In the Room of Dreams
Photographer Thomas Zanon-Larcher blends aspects of film, performance and storytelling in his images, questioning ideals of beauty propounded by fashion.
In his 1987 autobiography, The Magic Lantern, the celebrated film director Ingmar Bergman writes of his admiration for the work of fellow director Andrei Tarkovsky. In doing so, he also manages to shed light eloquently and succinctly upon the subtleties and difficulties of good filmmaking: “When film is not a document, it is a dream,” he explains. “That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn’t explain … He is a spectator.”
The narrative work of Italian photographer Thomas Zanon-Larcher (best known for his backstage fashion photography including collaborations with designers Yohji Yamamoto, Alexander McQueen, Dries van Noten and Martin Margiela) could be described in a similar manner: as moving in the so-called “room of dreams.” This body of independent work, away from backstage fashion work, takes on a style that has a natural fluidity in its storytelling, a perfected simplicity and a certain dreamlike quality whereby motions play out as if untouched by external direction. His photography has often been compared to the works of iconic film directors such as Chabrol and Bergman, and cinematic movements such as the French Nouvelle Vague and Film Noir. Zanon-Larcher’s work for his upcoming exhibition at The Wapping Project, Bankside, entitled Falling: A Part (25 January – 16 March), takes a knife to the boundary between photography and film. His work sits somewhere in the middle, offering just the skeletal structure of a story, whilst still managing to contain the emotional depth and characterisation that a well-made film might possess.
Zanon-Larcher’s process of creating work is key to this blurring of lines. Rather than constructing posed scenes to shoot, he directs his models in role-plays, which run without stopping, that he then enters to photograph. “It’s a bit like theatre where you just play a scene straight through,” Zanon-Larcher explains. “And, if it’s not right or I don’t believe the performance, we have to re-do the whole role-play from the beginning. It is almost like a film that I make; there are a number of scenes that are acted out. They’re always full-blown, fully performed scenes. But then, what makes it different to film is that I don’t shoot the whole movie … For example, in the last piece I did, I took just three shots in a scene that lasted 15 minutes … It’s a question of what you can leave out and how little you can shoot whilst still conveying a situation.” Like Bergman’s description of Tarkovsky, Zanon-Larcher takes the form of a spectator; the mediator of a moment rather than the dictator. “The characters become created by the audience,” he says. “I don’t like just giving set answers about what is going on.”
Like a film stripped of dialogue, sound, movement and, often, whole segments of plot, his resulting series of images show only moments of the role-play process. Further still, for this exhibition, Zanon-Larcher has included only a select few photographs from each narrative series, thinning down the plot even more. Each image, as a result, is more ambiguous. His protagonists, all of whom are women in Falling: A Part, move through strange, deserted city scenes with only their expressions and gestures providing clues towards understanding their situations and emotions.
In Julia, Burging II, Wien – February 2012, the actress clutches her bag on her lap and peers anxiously behind her. In the stark light of the tram she is on, her skin becomes a pasty green-blue colour. However, despite her anxious expression, there is a confidence about the way she sits with her left leg positioned with its foot on her right knee. The camera is in front of her, but she does not look into it. Her attention is on something or someone behind her: perhaps someone following her, someone watching her, perhaps no one, or maybe, simply, something as mundane as an LED sign, off-shot, telling which stop is next. “The photos are open to interpretation …” Zanon-Larcher says. “But yes, there is a sense of fear maybe … or that the women are being watched. One condition I had whilst selecting which ones to show in Falling: A Part was to see whether the image in question could stand on its own. It was quite interesting for me to see what story the individual photographs could tell on their own, as well as what they could tell within their original narratives. But that sense of fear, yes, that dark feeling is still there I think. There was a specific feeling that guided me in editing for this particular show. I wanted to give it a certain weight or gravity, so I was drawn to the more complex and pensive shots. I find they are more compelling.”
At first glance, the works in Falling: A Part seem to have a lot in common with fashion photography; the protagonists are beautiful women in beautiful clothes, the images are rich in colour and perfectly framed and some, such as Nicolle, Smithfield II, London – May 2009, could be easily misconstrued as being styled and posed. However, the subtle hints at darker themes and situations, the often-unflattering lighting (such as in Julia, Piazza Goldoni II, Trieste – January 2012) and the unusual facial expressions the models are often caught with (Nicolle’s squinting into the sunlight in Nicolle, Smithfield II, London – May 2009, and Nora’s pensive frowning in Nora, Grand Hotel II, Oslo – August 2006) suggest a step away from the slick and idealised images of fashion. “The contexts, the lack of retouching and other things would make them difficult to run as a campaign. They would be rejected,” Zanon-Larcher says. “I can break the rules of conventional beauty in my narrative work, so it is different to fashion. In fashion, there are more constraints because there’s more pressure to follow these conventional rules of beauty: what is right, what is wrong, retouching of skin, or how clothes look and all of that… This difference in freedom comes from the fact that fashion photography is always, ultimately, at the service of something, whether it’s commerce, the fashion designer, the design or advertising. In the case of my narratives, their only service is to create something. They are not at the service of anything else.”
Certain brands, particularly fragrances, use elements of narrative and storytelling in advertising to sell products, most prominently in the form of short film commercials. In a similar way to Zanon-Larcher, these adverts/short films include characterisation, plot and emotional content. They attempt to step away from the coldness of materiality and link their products to love, sexuality and emotion. An example of this is Baz Luhrmann’s No.5 The Film, an extended commercial for Chanel No.5 perfume with a simple, emotionally-charged plot of a love-affair. “I think having a narrative does work in luring the potential buyer. This ability to make short films on a low budget due to digital film enables brands to shoot little movies fairly easily. I think it gives them a lot of tools – they can play more with people’s emotions,” Zanon-Larcher comments. “However, I’d like to leave someone else to decide whether my images have more depth than narrative advertising … but I personally believe they do, again because my work is not to the service of anything, whereas fashion advertising is. The difference, too, is the emotional content I think. In a narrative advert, they narrowly zoom in on just one specific piece of emotional content – what to feel is all laid out for the viewer. I think one of the main problems of these adverts is that the actors have no depth in terms of how they act. That may not be the fault of the actors. If you don’t give an actor content, a character, context, something that they can use to build up that character, then it becomes too thin and then there is no truth in it.”
In Falling: A Part, giving little away about character and plot is key to creating depth and intrigue. A narrative advert does the opposite: the viewer is spoon-fed the plot and the plot’s emotional content. As Zanon-Larcher explains, every element of a narrative advert works to serve the product and the respective designer’s collection. It is, ultimately, fashion for fashion’s sake. In Falling: A Part, the clothes act as a means of strengthening and adding further depth to a character: “If she wears a certain dress, it is just because I believe that she, as her character, would wear that dress at that time. How she holds herself and what she wears, are in a way symbols of her confidence and success.” Every element within Zanon-Larcher’s photographs serve the plot (fashion for plot’s sake): “For a photograph to work, I believe it needs to be truthful to the photographer’s intent – more than just on a stylistic level, more than on a content level. If a photographer’s intent is to tease out a narrative and characters, then everything must be true to that, even the clothes. The result then is that the photograph is believable and has depth.”
This depth is continued in Zanon-Larcher’s perception and depiction of beauty. Working against the more slick, perfected beauty of fashion advertising, Zanon-Larcher tries to reveal a different type of beauty beneath what might at first seem purely conventional. “I am interested in strong women. I grew up with only women when I was young; the environment I was in – I was the only man, the only boy! So the strong figures of my childhood were all women … But, that is not to say that my photographs in Falling: A Part are driven by any intellectual exploration of female identity or anything like that. I guess there may be some underlying message or statement that gets in subconsciously. However, the main thing is that the women in these images are not victims,” he states. “The models do not necessarily look good at times, conventionally speaking, but they are still admirable because they look strong. And yes, I know they are conventionally beautiful people, but I wanted to show another layer of their beauty. When I started to photograph fashion, there were all these amazing looking men and women. I tried to convey this … but the further I got into the occupation of depicting beauty, the more my appreciation of beauty changed. It got to a point where what I thought was the most beautiful shot of a model got rejected. This was because I was seeing beyond conventional beauty: a sort of more truthful beauty I guess … one that is more difficult to find.”
Zanon-Larcher is an interesting case of an artist. His views on beauty place him in an awkward position in the fashion world: a world that many would say has been responsible for the narrow views society today holds on what constitutes beauty. On one side, Zanon-Larcher himself contributes to the image of perfection – to the constructed definition of “correct” beauty – that fashion projects onto women and girls today. His backstage work, though un-staged and more natural than most commercial fashion photography, still depicts fashion’s vision of what beauty is and what it should be. Furthermore, on the other side, as is made clear by his narrative work and his personal views, fashion’s definition of beauty is not enough for Zanon-Larcher; his occupation in trying to depict beauty has shown him another layer that fashion does not convey. Through this, Zanon-Larcher is able to see how the limited and narrow vision of beauty in fashion can, at times, be damaging: “Beauty is much more complicated than skin, hair, figure and such. It’s a bit subtler than that. The beauty in fashion has a lot to do with age. Fashion models are always at the prime of their body – they are always young, but real women age. In society, a woman aging and a man aging are perceived differently. There are ‘right’ ways and ‘wrong’ ways to age, particularly for women. With women I talk to, age is very present in their insecurities. It’s not an easy topic, and I think fashion has contributed to this.” Zanon-Larcher appreciates beauty in truth over a more material and surface-based beauty. Falling: A Part very subtly explores these different levels of beauty in the forms of strength, success and purpose.
Zanon-Larcher’s works – photographic in result, theatrical in process, filmic in quality, characterisation and depth – are, beneath the surface, surprisingly interdisciplinary in nature. Like a photographer working through the medium of film and a director working through the medium of photography, he moves naturally in the room of dreams, giving very little away and effortlessly weaving images of unanswered questions and perfected mystery through enigmatic protagonists, skeletal plots and explorations of a truthful beauty.
Falling: A Part continues until 16 March. www.thewappingprojectbankside.com.