NSFW: Got a Fetish For Great Set Design, Art Direction, & Photography?
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
WNW Members Isabelle Rancier, Marie-Yan Morvan, and Stephanie Gonot have collaborated enough times to know how to bring out each others' strengths and consistently put forth exciting projects. Their latest, a photo series titled "Fetish," is no exception. And its perfect marriage of art direction, photography, and set design would likely have been impossible without their familiarity. As Marie-Yan puts it, "We're so comfortable with each other that you could put us in a room together at 8AM with no story or props and we’d be shooting something by noon. I can’t promise it’d be good but that kind of comfort means we feel free to experiment and build on each others’ ideas until something happens. That’s the embryo of any creative project."
This particular project displays reflections of sexual fetishes surrounded by household objects coated in skin-tone palettes. "We wanted to communicate the mundanity of what is thought of as 'kinky' or 'alternative' sexual behavior," Isabelle tells us. "It’s a subject matter that is starting to have a cultural moment and is losing its stigma (very slowly!)." "Fetish" also brought with it an impressive number of obstacles, which included but were not limited to working with both mirrors and a corner set, learning how to tie fetish knots, and finding last-minute models on the cheap for an NSFW "fetish" set. Not bad for a day's work.
Tell us a little bit about your creative backgrounds. Who are Isabelle, Marie-Yan, and Stephanie, and how did they get here?
Isabelle: I was born in Germany, raised in France, and have lived in Brooklyn for 11 years. I started out studying German lit and painting at a liberal arts college but soon dropped out to study art in Scotland. While there, I slowly started to understand what graphic design was- and decided to pursue it. Not content dropping out once, I did so again- I couldn’t hang with the daily Glasgow rain- and landed at the School of Visual Arts in NYC where I got my degree. I am currently an art director at an advertising agency (Anomaly) but most of my career has been spent in the fashion industry as a graphic designer. I’ve held positions either in-house at media/fashion brands (Refinery29, Barneys NY) or in fashion-centric studios.
MY: I was born and raised in Paris. In 2004, I visited New York with my best friend during Christmas time and knew I had to move there. Six months after, I started to study graphic design at SVA (this is where I met Isabelle) and got attracted to the 3D world progressively. Before coming to the states I studied cinema in Paris. Movies are like religion in France, and they were a big source of inspiration for me growing up. (The movies of Jacques Demy, Francois Truffaut, Tim Burton and Jean Cocteau mostly.)
Stephanie: I’m a photographer living in Los Angeles who, like Marie-Yan, also had a penchant for movies growing up. :) I came to Los Angeles (from Sacramento) right after college for an internship with a TV commercial and music video production company because I thought I wanted to be a director. But instead I became very interested in the production company’s extensive photo book library and decided that if I wanted to become a director that I might first immerse myself in photography. Some years went by of moving around doing odd jobs (teaching English in Spain, working in an ice cream sandwich truck, etc) but I finally landed at a photo agency in Los Angeles where I was a photo agent for three years. During those three years I really focused and got my freelance photography career going by working on projects during nights and weekends, while learning about the business of photography during the day.
How would you describe your respective creative styles? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
Isabelle: I can’t escape my style, even though I try with every project. I aim for visual simplicity and translate conceptual messages first and foremost, but I also like there to be an extra element. I love contrasts, surprises, and humor. Humor is hugely important to me, both in interpersonal relationships and in my work. Making someone laugh is like a superpower. Visually, humor can be translated as wit, surprise, and impact. I ask myself, can I spin this into something funny, or weird?
MY: The story of the picture we make is very important to me. I like to ask: what's the narrative here? And I need to have an answer. Otherwise there's a problem. I'd describe my style as very graphical and whimsical. I like simple shapes and strong colors.
Stephanie, Isabelle and I go way back. We're so comfortable with each other that you could put us in a room together at 8AM with no story or props and we’d be shooting something by noon. I can’t promise it’d be good but that kind of comfort means we feel free to experiment and build on each others’ ideas until something happens. That’s the embryo of any creative project. If you don't have that, you won't make something really memorable.
Stephanie: I’ve definitely developed a style over the past however many years and I like to use it as a starting point for projects. It’s nice to know that I can predict at least a bit what something is going to look like when I set it up with my lighting. Then from there, I like to push it a little further into unknown territory so that my style keeps evolving.
How did the initial idea for your latest project “Fetish” come about?
Isabelle: Stephanie, Marie-Yan and I were collaborating on a personal project where we were also using mirrors in colorful sets. We kept catching glimpses of our disembodied limbs and faces surrounded by saturated colors, and that sparked the idea…
MY: We were shooting a different project and sometimes Isabelle is really funny. She was looking at herself in one of the mirrors that was on set and joking around with her body kind of playing with the shapes she could make and her reflection. That's how the idea was born!
Stephanie: I feel like the further I get in my career the more it becomes clear that ideas don’t just come out of the blue… they come from getting your hands dirty and working on projects/collaborating with others.
Can you share some of the creative challenges and breakthroughs that came with this undertaking?
Isabelle: I will spare you the details of trying to cast models for a NSFW project ...with a low budget. Regardless, I feel lucky that the three of us are always aligned creatively and share similar sensibilities. We are on the same page from concept to execution and this project came together pretty smoothly. One creative challenge we encountered was the tone; it can be difficult to shoot nudity tastefully without it veering into a soft-core world.
MY: Isabelle and I rented an AirBnB in Silver Lake for this shoot, a little house with one bed in it. The night before the shoot we found a youtube video of someone tying the knot we wanted to use the next day in the shoot. But I had to learn how to tie it! Isabelle and I are just friends but we got to spend the night practicing how to tie fetish knots on each other in bed! We also had a little incident when one of the models we cast dropped out at 6pm the night before the shoot. Normally I think it'd be hard to find someone for a fetish-related shoot the night before, but we reached out to a few friends of friends and they loved our brief and that we were three women doing this shoot. I think there was a lot of trust there. Also, whenever I get to work in LA, it feels like a mini-vacation, coming from the craziness of NYC!
Stephanie: As mentioned, it was quite an ordeal to find models on the cheap for an NSFW project. Aside from that, we were working with mirrors AND a corner set, which made it difficult for me to light on my own. We basically created a big obstacle course for ourselves because we were seeing in front of the camera and also the reflection of a body which was sometimes almost right next to the camera. I wish we had a picture of the full set-up to share. It was pretty funny having naked people NEXT to me while I was shooting them reflected into the set in front of me.
How do the household items like the telephone and coffee mug tie in with the theme of this project?
Isabelle: We wanted to communicate the mundanity of what is thought of as “kinky” or “alternative” sexual behavior. I feel like it’s a subject matter that is starting to have a cultural moment and is losing its stigma (very slowly!). The objects like the telephone, the keyboard, and the blinds speak to communication and visibility. The coffee mug and the houseplant tie into the notion of mundane domesticity.
How did you settle on the color palette for this project?
Isabelle: Millennial pink or bust! That's a joke - we just wanted colors that were in harmony with our subjects’ skin tones. I love how the photos almost feel like a color bath.
Stephanie: Gotta love Color-Aid! ;)
Were there any particular fetishes you considered covering that didn’t make the cut?
Isabelle: Yes, a few. We explored some related to pain and body modification but scrapped them. We could have easily veered into a gory or hardcore tone.
Which photo in the series is your favorite?
Isabelle: I love the threesome photo… The different skin tones look harmonious together and oddly peaceful.
MY: The group sex one: It's very sensual, and it reminds me of a sculpture. In a way. It's not as aggressive as the other ones. It's just the human body - nothing else.
Stephanie: I really love all of them as a series, but the ball-gag one I think is very pretty and strange with the house plant.
What do each of you do when Not Working?
Isabelle: I watch sci-fi movies, look for weird Corgi mutts on petfinder.com, and shop for vintage Levi’s.
MY: Travel and I have shifts to do at the Park Slope Food Coop. Food is very important to me!
Stephanie: Makes me sound boring but I’ve been getting into running! I ran a race with my mom for the first time a couple of years ago and got hooked. It’s nice to have a set running schedule when your freelance work schedule is inevitably all over the place.
Who are some WNW Members whose work you admire and why?
Isabelle: I’m a huge fan of my friend Dan Cassaro’s work. I also devote a good amount of time to trolling all the photographers.
MY: I'm new to the site! I need a little time to explore.
Stephanie: Also a newbie!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Isabelle: Hire us for your next project?
MY: Oh yeah!
Stephanie: Can’t wait to work with these ladies again!