Elisabeth Caren on her photographic work
What is it about the Young Masters project that you are most interested in?
The Young Masters project is a unique; an ingenious approach in bringing attention to process of artistic inspiration from past artists in a way that showcases new contemporary artists at the beginning of their careers. And it happens to highlight the greatest and first source of most of my inspiration – The Old Masters. It is fascinating and educational to especially see the fresh ideas applied to the various disciplines. I am especially impressed by the paintings and ceramics. I also love learning about other photographers all over the world and their interpretations of the Old Masters – its very inspiring!
Can you explain to us what your work is about?
In my practice, my intention is not to make the photo look as if it were a painting, but rather to refer to the old masters as the classic depiction of feminine beauty and hope to evoke a sense of history of both artistic expression and socio-political issues regarding women, providing contrast with our contemporary perception of women as well as technological advances in the visual medium of photography. Manet’s “Woman Fastening Her Garter” particularly intrigued me and was a great inspiration as well as Degas’ series of bathers in creating “Cage Crinoline.” In this project I investigated the mundane, sometimes lonely, taxing (and often painful) beauty regiments and rituals women have in the past and currently undertake in order to gain approval by men and society. I was compelled to create an intimate moment; a combination of loneliness, of relief, of contemplation, of questioning: is spending all this time, effort and discomfort worth the acceptance of others? The corset and cage crinoline represent both the physical and perceptual limitation of freedom for women yet it was considered the standard of fashion for women of Western Europe for a century. Along with the constricting corset, a woman is barely able to sit let alone move. My intention in my work is to be a reminder that it wasn’t very long ago that women were effectively imprisoned by a painful and restrictive under garment, which was determined to be essential for women to be accepted in Western society. I also hope that we question what currently is accepted as standard practice that may physically painful or limit us for the sake of society’s approval.
Baudelaire wrote in 1863: “Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural; she has to astonish and charm us, as an idol, she is obliged
to adorn herself in order to be adored.” In many 18th and 19th century portraits women are often depicted in pastoral settings wearing voluminous, highly decorative pastel dresses adorned with lace and bows. They are presented as objects, almost as if they were delicate ornaments, which is the title of one of my photographs. I chose to incorporate the stark, bone-hued corset and cage crinoline again as an intimation of women’s limited freedom at the time (and civil rights) as well as enforcing the contrast of the frilly frock. The undergarment also serves as a means to literally and figuratively strip down artifice – that underneath the adornment is a human being, not an object.
The dramatic narrative of the Old Masters, whether it was mythology, allegory or from classic literature, is another strong influence in my work. Sir John Everett Millais’ portrayal of Ophelia inspired my journey into creating a modern Ophelia. Centuries later, how would we feel about the iconic ingénue given our knowledge and perspective of women and mental illness? My intention was to revisit this classic story with a fresh, modern aesthetic, yet still invoking the almost dream like quality of the past interpretation. In Ophelia No.5 I incorporated the sun’s specular highlight on the water to create a symbol of spiritual transcendence, she is in the process of travelling to another world.
This tragic figure seems to always be depicted as floating peacefully. I was curious why we’ve never seen the moments before she was in the water – falling and wanted to explore the possibility that it may have been a tempestuous moment for her in Ophelia No. 4. In my new series “Pygmalion and Galatea” I explore the classic myth of the sculptor Pygmalion who became disgusted by local prostitutes and lost all interest in women as he saw them as flawed creatures and vowed never to waste any moment of his life with them. He dedicated himself to his work and created Galataea, a beautiful statue of a woman out of marble. Pygmalion worked so long and with such inspiration on the statue of Galatea, that it became more beautiful than any woman that had ever lived or been carved in stone. He fell in love with Galatea and would dress the statue in fine clothing and adoringly give her gifts. Such a passion could not go unnoticed by the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who gave life to the statue. As the story goes, the two fell in love, had children and lived happily ever after. In my interpretation of the story, when Galatea becomes alive, Pygmalion is first elated and then stunned when he realizes that the flesh and blood woman now has her own needs, desires, independent feelings and flaws. He is devastated and she is confused – she doesn’t know why she is disappointing him just by “being human”. She has literally and figuratively “come down off her pedestal” and Pygmalion is devastated. They wish that their love was enough to overcome the obstacles of conflict that inevitably will occur between
people in a relationship and try to reconcile but eventually realize it is impossible and they will have to accept this or lose their love entirely.
Which artist/s are you most inspired by?
Manet, Degas, Renoir, John Singer Sargent and Sir Thomas Gainsborough are a few of the master painters who have influenced me the most because of their sensitivity toward the depiction of women. My other favourite artists are Rene
Magritte, Alphonse Mucha, Tamara de Lempika, Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Margaret Bourke White, Barbara Ed Kruger, Ruscha, Helmet Newton, Man Ray, Robert Mappelthorpe, Edward Weston, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn.
Contemporary photographers that inspire me are Gregory Crewdson, Nan Goldin, Catherine Opie, Lorna Simpson, Marilyn Minter, Cindy Sherman, Annie Liebowitz, Ellen Von Unwerth, Frank Ockenfels, Art Streiber, James White, Nigel Parry, Peggy Sirota and Lottie Davis!
Can you tell us something about your background?
I studied painting and drawing in my youth, started exploring photography in my teens all the while studying theatre, in particular acting and costume design. I started with dance classes when I was 5 and acting/theatre classes then too. I would write and “direct” shows with my cousins as actors for my family holiday events from when I around 6 years old until around 12 when I “retired.” I loved acting and actually tried it professionally from age 12-19. I also loved costume design and won several awards for my Shakespeare costume designs. I enrolled at Boston University College of Fine art to study acting and then transferred to the Communication College to study film mid way through. In my 20s I wanted to be a film producer and worked in film development for director Barry Sonnenfeld, producer David Friendly and director Kathryn Bigelow. I then went on to work in entertainment publicity and marketing representing filmmakers and films such as filmmaker Paul Haggis and his directorial debut, the Academy Award winning film “Crash.”
What inspired you to become an artist?
My parents introduced me to the art of old masters at an early age; my grandfather was a passionate collector of Rembrandt and Durer etchings. The work of the old masters and museums had always been a consistent source of intrigue and inspiration as well as familiarity and comfort to me. My mother Adrea studied at CalArts and is a talented painter. From a very young age she would make sure we always had art supplies available and encouraged artistic expression. My father, a cardiologist, is also passionate about travel and landscape photography. I was very lucky that my parents always supported my artistic interests whether it was visual or performing arts. I really always dreamed of being an artist but when I graduated college I was convinced I need a secure, steady job with a career trajectory. It took 10 years for me to realize I was very unhappy in a corporate (even though entertainment is not the most corporate of environments!) job and just had to take a leap of faith
into the artist’s world and life.
If you weren’t an artist what would you be?
I don’t know since I’ve had other careers and nothing makes me as happy! As I did want to be a film producer for a long time and did work in film production and development for years, perhaps that would be something I would go back to. I also was in entertainment marketing and publicity for years but I don’t think I could go back to that field. I would most likely work in the non-profit world, probably in the arts field!
What is your greatest achievement as an artist to date?
The Young Masters! I also was a winner in the PDN (Photo District News) portrait contest this year, which I was very excited about. I also received several recognitions from the International Photography Awards/Lucie Foundation. On the commercial side, I have had over 30 celebrity portrait magazine covers and several advertising campaigns for television and feature films. The most exciting subjects I have been honored to photograph were people I am most inspired by: architect Frank Gehry, Serena Williams, FROZEN writer and director Jennifer Lee, MAD MEN costume designer Janie Bryant, Tommy Hilfiger, art collector Eugenio Lopez, and actress and activist Mary Steenburgen and actress and activist Cynthia Nixon.
What are your plans for the future?
I hope to dedicate more time to my fine art practice as it gives me the most joy and satisfaction in life! I have several ideas I want to explore and create new work this fall.