Chloe Meynier is a fine art photographer and instructor living in San Francisco. Her current project, Made in the Shade, is a series of self-portraits that explore female stereotypes and feminine perspectives within mid-century modern environments.
What led you to a career in photography?
My photography experience started with my mom’s camera when I was a teenager. She had a Canon film camera that I would occasionally use to take photos of our yard, family dog, and myself. When I was 16, I used this camera to create a self-portrait and it was the first time I consciously realized I could stage a scene, emotions, and a story. In my early 20s, I received a little digital camera from my parents and I started to explore forms. One day I showed these images to a friend of mine who is a professional photographer and she asked me why I was not pursuing photography as a career instead of doing research, which I wasn’t passionate about. The reason was that I was close to finishing my Ph.D. in Cognitive psychology and I didn’t know how to exit the research world without being judged and disappointing the people who invested their time in me. After getting my Ph.D. in Marseille, France, I moved to the Bay Area to work as a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley. Every weekend, I would venture out to photograph colorful and/or abandoned buildings. A year later, I quit my research career and started my MFA in Photography at the Academy of Art University. My parents made this transition possible, and without their unconditional support, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I think during all these years, a lot of personal factors pushed me to be more creative and realize that art, especially photography, was a missing component in my life.
You have a research background. Have any of the skills that you learned in that career translate to how you approach photography?
I see some similarities in the thinking process. Trying to understand what I want to communicate to the viewer through the creation of narratives resembles the process of understanding how the brain works through experiments. It also taught me to be rigorous and thorough. Mostly, I see my research background as a step in who I am now. I am proud of holding a Ph.D. and overcoming leaving my comfort zone in France. It led me to discover that I needed to do something else with my life and that research was just a step towards something greater and more fulfilling.
What artists do you find inspiring?
I have many inspirations and they come from different mediums. My favorite photographic artists are Gregory Crewdson, Alex Prager, Julia Fullerton Batter, Erwin Olaf, Tania Franco Klein, Kourtney Roy, Formento + Formento, Julius Shulman, Stephen Shore, and William Eggleston among others. I really like the painters Edward Hopper and David Hockney, as well as Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. I am also very interested in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Joseph Eichler, Albert Frey, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, and Pierre Koening.
For Made in the Shade, how do you go about creating each Mise-en-scene?
I spend a lot of time researching locations and look at a lot of magazines, websites, and social media pages. When I find a space that sparks my interest, I usually have an immediate response and story in mind. I qualify my work as fictional so my ideas can evolve and change but usually, the original idea sticks with me. Each story is based on my personal experience and interpretation of the space. I love the idea of creating a story that could be true but that could also be completely fictional. I see my role as a photographer is to create stories that beg the viewer’s imagination to fill the gaps and lead to more questions than answers. I don’t see photography as a recording or documenting tool. I am a storyteller and the truth is not something that interests me in photography.
Which scene was the most challenging to construct?
I think all of them. Planning a shoot based on a photo I find in a magazine is very easy for me, but once I’m projected into the actual environment things can be very different. The space, the lighting, and furniture sizes are often times different than how I imagined them. It forces me to quickly rethink the image in terms of compositional strategies, lighting, and sometimes stories. Overall, it’s a challenge from the beginning to the end but each challenge is different and pushes me to do my best.
What motivated the choice to not show the eyes?
In my previous projects, my face was almost always recognizable. In Made in the Shade I wanted the viewer to not be distracted by the character’s facial expressions and wanted them to be anonymous. To accomplish this goal, each woman is positioned in a way that emphasizes the mood and the narrative. Their anonymity allows the viewer to create endless stories.
“If it doesn’t have ambiguity, don’t bother to take it... It’s got to have some kind of peculiarity in it or it’s not interesting to me.” – Sally Man
I do agree with Sally Man’s quote. However, if I was a more spontaneous photographer it would have a greater influence on me. My photographs are very carefully planned and the ambiguity is intentional, not found.
You portray several women in these self-portraits, do you feel like they portray different aspects of yourself? What’s something that you and the women that you portray have in common?
I often wonder what kind of woman I would have been if I had lived during this time period. Would my personality have been shaped in a different way or would have I accepted myself the way I am? Even though I will never be able to answer these questions, I do believe that the cultural context at the time would have influenced my identity and beliefs. My personal experiences taught me at a very young age that men and women are not equal. As a result, my identity and beliefs have been shaped by these experiences and I like to think that, through these imagined characters, I honor all the women whose identities were bashed, who had to conform to norms at the detriment of their well-being, and who have suffered from being treated as inferior human beings. They are all me in some ways and we all have in common the desire to feel free and be who we want to be without having to justify our choices or respond to societal constructs.
Has your work shaped your perception of your own identity?
Absolutely but I think exploring one self’s identity is a lifelong journey. Our experiences shape our identity that is in a constant moving state and the work is a translation of this endless exploration. My photographic practice allows me to better understand who I am and why I am this person. Through my work, I feel like I can explore myself on a deeper level.
“The pluralistic nature of the contemporary photographic portrait creates an inquiry that leaves the viewer with open-ended questions rather than a sense of the truth or character of the individual portrayed. Yet, even knowing that many of the images are fiction does not prevent us from wanting to connect with what we are seeing. When we look at a photograph we desperately want meaning and identification.” - Alec Soth
I do relate a lot more to Alec Soth’s quote and his work has always intrigued me. I believe that people have an inherent desire to connect with others in order to self-identify. Without others, our identities would be harder to shape and understand. We give meaning to our actions, beliefs, and thoughts because we are connected, intentionally or not, to others. Our sense of truth relies on our personal experiences and we need to believe in what we see in order to make sense of the world. Whether the images are fiction or not, they trigger questions that will be answered by the viewer and these answers will be informed by the viewer's experience.
Made in the Shade is the continuation of my previous projects. They are all related but they are each shot with different aesthetics. In Made in the Shade, the architecture is as important as the stories themselves and everything is shot in cameras as opposed to my previous work that was heavily relying on composited imagery. I wanted the locations to be authentic and the colors to be muted to create a sense of nostalgia. Made in the Shade is a more advanced project in terms of narratives and intentions. I am more deliberate in my creative decisions and my overall vision is more defined.
These photos seem to take place within a timeframe of 20 or 30 years post-WWII. Why is this exploration of identity placed in that historical window?
The post-war period and development were very different from one country to another. I have always been interested in how the American post-war years have shaped our current cultural trends. At the time, society was focused on redefining the notion of “family”. I feel like you could have gone to the store and bought a book about “How to have a perfect happy family” and all the steps would be listed. Specific gender roles were emphasized and the key for happiness was clearly defined. Nowadays, these notions are not as important, they have been challenged and continue to be challenged. They are no longer accepted as the norm but they are still prevalent. Setting the scenes in the time period that was the most crucial in establishing these societal norms, it reinforces the importance of understanding where we are coming from and what story we want to write in the future.
Since your work is heavily based in past settings, do you think photography has an inherent relationship to the past?
Of course. if we interpret the word “past” in a very literal way, then yes, once a photograph is taken, then it becomes part of the past. But I don’t think about photography that way and have never used the medium in order to preserve the past. Instead, I use photography to create fictions that are based on and influenced by the past but that are very much informed by the present.
Do you think gender plays a significant role in the work of photographers?
I think each photographer is a unique individual with specific interests and motivations that inform their work, but I am not convinced that gender plays a significant role in the work. It probably did, in the past, but we live in a time period that allows individuals to photograph whatever they want and their gender is pretty much irrelevant. Even more so nowadays that the gender spectrum is challenged and expanded. Even though I believe that in some instances, the photographer’s gender identity can be relevant to the work, most artists want to communicate their ideas through their imagery, not through their personal identities. The conversation that results from the photographs comes from what is being depicted and why it has been created.
How do you perceive the past, present, and future role of gender in the culture of photography?
I think there has been a natural evolution of the role of gender and it continues to evolve allowing new artists to add their voice to the conversation. I believe that in a few years, the conversation will have grown a lot more. How and to what extent the topic will have evolved is what I am looking forward to seeing.