body themes I care so much about. In the case of this particular shoot, Gisella Rose was suspended by hooks through her back. In 30 degree Fahrenheit weather (-1 degree Celcius), at dusk, while there was still snow on the ground. Wren Britton of Purevile lent accessories for Gisella to wear, and my friend Numi Empire (Numi Prasarn) made several gorgeous red robes for the other three female models to wear.

The whole experience was magical. It also solidified my decision to try hook suspension myself. Gisella and her husband Dom facilitated my second time up, which was truly incredible.

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– Images from the ‘Evocation’ shoot, you can see the whole series here.

With many social networking websites it’s almost hard to keep track of everything! How important is the internet for you as an artist?
GH: I don’t think I’ve fully harnessed the power of the internet. My Facebook page got shut down for having too much nudity, but I didn’t have that many followers there anyways. I primarily rely on my website and my Tumblr, and then YouTube for my music video work. The website especially is good to have. As I collaborate with other artists–especially as I collaborate with musicians on music videos and album artwork–it’s good to have a catch-all for my expanding audience. I suppose I could be more proactive about promoting my work, but I think some of my photos can be hard to digest for people who view it with no context or no forewarning.

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Last but not least: can you recommend a book, movie or artist you’ve enjoyed lately?
GH: If you haven’t yet seen the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, you are seriously missing out. Possibly the greatest movie that never was. The creative talents that Jodorowsky assembled for the project… mind-boggling.

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Bleaq: Totally agree with Gretchen on that point, I loved that documentary! I even featured it in May’s round-up, go see it if you haven’t yet! :) A big thanks goes out to Gretchen for taking time to share insights on her work, getting to know more about your photos make them even more fascinating. If you like to see more of her work, make sure to visit her website.

Thank you all for reading! What do you think of Gretchen’s work? Do you like it when artists explore cultural taboos with their work?

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