06 April 2012

The Lens Unbridled: Raymond Elstad



A Dark Enchantress (2012)
   We didn't know it was possible to rock with a camera, but today's artist proves that it is. Yes, Raymond Elstad's photography shares with rock music that same swelling feeling that makes you want to get out of your chair and lose yourself in a dance to its hypnotic rhythms. Elstad works in almost every genre of photography, but through it all, he gets across a zest for life, love, nature, and movement, which is often combined with a rebellious spirit that seeks to test the very limitations of his medium.
   Elstad recently spoke with us about his work, and that conversation follows below.


Thrice Bound (2011)

Interview:

YowzerYowzer: Hello, Raymond. Your images certainly communicate quite a lot on their own, but they did bring up a few curiosities we're hoping you will answer.

Raymond Elstad: Thank you. I do like the idea of the images speaking for themselves and I don't often chat it up about my work as it may come back to bite me in the end... Pun fully intended. But ask away! 

Malashock Dance Presents
the Floating World (2011)
YY: You're in a relationship with the previous artist we featured, the awesome Rosemary KimBal. On the surface, your bodies of work couldn't be further apart, yours being so riveting while Rosemary's is so meditative and centering. Since you are both at the top of your art-forms, we're curious whether you two ever collaborate or inspire each other's work? 

RE: Rosemary does inspire me! ...though she and I have collaborated rarely. I think one of the reasons that we can easily maintain our relationship while both being artists is that our work is so different and that we don't compete with each other. One thing that we do do for each other though is be an honest critic. Most often people will tell you: "Oh this is so wonderful" etc. We easily tell each other when a piece is not really ready for prime-time and should not be shown or needs to be re-worked. I think an honest critic whose opinion you trust is invaluable, and in Rosemary, I do indeed have that.

YY: It was a pretty daunting task to select the images for this feature, considering how many there were and how good they all were. Your range is pretty staggering.

Pajaritas De Las Nieves (2011)
RE: I know one is supposed to choose one genre and just work at that, but that is something I've never been able to do. I love the studio work, but I also love shooting candids, cityscapes, landscapes, botanicals, etc. I just love to look at the world through a lens, I suppose, and it gives me great joy to do so. Just about every shot I make, at the moment of making it, I feel "Wow, this is just great!" Later, when I cast a jaundiced eye on the results, I often feel "What was I thinking? This is just awful!" I think- he said, waxing profound- that I get caught up in the zen moment, the eternal now moment of it all, and I am not really thinking at all but just being. Okay, here we go... I think that when viewing the world with my artist brain that it's like being momentarily in a state of enlightenment, that totally being-in-the-moment state of mind where you just are.

YY: You often work with dancers, but in a way that doesn't simply document, rather you seem to be playing or dancing along with them. That's something Maya Deren did with a movie camera, but what's so neat about your work is that you capture that dynamic energy in stills. Why do you think dance is so attractive to you as a photographer?

Minaqua McPherson, John Diaz and
Annie Boyer: SDDT (2011)
RE: I've always loved bodies in motion, and I feel the human body is the most beautiful form on the planet. After attending Trolley Dances yearly for the past number of years, in which different choreographers create unique site-specific works for venues on a selected trolley line, I was given the opportunity by Jean Isaacs, who created Trolley Dances and who runs the Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater, to create works for the Mandel Weiss Gallery at Dance Place in Liberty Station. She helped me in arranging to have her principal dancers along with the principal dancers of Malashock Dance and the San Diego Ballet come to my studio and allow me to photograph them while they created the most marvelous shapes. I was also afforded the opportunity to attend rehearsals and performances.

YY: No doubt, Jean Isaacs had seen and connected with your work in a powerful way. The bold editing choice for some of your photos makes your subjects seem to literally move, creating rhythms that we can almost hear, and certainly feel. Would you describe how you make your photo manipulation choices?

Such a Happy Girl (2010)
RE: Now, that is a tough one. It would be disingenous to say that I have no preconceived notion of where something is going, what direction something is taking, but when I start I don't think "This would make a good multiple." When I work up an image, as fruit-loops and wind chimes as this may sound, it seems to take on a life of its own, and it moves towards where it will be, if you will. The choices seemingly make themselves. It's the left brain-right brain conundrum. The creative part of me really has no words, no conscious thoughts. It just does. 

YY: Very well put. Now, a lot of your photos are unabashedly erotic, and yet you somehow maintain a tastefulness to them. Do you have any guidelines you set up for yourself along those lines? 

RE: Guidelines?! Make it erotically fun while hiding the lady bits. I don't know if that's a motto, but it could be. [Smiles] I like to come up to the edge of tasteful and I think of this type of image as alternative pin-up which has moved a little toward the dark side of traditional pin-up while attempting to include a bit of humor when setting up the poses. 

Star Power (2010)
YY: We couldn't have said it better! One of the other interesting aspects of your work is how some of the photos, take Untitled Portrait (2009), for instance, seem to be so effortless, and yet so inexplicably appealing that they come across as perfect. The more people we showed that particular photo to, the more emphatic raves we heard in its favor. The lights, the colors, the expression, the clothing and accessories all blend in an entrancing and theatrical way that it might just be our favorite pic of yours. How do you differentiate between personal attraction and wider appeal? Or do you? In other words, how do you explain the connection between attraction and art?

RE: That is a tough one, and I'm not sure that I'm ready to address that other than to paraphrase Count Basie, who once said when questioned about the process of making jazz: "Man, if it sounds good, it is good." The same could be said for art. If it looks good and speaks to you, it is good. It is a personal journey though. We are not all attracted to the same things, it would seem, and thankfully so. 

YY: Understood. And we value the honesty, persistence, and care with which you been sharing your personal visions of beauty. Last tough question, and then, if you don't mind, we'll ask a little background on some individual pics. Can you give us some insight into your photo shoots? Looking at one of your pieces, like Minaqua McPherson, John Diaz and Annie Boyer: SDDT (2011), they all seem to share a special intimate dynamic. Are the shoots tough and exacting or fun and easy-going, or what? And how do you get your dancers in the appropriate mood and how do you arrange the movements? 


Untitled Nude (2005)
An Untitled Seascape
(2010)
















RE: I attempt to make it fun. While I do like to direct, and mostly do set up the shots, during this shoot, we, the four dancers and I, just did free-form movement work, where the dancers would play off of each other while I just shot randomly as they were moving about. 

YY: It's such a great shot, so funky and graceful at the same time. 

RE: Graceful indeed! They are professional dancers, most adept at moving and creating marvellous shapes. 

YY: Laughter is a major theme in your work, you've captured such great laughs and knowing looks from the models and dancers. How do you get such a natural quality?

Homage a Mannet 2 (made with a Combo 4x5, 2006)

RE: I have a number of really stupid jokes that I tell when I'm looking for a smile. I often tell the same one over and over again, and the fact that I'm doing that always seems to bring a smile. Sometimes, I just recite the first line of the joke, and it gets the result I'm looking for. I also like to work with people more than once and some people many, many times. The first time is like a first date or a familiarization excursion. Let me state right here and now that I don't touch the model. It's not that kind of date, people! We develop an easy-going relationship over the course of working together, and I think that shows in the work. 

YY: We agree! Can you tell us where An Untitled Seascape (2010) was taken? One of the things that is so thrilling about it is that the angle and shapes make it somehow as erotic as your people photos.

Dead Roses and
Cactus Bones (2009)
RE: This was made below the Cabrillo National Monument, just north of the lighthouse in the tidepool area. If one works long enough at putting in their 10,000 hours, I think a pattern emerges that informs all that one does. I'm happy that you see a relationship amongst the different genres I work in.

YY: It is definitely our pleasure! Speaking of pleasure, your Homage a Mannet 2 (2006) is another of our favorites, and another that is uncannily pleasurable! The drama and the web of eye-directions combined with the overtly artsy/humorous feel makes this one a keeper. Certainly, every viewer will take something different away from this one, which speaks to the freeing feeling of your art, but can you share what you were specifically going for?

RE: This was based on Edouard Manet's The Picnic (Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, 1863), but with my own humorous take on it. Others have done this before me, but this is the way I see it. I love the expression on her face, as if to say "What the heck?!"

YY: That is a great part of it. Dead Roses and Cactus Bones (2009) appeals to us because we love photography that is able to achieve abstract beauty which is more commonly found in painting. Can you give us any background on your intent with this piece?


Call of the Wild (2010)
RE: Man, intent is such a deep concept, man! [Laughs] Why, I intended to create a thing of beauty that would be a joy forever, he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. I had these miniature roses and an old cactus bone, that I found long ago in Baja California, lazing about the studio. I tend to collect things thinking that someday I'll do something with them. When I've not a project but feel moved to create something, I cast about looking for something to make a little still-life with. This was made during one of those times. I'm happy you like it, as it is one of my favorites and one that hangs on the wall.
   Still-life is something that, on the surfaces seems easy, but for me is rather difficult to formulate. It is also a great mental exercise. The way I go about it is to create a pleasing arrangement, shoot it, rearrange the objects, shoot it again, and so on, until I tire of the process and have about twenty or so versions. I then ignore what I've done for several days, and then look at all the images with fresh eyes. I then pick the best one, the one that speaks to me the most, and then proceed to work on that image until I feel that I can do no more without going too far and screwing it up.

YY: That was deep! [Laughs] Ah, your Call of the Wild (2010) is so inviting, even though it's a mess. There is something so dreamy about that pale misty blue, as well as that angle! What about this scene attracted you to shoot it?

RE: I was walking about a small Oregon town with my daughter, treasure hunting, searching for the illusive photograph. This just spoke to me as a ready-made still-life. Years ago, there was a cartoon narrative piece in Playboy Magazine that illustrated different types of vehicles and those who drove them.  One of them was a VW van, and the owner of such a van was described as one who would load up all kinds of detritus in it, and then go and offer his friends rides. It spoke to me, and I see that in this truck. Perhaps I'm that kind of driver. [Smiles]

Royal Terns at Sunset (2010)

YY: There are so many images we want to talk with you about, but so little time. Pajaritas De Las Nieves (2011) is so magical, as if we've been invited to a ceremony where the priestesses begin their floating dance. Untitled Nude (2005) is intriguing in part because it works at whatever angle the viewer looks at it from. And then, there is Royal Terns at Sunset (2010)! This image is so perfect! We don't know where to look: at the cotton sky, the glassy sand, or at how the birds, people, and trees all manage to take up roughly the same amount of space. Where was this image made?

Untitled Portrait (2009)
RE: This was one of those magic days after a storm on Cardiff State Beach. That bluff in the background is at Swami's.

YY: The Power of Secret Knowledge (2010) is one of your great nude pieces. We like it because as naked as the woman is, she seems completely in charge. Not only is it her pose and smile, but the closed eyes kind of puts her on some other unreachable plane.

RE: I suppose she is naked, as she is smiling. If you don't smile, it's a nude. If you smile, it's nekked. 

YY: Ah, nice distinction. 

The Power of Secret Knowledge
(2010)
RE: As for being in charge, the model is always somewhat in charge. We are co-conspirators. 

YY: Another neat aspect to those smiles, being that you're the photographer and one with a sense of humor, those smiles also seem like they're coming from you and poking a little fun at us viewers. It's a nice touch that adds to the whole rich array of emotions. Lastly, are there any future goals or projects that you care to share with us? 

RE: Goals? I'm not sure that I have any goals other than continuing to keep doing what I'm doing. Simplistic, I'm sure, but so it goes...

YY: Well, thanks so much for your time, Raymond. It's been a pleasure!

RE: Thank you for all the kind words! It has been an honor!




















[For more information on Raymond Elstad, feel free to visit his website at raymondelstad.com.]

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