When the world was still in order, one day, Elisa Bouchon’s work caught my eye on Instagram. I couldn’t help but reach out and tell her how much I admired her imagery. The sets she creates are so interesting, organic, and sensitive – you actually want to grasp them. So we exchanged numbers and talked a bit but didn’t have the chance to meet and chat in person yet. Facing the lockdowns caused by COVID-19 the work of many artists transformed and so did Elisa’s – again I was impressed, and this time by her striking self-portraits. So I asked her for a video call as opposed to my previous interviews when I used to emphasise physical meetings. Necessity is the mother of invention and like in any crisis people surpass themselves.
Hi Elisa, lovely to meet you! First of all, let’s talk about the current situation: being a locked-down photographer. How are you doing in isolation?
It’s weird to say, but the lockdown only changed my life in the matter of not going out to meet people. Everything is stopped now and everyone is holding their breath waiting for life to continue normally. But my daily life didn’t change massively because I have a photo studio at home and I mainly shoot from there. If I shoot product photography, like perfumes, spirits, etc. the brands send me their products directly. I shoot them here in a special room where I have lighting and backdrops. Most of the work I do outside of my house would be some shoots on location and meetings. Therefore, I’m used to working at home.
How does your home studio look and feel like?
I live in an old wooden Zaans house close to Amsterdam. It’s typical for the area and you can see the style on postcards where there are many windmills and green and white houses that look very cute and fairytale-like. My house has two floors of which the first floor has very high ceilings, many windows, and natural light. This is my studio space where I can hang up large backdrops to the beams of the roof. They are about four meters high. So even when I do fashion shoots with models I do it here.
Wow, that sounds like a lovely place! I see you’re doing quite well in isolation, but do you miss anything?
Yes, of course. When it started I was supposed to go on holiday to Portugal and to the States but I had to stay home so it changed my complete last month. However, in the Netherlands, we’re not in a complete lockdown – although the rules are strict and very much is closed – we can go out and meet two persons at once with 1.5 m distance but it is not advised to do so. So I haven’t been to Amsterdam since the beginning and I miss being able to meet people, partners, or new clients. It’s nice to work from home but sometimes you need a bit of external input, someone else’s visions, or just fresh air. I actually just go out for groceries – I’m in a French lockdown mood because my family still lives in France.
We have similar rules here in Germany. It’s allowed to meet one person and so people go outside a lot. But I feel like I haven’t left my district in Berlin for a long time – I was even wondering if the rest of the city still exists… It’s probably going to be a whole new world for us when we leave our bubbles! (laughs) But I love what you’re creating in your bubble – I could see lots of self-portraits lately and some were even nudes. Is this a new experience for you?
Yes, it is. I thought about it for quite some time and I had other people telling me to do pictures with myself. I thought it would be cool but my mind was always stuck with other things like e-mails, model shoots, etc. By the beginning of the lockdown, I had some time on my hand due to some cancelations and the first images came from a very random place for which I have to go a bit back to explain: when the crisis started, in France, the president held a very war-like speech where he used the word ‘war’ about six times and this drew down my family’s mood. It was at the same time that everywhere people were hoarding pasta, toilet paper, and those kinds of primary products (laughs). It was like the fear of missing food or the fear of war came back. And also – I got a pasta machine for Christmas… So all this combined to me thinking ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to make pasta and maybe I’ll take pictures of that because everybody’s going crazy about pasta.’ And while I was making pasta and taking pictures I thought ‘let’s put myself in the picture’ to have a funny portrait for my parents – like I’m saying “hey, I’m making pasta” or “make pasta, not war”. So it started this way, for my parents, so they would love it. And the day after I thought: ‘Oh, let’s think of recipes that you would do in war times with no money’. So I had onions which are a poor ingredient and there’s the French onion soup – and I ended up thinking of a Christian picture of a Madonna with onions, crying. I don’t have precise ideas before I start but while I do the pictures I see the results and they make me think of one or the other painting. And when I google that painting I find more of that kind; or sculptures. It’s often religious representations of Madonna or Christ because they are very dramatic. So initially, I thought it was a very funny thing to do such a picture with very trivial ingredients. And in this process, for some of the portraits, I ended up showing quite some skin… (laughs). That was never planned but it started with me deciding that the onion looked good but that sleeve didn’t and so I took it out. But then I could still see the strap of the bra and it didn’t look good either, so I took that out too. It all worked better with some skin… and I realised: ‘Oh God, I’m actually making a nude picture’. Well, it was meant to be a funny and ironic type of picture for my friends and family – although it’s not so private anymore (laughs).
Right, because you posted it on Instagram!
Yes, because I actually didn’t see ‘myself’ on it. What I saw was a great composition, the beauty of shadows falling around the muscles, the vibrancy of the light, etc. So I thought ‘it’s a beautiful picture, let’s share it’, and I hope people will recognise that as well.
And which reactions did you get from people?
Actually, the reactions were pretty good, even on the not-naked ones (laughs). Usually, a bit of skin seems to help somehow. But I was nicely surprised that I started to get more comments that were interesting and more than just saying “cool” or “beautiful” (not that I mind these kinds of comments because I write them myself). Some people gave me references and told me what they see and find interesting in my work. For example on the picture where I’m on a sofa peeling potatoes – which is a reference to the painting ‘Grande Odalisque’ by Ingres – somebody commented that it’s a very parodic view on the male vision of women. Like I would always be naked while peeling potatoes (laughs). So he saw a feminist meaning in the picture. And I thought: ‘Oh wow, I never thought about that in the first place!’ But it actually makes a lot of sense and now I see it too. I think that’s nice about other people’s views on my work. It nourishes my vision for future photos and makes me think about going in certain directions. On the other hand, it puts pressure on me because people think that there’s always a thoughtful and intellectual story behind it so then I’m trying to create something that’s as pretty, funny, meaningful, and with a strong vision. But I enjoy the reactions and references that people send me. Engagement is on another level now and people are deeper. They care more about my work and I like that there’s a difference in the type of comments and followers I get now.
By more males? (laughs)
No, no, actually by more women!
And do you have plans for more self-portraits after the crisis?
Yeah, I think I’m going to keep doing it, I’m just afraid I’ll have less time. I don’t know if or where this will bring me but I like it for myself. It’s also different from shooting with models because you don’t have to organise anything in the long-run. Of course, it’s always the same face but on the other hand, I can just shoot whenever I want because it’s just me. I like that and it will keep me doing it.
What else does it evoke in you – is it some kind of therapy, meditation, or just fun?
I don’t know. I guess it’s a bit of everything. But it’s not about fixing a personal issue and liking myself. I don’t think I have any issues with my body. But indeed, when I see other pictures of myself I never like them per se. There always seems to be something wrong. But here I’m sort of playing a role and it’s not a portrait of myself but of me as a painting or some such. Therefore, I see it with different eyes and I’m trying not to see myself but an expression. And I have to say, in a humble way, that on some pictures I find myself beautiful then. Maybe this is a bit therapeutic but it’s not the most important thing that I’ve experienced with it.
I’m not sure, but I think it’s also a lot about ‘laissez-faire’ or ‘letting it go’. I can’t make it perfect. There will always be a finger that doesn’t look right, or I can’t take the photo from the angle I want. And I see the picture on a very small remote that just gives me a global feeling of what I’m seeing. So I think that’s a practice to let go of the attempt to be a perfectionist. Often, that would block me because I think it’s not good enough and then I want to re-do things a hundred times. And this is something where, at some point, I think: ‘Okay, I’m tired. I’ve been posing for an hour. I can’t feel my ass anymore. Let’s stop.’ (laughs). It helps me to take what I have and make the best out of it.
And in the end, it also showed me that I can manage to do this kind of photography on my own which is a cool feeling. It’s good for the ego.
“I think it’s also a lot about laissez-faire or letting it go“
Yes, you were doing great! And I noticed about your lighting that it’s often dealing with long-time exposure. Why’s that?
Yes, I’m a fan of long-time exposure but I’m actually using it less now. It’s often annoying or surprising for the models because they have to hold their breath for a second or more. They are used to shoots where they just move and the photographer snaps thousands of pictures. But when I shoot I just take about 30 pictures and I have to guide the models to find the right pose before I click – it’s like shooting with an old analogue camera. Personally, I like the long-time exposure for how it’s adding a certain light to the skin. Therefore, I’m a big fan of Paolo Roversi –
Me too! And he was claiming a similar thing in an essay: the long-time exposure adds some depth to the darks. And as you said, a certain softness to the highlights. However, he’s shooting analogue.
– I wish I would shoot analogue! Which I don’t. Therefore, I like the softness of long-time exposure. Digital cameras are an amazing tool to work with but the intense sharpness that you can get doesn’t appeal to me when it comes to portrait. That extreme reality – for me – it’s too much. Of course, it’s needed for beauty or product photography. But there are more emotions in less sharp pictures and I’m trying to keep that vibe. For example, I like the cold and mystical atmosphere you have in a church when there’s a dark corner and a ray of light coming in. This is what I’m trying to recreate – I love the atmosphere in churches and I love light – and so sometimes long-time exposure works best for that.
“I like the cold and mystical atmosphere you have in a church (…) this is what I’m trying to recreate.”
Okay, I’ve got another approach to interpret your work, like the people who comment on your Instagram posts: I can see lots of flowers, people, and food in your work. And then there’s the aspect of time – so all this is talking to me about the beauty in fragility and mortality. What do you think about this idea? Or what else keeps you curious about those objects?
It’s funny because I’m actually not at all somebody who’s interested in the idea of death. It’s nothing that I’m really into in my daily life. When I studied art and design in France one of my teachers was asking us about our very first art acquaintance. And for me, that was the paintings in the museum of a church in my home town (Monastère royal de Brou à Bourg-en-Bresse) which is in the Gothic style, so very dramatic and dark, etc. And when I told my teacher about it, she said: “Oh! That explains.” So if you ask my teacher my taste is influenced by churches and paintings of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ etc.
But maybe I’m more inspired by my favourite type of movie which is called Italian neorealism. It’s a movement that speaks about daily life and normal people and it highlights the beauty of insignificant stuff. Basically, the tempo of those movies is very slow and the plot isn’t special – but every image is a perfect picture and somehow it’s super mesmerising. I love it! Perhaps I’m just a boring person (laughs).
Haha, well, I’m not sure if I know the type of movie. What are they about mainly?
I’ll give you examples of a few beautiful movies. ‘Mid-August Lunch’ (Trailer) is about an old Italian guy in Rome who ends up taking care of all the old ladies in the neighbourhood during the 15th of August. It’s a holiday when everybody is going on vacation but nobody wants to bring their Nonna (grandmother) and the whole movie is about him cooking for those ladies on that day.
There’s also an Italian movie with Tilda Swinton (I forgot its name, unfortunately). And one of the images that stuck with me is the grandma of a rich family who has diabetes. She’s so fed up with life that she wants to commit suicide but the way she does it: she’s sitting at her dressing table in that huge Italian house eating all the fancy pastries you can imagine. And it’s just five minutes of watching her – having a blast! (laughs) The picture is completely weird because it’s showing death in a beautiful and funny way. And I love this sort of euphemisms.
Another cool movie is ‘The Great Beauty’ by Paolo Sorrentino (Trailer). In one scene there’s an old elegant dude at a party who’s bored to death and a naked girl next to him is about to touch herself. But he’s just sitting there and he doesn’t look at her. I like this sort of ironic image plus the light in this movie is so pretty.
Cool, now I get to understand what’s inspiring you. You also mentioned that you studied art and design. And as far as I know, you’re a multi-talent, painting and designing your own sets. Did your studies have an impact on the way you work as a photographer?
Well, It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do, although, I always knew it would be something in art. In France, textile design was the artiest department of applied arts that I could study, so I did that. And I finished my studies knowing that what I love are colours and texture – but what exactly can you do with that…? I started out styling sets and creating atmospheres for other photographers because that was my kind of language: recreating a feeling of textures through backdrops, props, and so on. And then, as it happens in life, I found out that I could take that picture myself. Like I found out I could as well be the model (laughs). So it was very organic, I went from wanting to create an atmosphere to realising that I knew best how I wanted that atmosphere to be represented. And for me, photographing is a way to converge everything that I like to do in one medium – the photo – and show it to the world.
And if you could have another skill as if by magic – what would it be?
Uhh! (excited) Either to be more of a graphic designer or the tech guy who does the light at shoots. You know, the guy who understands everything you want and translates it to the right settings in no time? I’d like to be that person. I would like to get better at the very pragmatic technical things – and also be the queen of Photoshop.
Haha, really? But you told me that you don’t photoshop so much…
Well, the bodies not that much, but there’s quite some Photoshop in my last still life. And I would love to know how to create those perfect-looking images where you make the but of Beyonce, the face of Rihanna and the feet of Gisele Bündchen look like they’re one person, with an amazing backdrop behind. Or how to replace your arm with a cucumber in Photoshop. I guess I could do it if I tried but it would take me a month (laughs). So yeah, I would love to set up the light for Paolo Roversi and retouch Tim Walker’s pictures. That would be great!
That’s cool, and I’m sure your self-portraits would look great even with cucumber arms! (laughs) Thank you for this inspiring and fun conversation, Elisa! It was lovely to finally talk to you and I hope we’ll see each other in person when traveling is possible again. By then take care and keep up the great work!
“For me, photographing is a way to converge everything that I like to do in one medium – the photo – and show it to the world.”
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