Kelli Connell’s body of work, Double Life, is now in its twelfth year. During this time we’ve seen the unfolding of an intimate and complex dynamic of a woman’s relationship; defined perhaps as a self-portrait acted out by another, or perhaps a metaphor for all relationships, or perhaps still a view of an everlasting affair with the self. As this series continues, it begins to take new shape as we now see the characters begin to age. Yet as they grow older, the emotional bonds established in the beginning of this series still hold strong with the familiarity of a long marriage.
Meghan Maloney: To begin with, Kelli, please tell us a bit about how you became interested in photography, and your influences in the field. Some people have cited your work as being similar to Cindy Sherman’s portraiture, would you agree?
Kelli Connell: As a junior in high school, I took my first photography class. I immediately fell in love with photography. Early on, I was influenced by Francesca Woodman, Larry Sultan, and Roni Horn. Although I like Cindy Sherman’s work, she was not really one of my early influences. My work has a cinematic feel, like Sherman’s, and because Sherman uses herself as the main character in all of her photographs, our work is similar because I cast one model to play both “characters” in each scene.
Although I am not the model in my photographs, many people think that my work is self portraiture – that I am the figure seen doubled in each image. I am interested in our definitions of what makes a self portrait. Many photographers have used themselves in their work – Cindy Sherman uses herself to play another character; in my work, I am using a model to play the multiple sides of myself.
MM: Because the precision with which you present your pieces is so important, we would love to hear in detail about your process in creating these pictures, and how you try to establish their rich emotional tone. Also, are you very interested in digital manipulation as a medium, or do you consider it as only a means to achieve an end?
KC: It is important that my photographs appear to be believable, even though the two figures in each scene never occupied the same space at the same time. For each photograph that I construct, I shoot one to two rolls of film of my model dressed one way. Then I shoot one to two rolls of film of her dressed as the other character in the scene. I usually use myself or someone else as a stand-in to play the other character, so that my model has someone to interact with and the eye contact and/or physical contact is believable. After shooting, I then develop the film and make contact sheets. Out of the contact sheets, I make collages by hand to determine which two figures will work the best for the scene. I then scan the negatives and combine them seamlessly in Photoshop.
The most important thing for me to accomplish in my working process is to create images that have a powerful emotional tone. I am very conscious about creating a particular mood, tension, or weight in each image – and I am less interested in the images being digitally composited using Photoshop. Photoshop allows me to create a seamless image that reads as either a relationship between two people, or as a relationship between multiple sides of the self and that is the beauty, for me, of using Photoshop as a tool.
MM: Your series Double Life depicts a young woman in a deeply intimate romantic relationship with herself. What is most striking to me about this work is its believability. The seamless quality of these images allows the viewer to accept and explore the emotional nuance of an impossible scene. I also find that the quiet, intimate moments that are featured in this work usually set me wondering about what the characters are thinking. What are your thoughts on the narrative theme of these pictures? Could you characterize them as fictional, autobiographical, or both?
KC: The work is both. Many of the images are based on my own personal experiences and reflect the thoughts I have about myself or about my relationships. However, the work does not usually illustrate a particular event – it usually evokes the feeling, understanding, or questioning of the event. Also, my work is not always a reflection of my own life, but sometimes about my interpretations of other people’s lives as I watch them in public, read about them in books, or watch movies about them.
MM: Many artists have chosen to explore the uncanny, unsettling side of this sort of obviously fictionalized photograph; in your case the images are all quite palatable and often even inspire feelings of warmth. Yet there are a few dark or tense moments which show through the idyll. What other emotions do you expect your audience to experience through your work? Would you like them to feel unsettled in any way by the paradoxical nature of the images?
KC: Most of my work evokes a quiet tone that is charged – whether this charge is from a sexual tension or an unspoken elephant in the room that neither figure is addressing. It is true that overall the images evoke a warmth, even where sadness may be present. The earlier images in the series explore self discovery about sexuality and who we are in relationships in a parallel with what I was discovering about myself in my own life. These images reflect the first stages of relationships – meeting, flirting, making out, fighting, making up, etc. In my recent images I have been pushing the emotional range of my work in order to depict a deeper understanding of the self and of relationships as they evolve over time. Now that I have been in a long term relationship for several years, I am interested in depicting the low points, struggles, joys, boredom, and empathy that one discovers about the self after being in a relationship for a long period of time.
MM: The two characters in these images are typically shown in repose, or embracing. At the same time, the character of the photographer is conspicuously absent. Certain images, such as Windowsill and The Valley, even have a “mirror-like” quality to them which heightens both the intimacy and isolation of the interaction. In this way, we seem to be invited into the reflective path of the mirror through which this woman experiences herself, but are forced to examine ourselves in that same image. We must ask, for example, if we are able to be alone with ourselves– or even our lovers– so comfortably. Did you hope to inspire this sort of self-reflection, and if so, what other questions do you hope will be raised in your viewers’ minds?
KC: Yes. It is important for me that the work raises questions for viewers about who they are – both in the relationships that they are in as well as in the relationship that they have with themselves. I am interested in creating work that questions pre-conceived ideas about the self and the roles that people play – in our own relationships as well as the roles that we have witnessed in media.
MM: Your work can be seen as a statement about women’s and LGBT issues. The work carries the strong implication that an individual has many distinctly masculine or feminine characteristics which are evident in different ways at different moments, which criticizes traditional interpretations of gender roles. There is also a suggestion of the possibility of sologamy, an uncommon but still distinct phenomenon where an individual vows to cherish and honor oneself in the same way one typically would promise a beloved. Were you aware of the political implications in your work while creating it? Was there a specific message you hoped to impart?
KC: Yes. I was aware of the political implications in the work. In many ways, this work explores how relationship roles shift or remain the same when two females assume the roles as both partners. I’m interested in the notion that identity is not fixed, but fluid – and that we can pass through boundaries or systems that society has set up.
MM: The model you use for these images, Kiba Jacobson, is extremely adept at inhabiting the two distinct characters she portrays, which makes me wonder if she is a professional model or actress. How did you meet Kiba, and how would you describe your relationship with her? Does she assist you professionally in any other ways, such as in the framing or staging of photographs? Do many others make the same mistake that I did, in assuming that this work is self-portraiture– that Kiba is you?
KC: I met Kiba in one of my photography classes as an undergraduate student. She was a photography major as well, and a year ahead of me in school. We knew each other for about seven years before we began working together on Double Life. In the beginning, we both had no idea that Double Life would evolve into a long term body of work. After making the first composites, I knew that Kiba was a great model for the project. Her understanding of photography combined with her natural ability to take direction and feel at ease in front of the camera made her a good choice as a model. Kiba also has a great ability to be a chameleon – to be comfortable playing a more masculine or more feminine role, while also not looking too specific – having a somewhat generic quality that can easily be melded into different “characters” or sides of the self.
Kiba lives in Denton, Texas and I live in Chicago, so typically I will spend a week or two every summer photographing with her in Texas, and a week or two throughout the rest of the year I will fly her to Chicago so that we can work together. On the first day of shooting, we start out by looking at my sketchbook and I talk with her about what scenarios I am interested in creating. We then spend quite a bit of time choosing clothes, as well scouting out locations. During the shoots, Kiba listens closely to my direction and at times will offer her own interpretations of what I want. After we have finished several days of intense shooting, I complete the post-production work in my studio. I usually will send Kiba JPEGS of my handmade collages so that she can see which scenarios have worked during our shoots. Kiba is just as excited as I am to see the end results.
Many people assume that Kiba is me. At art openings, if Kiba is there, people automatically assume that she is the photographer and will go up to her to talk with her about the work. Usually when I give lectures on my work, people are shocked to see me on stage, instead of her. What I like about this is that our own preconceived ideas about what a self portrait is is shaken up. It is also interesting to note that almost ninety percent of the time, I am the stand in for the other character in each of my photographs, so what is originally recorded on film is a photograph of me and Kiba interacting with one another.
In person, our personalities are very different. Kiba is energetic, lively, and loud – someone you notice as they walk in the room. I am more quiet, intense, and shy. My work reflects my own personality more then hers. If I were to take a portrait of Kiba, it would have a completely different feel. When Kiba sees the work, she sees the characters she plays more than she sees a depiction of herself.
MM: Finally, please let us know what your plans are for 2013, photographically or otherwise?
KC: I am on sabbatical this year so I have been able to work intensely in the studio. The 2013 Double Life images take a look at her body as it begins to show signs of aging. Now that Kiba is in her forties (and I am about to turn 39), I have been interested in exploring the body as it ages and how this effects our understanding of ourselves as well as how this effects who we are in relationships. I plan to continue with Double Life as long as I stay passionate about the work and have ideas I am interested in pursuing . I am excited about how this work can evolve over the decades.
In tandem with Double Life, I have been working on a new project – making photographs with my wife, Betsy Odom. Look for this work to be released on my website later this year.
Kelli Connell’s body of work entitled Double Life has been widely received and included in numerous national solo and group exhibitions. Her work is in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Microsoft, The Haggerty Museum of Art and The Dallas Museum of Art. Recent publications include MP3: Midwest Photographers’ Publication Project (Aperture and The Museum of Contemporary Photography), Vitamin Ph: New Perspectives in Photography (Phaidon) and Photo Art: The New World of Photography (Aperture). Connell’s first full length monograph entitled Kelli Connell: Double Life was released by DECODE Books in August, 2011.
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Interview by Meghan Maloney
Introduction by Gregory Jones
All images © Kelli Connell.