Joanne Leah is a Brooklyn-based photographer who is deeply interested in exploring the fetish of ordinary objects and allowing room for the viewer’s sensual interpretation. She explains, “by freeing ourselves from the constraints of physicality, we vividly bend and lurch into new structures.” She continually experiments with engaging in methods of bodily detachment, commenting that she is interested in the relationships of contradiction and the “beautiful monotony of inhabiting our bodies while simultaneously trying to escape them.” Learn more about her below and check out her work in the slideshow above.
“I like to use common objects in unexpected ways, objectifying the body so it appears confusing or broken and ultimately transforming the image into a symbol that is part of its own visual language.”
What inspired you to get into photography?
I was born in Germany, adopted at birth, moved to the US when I was very young, and grew up in Virginia. I never considered myself a photographer. In art school, I studied sculpture, then switched to fashion design because I wanted to make wearable sculptures. I took photography classes to document my work. I have been exploring sexuality as a subject in my practice since 2007. I started taking erotic self portraits as a way to escape an unhappy marriage, but transitioned to working with other people as subjects in 2010. My first photo shoot for this series (I didn’t realize it at the time) was in May, 2014. The second occurred seven months later in December. It was a casual investigation at first, but developed into an honest analyzation of my childhood memories. I directed my subjects to interact with objects and substances while they were moving around, standing, kneeling, on the floor, face obscured. I visualize myself conducting otherworldly, ritualistic psychological experiments. I also pull a lot of inspiration from fetish and pornography.
What does bodily detachment mean to you, and how do you explore this?
I am interested in the fetish of ordinary objects and our physical relationship to them. I study how these objects might envelop (or smother) us and become part of who we are. My work is about sensation. I want the viewer to feel what my subject feels, using their own sensual interpretation. With each image, I try to create a transcendent experience through a sense of confinement and meditation, using composition, color, physical positioning and the tactile quality of the materials used. I like to use common objects in unexpected ways, objectifying the body so it appears confusing or broken and ultimately transforming the image into a symbol that is part of its own visual language.
Where do you find inspiration for your images, and how do you find participants willing to engage?
Each image is a facet of my fantasy world. Sometimes I don’t know where the images come from, but I research constantly: painters, sculptors, philosophy, photography, music, literature and history, finding pieces of information that connect with my subconscious vision. I “collect” props, food, liquids, colors and human subjects. Each concept, object and subject is chosen carefully based on how they will interact. Many of my subjects have described our sessions as therapeutic.
Most of the participants are not professional models, they are friends, acquaintances and strangers. I also have several favorite art models who I repeatedly work with. I find strangers by posting casting calls on Craigslist for “real people” and find people who had never modeled before.
Are people normally receptive to your work?
The reaction is extreme like or dislike, and often the work is greatly misunderstood. I find the negative reactions to be the most fascinating because they seem to be a reflection of the person making them. I have had someone describe my work as “celebrating rape culture,” and “derivative and amateur.”
What projects are you currently working on?
Currently, I am planning an exhibition for the Governors Island Art Fair here in NYC during the entire month of September. My long term project is to build a large scale multimedia piece but I would also like to learn more about video presentation. My dream is to direct a performance piece in an unusual location such as a motel.
Visit joanneleah.com to learn more.