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Interview with Photographer Charlotte Niel

CDS undergraduate student Devon Edwards conducted this interview as part of the “Multimedia Documentary” class in the fall of 2012.


Your project Body Options deals with women’s issues of image and beauty. Can you explain why you made the choice to do this project?

As a woman, I have always been concerned about how the media portrays my gender.  As a cynic, I am shocked as to how easily I succumb to promises served up by Madison Avenue, Hollywood and the beauty industry.  As a photographer, I needed to express these feeling through my art.

I wanted to create a project combining the idealized concept of unattainable beauty and everlasting youth, juxtaposed against reality and the passage of time.  There was also the desire to unsettle the viewer as well as the “model” by challenging his/her perception of what is and what lies beneath the surface of modern, manufactured beauty.

The idea for the project came to me while mindlessly flipping through some fashion magazine, waiting for my nails to dry at the salon (it still strikes me as odd that we adorn nails this way).  I wondered how anyone over 21 could wear the clothes shown, afford the beauty products advertised and expect the same results as displayed by 18 year old air-brushed models. It all came together as I started tearing out advertisements.  I don’t think the salon appreciated that part.

What comment are you making by superimposing real women with images from magazines?

I collaborate with each “model” and create from actual advertisements ”body overlays”, designed to conceal or change perceived imperfections. I then fit the “improvement” on them.  This is done with tape and/or by holding the overlay, emphasizing the fact that the change always remains separate from the real self, stressing the unattainable. That is an important element of the work.

The images are also a parody of the original ads. The photographs are printed on high gloss paper for that reason.

How did you go about choosing your models? And do you feel that men also are impacted by media images?

Most of my models are friends and friends of friends.  I am passionate about the project and people are curious. So I try to engage them in a conversation about the concept of beauty and our cultural obsession with youth. Most people’s immediate reaction is “I don’t want to change anything about myself.”  Often all it takes is asking someone if they color their hair; then the conversation moves into a more open direction.

I do not think that men are immune to the desire to find the fountain of youth. Look at the sales of Viagra and men’s “grooming” products.  Look at Mitt Romney. If elected, he, along with Reagan, would have been one of the few that never greyed in the position as “Commander-in-Chief.”  Given the economic downturn and competitive job market, men, more than ever, are also looking for ways to look, act and feel younger.

I hope to expand this project to include more men and young women (20-30years old).

If you know of anyone who wants to participate in the project, please send them my way.

Your previous project Wonderland Series also seems to deal with the female figure, but is quite different, almost introspective. Motion is captured and lines are blurred. Can you comment on how this project may (or may not) relate to your later work Body Options?

That is a very good question and very perceptive. The Wonderland Series is self-portrait. Body Options started that way. Both deal with identity: who we are and how we want to be or are perceived. Both deal with the passage of time and transformation, just in different ways.

Are these projects in any way autobiographical?

Yes, very much so.

The Wonderland Series got its title from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, when the caterpillar asks Alice pointedly “Who are you?”  I was going through a very self-reflective period and was struggling to understand what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was looking back and assessing what I had accomplished; and did it matter.

The fact that I just turned 60 this year continues to make answering these questions even more important.

Your early project New Normal is an eclectic mix of objects, some using real world sets and some more obviously staged. What does this body of work mean to you and how does your title reflect that?

The 21st Century will be remembered as a period of change, transition and consumption. Great political, demographic, environmental and economic shifts are beginning to redefine America.

America is also a society that embraces the concept of “enjoy now”.  Often we pay later. Too often we do not pay.  At times we pay tragically. Greed, indulgence, arrogance and excess have been words that have described an America that wants it all without sacrifice or limitations. Look at what is going on in politics and business today. The “winner takes all” approach to problem solving, the inability to reach some point of compromise for the good of all parties and the ease at which we blame others for our problems.

How the work was executed was an attempt to start a dialogue about complex issues through a naïve, visual portrayal. The title conveys the idea that the shifts are permanent; changes that need to be acknowledged and managed, not ignored.

On a more personal note, I realize that when I started New Normal, I saw everything around me changing, for better or for worse, and I was not. I wanted a change in my life or a change in me.  I am still working on that.

San Joaquin and Behind the Curtain are your most recent projects, the former dealing with landscape and the latter photos of people using photo booths. Both have a sense of travel and adventure. Why the departure from studio or staged photographs? Where do you see your next project existing?

Studio or staged photography is fairly new for me.  Out of the +20 years of I have been photographing, it is only in the last +-5 years that I started doing studio work.  I wanted to challenge myself to do something different.  At the same time, I was (and still am) working on my Route 66 series-Lost and Found using black and white film with a focus on place and journey.

The Behind the Curtain project was a happy accident. I went to the county fair to take the quintessential photo of that twirly ride; the one image that everyone else has taken better than me.  Instead, I became intrigued with all the activity around the photo booths.  The preparation, the entry, the wait, the reaction; who we allow ourselves to become when the curtain is drawn.  How we want to remember and be remembered. The photo strips provide a peek into a private moment that is now being shared with many unknown voyeurs.

The booths use “dark room” technology, so there is this sense of nostalgia and curiosity that is part of this picture taking process.  I was interested in using a new technology to document an older form of photography; an attempt to link the past with the present. I wanted to leave the viewer with only a glimpse of the person in the frames and allow stories to be created about the person(s) in the photo booth strips. Some images were shared with stories: anniversaries, birthdays or yearly pilgrimages. For others it was simply a way to document the moment on their own private stage.

San Joaquin is just starting as a project and is partially a result of crisscrossing California to go to different county fairs.

Water is an important element.  The Central Valley is laced with waterways that quench the thirst of the semi-arid land through which they pass. The calm surface of these man-made rivers belies a strong and dangerous under-current; a metaphor for what is going on in the Valley today.  The poverty, discrimination, water right litigation, heavy pesticide use and the land grab by developers who have built homes that local laborers cannot afford and that now remain vacant; all of this invisible to those who speed down Highway 5 on their way to L.A.  It is an area that feeds the nation but cannot provide enough to eat for its own marginalized residents.

I have barely scratched the surface and the project can go in all kinds of different directions Still a TBD.  That’s what makes it exciting.


See more of Charlotte’s work on her website.

The San Francisco weekly recently covered her work exhibited at the Red Poppy Art House.

Charlotte Niel has been exploring photography for the last 20 years. Identity and transformation are themes that run through much of her work. Recently she has been exploring color photography which has resulted in several new bodies of work including “Body Options” and “Behind the Curtain”; both exploring concepts of “who we are” and “how we would like to be perceived”.  One can see an interesting connection between her photo documentary work and these new images; common threads being identity, change and cultural commentary.

Her work has been shown nationally inclusive of Cooper Union Gallery, New York City, the Sussex Community College Gallery, Newton, New Jersey, the Barbara Anderson Gallery, Berkeley, California, the Gallery One Visual Arts Center in Ellenburg, Washington, the Panopticon Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts and the Cordon|Potts  Gallery and the Rayko Photo Center, San Francisco, California.

She is currently a member of the Bay Area Photographers Collective, a non-profit, membership organization of fellow photographers and artists in San Francisco, CA.  

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