The Strange and The Sweet
“I just like things that are aesthetically pleasing on one level and have a bit of a sadness to them, and I think I’m always drawn a bit to that in people.” Annie Collinge takes photographs that are strange but sweet. Mermaids in concrete seascapes. Found dolls and their found human counterparts. Whitby goths. For Beauty Papers Issue Six BIG she collaborated with artist and beautiful person Julie Verhoeven.
Interview and Photography
Beauty Papers: Tell me about your ongoing collaboration with Julie Verhoeven.
Annie Collinge: We basically began it about five, six years ago. I was feeling creatively frustrated and I was like, It would be nice to just make some pictures for the sake of just making pictures, rather than with an agenda or credits. We try to do one every so often. Actually what was funny is that we discussed pitching a story to Beauty Papers and then two days later Maxine emailed Julie’s agent and asked if she wanted to pitch something, so it was quite weird, because it sort of fitted with what we were doing. A really weird coincidence. I guess we’ll keep going, and maybe it will be nice to put them all together when we’re both really old, or something. [Laughs] I dunno.
BP: How did you first meet Julie?
AC: I just sent her an email. I obviously love her work and also I’m interested in collaborating with people that are interested in the idea of adornment. So I just wrote her an email and she got back to me and said, “Oh, come to my studio.” We had Penguins and tea [Laughs] and then we just began …
The first shoot we didn’t have any kind of concept, we just messed around which was exactly what I wanted to do and she wanted to do. So we shot in her studio and used stuff she had around. It’s been a really good collaboration and she’s introduced me to other people that I’ve worked with. I also sometimes work with Rottingdean Bazaar who are actually her former students, so that was also like a weird link.
"I’ve always been a bit of a one man band, and in the last year I’ve started working with other people and it’s been a bit of a revelation for me, because I’ve met other people that wanna make similar images."
BP: Your images with Julie have entirely their own language. It feels like there is complete trust between the two of you. Is that something that came quickly?
AC: I would say yes. I think that we have similar ideas about a kind of look. We’re both into the comic stroke tragic, so if we’re using colourful things then we somehow make them a bit sad. I think that as soon as we started making pictures together, that was quite obvious. Yeah I do think she trusts me. She sees that I haven’t really got an agenda other than trying to make an engaging image. We have the same focus in the end.
BP: When you’re working with these collaborators do you feel like you’re approaching those projects differently than your solo work?
AC: Yes and no, because with collaborations the other party are bringing their own aesthetic to the projects. Obviously the shoots I’ve done with Julie are all her props and her set. I work with different people in different ways. I’ve always been a bit of a one man band, and in the last year I’ve started working with other people and it’s been a bit of a revelation for me, because I’ve met other people that wanna make similar images. The pressure is less on me, because it’s a collaboration, which is also nice. But yeah, I do also have a very strong aesthetic and idea of what I like and don’t like. Everyone says that about me, I’m very black and white about yes and no, there’s not really a grey area to how I make pictures.
BP: How do you negotiate that when you’re working on editorial? Because editorial is a space where we can play, we can experiment, we can try to find something. But also, there’s a huge pressure because it’s for a specific publication often with a certain amount of advertisers.
AC: The more editorials I’m doing, I’m trying to not think about those elements at all. Because you don’t really get paid for editorial. I think more artists are coming out of the woodwork and more artistic images are being created right now. I think that the less money people have to make images, in a way the more creative people have to be … They have to think about things in a more …
AC: Yeah, in a more resourceful way. I think because there’s not loads of money at stake, people are being a bit more risky and people are also being a bit more honest. Particularly in fashion, because people can’t afford to live in London anymore. People are being much more honest, “Oh I’m living in my Mum’s shed, and I make work here.” Whereas I feel like when I began, you had to have this front all the time, “Oh I’ve got this studio in Shoreditch and I’ve got ten assistants!” It’s actually bullshit, because you can still make a good picture as long as you’ve got a good idea. I think that that’s been quite liberating, actually. Sort of going back to basics. Now it’s like, “Oh you wanna make a book? Just make it yourself!” Rather than before it was like, “You need to have it professionally printed and you need to pay ten thousand pounds to get it printed in Denmark” or whatever. I do think it’s a more exciting time, actually.
BP: Is technique important to your process?
AC: I mean, my technique is very basic. I shoot with natural light and I shoot a mix between film and digital, and I would say that basically the less technical the better. For me, I hate things to be over lit, because I like things to look almost like they’re a bit pedestrian, a bit normal looking, somehow.
BP: That’s when you can make something that looks really twisted, I think.
AC: Exactly, because when you over light something it starts to look theatrical, and it’s not as funny. I think the more ordinary, the better, somehow.
BP: Do you think there is a childlike element to your work?
AC: Definitely. It’s funny because I’ve got a five-year old son, and I read him all the books I had when I was a child and when I look at all the images it kind of sparks off my memories of being frightened by the energy of the illustrations. I feel like that has had a massive impact on me.
"I think because there’s not loads of money at stake, people are being a bit more risky and people are also being a bit more honest."
BP: Is it something that you’ve rediscovered or is that something that never left?
AC: I think it’s something that never left, but there’s lots of books that I haven’t read for years and years and years and now I’ve re-found them all in my Mum’s house. There’s this one about a house and the city gets built around it and it’s so lonely and eventually it gets taken back to the countryside, but the house has got a weird face and it looks a bit deranged. [Laughs] I suddenly thought, “God I’m really always attracted to things with weird faces!”
Stuff like that. I always remember the darkness in children’s books, always being slightly frightened by some of the books but then they were always my favourite ones. So I think that had the most impact on forming my aesthetic as an adult.
BP: Did you ever watch Button Moon?
AC: Do you know what, I wasn’t actually allowed to watch TV. [Laughs] I was allowed to watch one hour a week, and so as a result I’m a massive television addict as an adult. I love all reality TV, literally I’d watch TV all night long if I could. So I love the aesthetic of Button Moon but I can’t say I watched it as a child. I’ve watched it since with my son.
BP: I love that you love television because it’s so unfashionable to say it. Most people pretend that they don’t have a telly.
AC: Oh I know! I love reality TV, I’m slightly obsessed. Not Love Island I have to say, which I thought was a bit boring. But I love really trashy TV and people are often like, “Why would you watch this?” But I don’t know, it’s weird escapism. I think it all ties into the work in some ways, because it’s things that are real and also a bit fake. So sometimes I think that’s maybe why I like Real Housewives of Beverley Hills, it’s kind of fictional but also they are real people. When I used to live in New York we never had a TV but I still watched all that shit on my computer. I’d say to people, “I don’t have a TV,” but then I’d be on Hulu or whatever, watching terrible trashy TV on my computer, so it was all a lie. [Laughs]
BP: It seems like the props and the sets are a thread running through a lot of your work. How do they come in?
AC: Objects are a massive part of my work, definitely. I mean I basically spend my life in charity shops and car boot sales, because I feel like that’s where I get most of my ideas from. Very often I’ll bring something along to a shoot that I think might work. I don’t really get that much inspiration from going to exhibitions. I can appreciate other people’s work, but it doesn’t really give me my own ideas. So yeah, I spend my life thrifting so to speak. I’ve got huge collections of things and I have to constantly do car boot sales because I’ll end up with so much stuff that I’ve used for one photo.
BP: Have you always been that way, collecting?
AC: Well my Mum is a hoarder, so I’ve grown up in a house where there’s stuff covering every surface. [Laughs] Not a clear surface in the house. When my mum used to go away, my family used to take loads of stuff to the dump and she’d never notice.
BP: That’s interesting that it didn’t skip a generation.
AC: What and I became like minimalist? I do have massive purges all the time because there are not enough surfaces! My Mum’s from California and she’s a bit of a hippy. She collects slightly crafty seventies stuff, so the house I grew up in is very dusty, full of weird things hanging from things, you know. I think it did have an affect on me.
BP: What things would you never take to the car boot sale?
AC: I don’t know, there’s certain things. I bought this ostrich egg with a clown face on it and a little hat and I quite like that. I don’t think I’d sell that. What else? What are my favourite things? I’ve also got a collection of miniature cookers that I collect. Yeah, got quite a few of those, probably wouldn’t sell them. The problem is we’re moving house and a lot of my stuff is in storage, so I have to imagine it all I don’t currently have is around me.
BP: Does that stress you out?
AC: Well, that’s what’s weird. I lived in New York for five years and when I first moved there, I went with two suitcases and left everything behind in London and I never really thought of any of that crap I’d left behind. You know Michael Landy did that project where he destroyed everything he’d ever owned? it must be quite liberating.
It still bothers me that I’ve got all this stuff in storage that I haven’t really thought about and that I don’t really need in my day-to-day life. It does make you just want to set it on fire, because if you start going through it you’ll never be able to purge. You just need the storage container to burn down and then you wouldn’t have to worry about it. Touch wood. [Laughs]
BP: When you were in New York, do you think that the people understood your sense of humour?
AC: Yes and no. I think the thing with New York is that when you’re going to show your work to people you have to be ridiculously overly positive, more than you feel naturally comfortable doing. You sort of have to learn to really big yourself, which does not come naturally to me. I think the difference with New York is I think that people are sometimes more willing to take more risks, somehow. I shouldn’t slag off London, no, London’s great [Laughs]. I don’t know, you can show your work to someone in New York and they’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, you’d be great for this,” whereas I think in London you have to get there in slightly different ways. You have to be approved by people so other people take you seriously, and that irritates me. Do you know what I mean? In New York they’re willing to just go for it because they like what you’ve done rather than who you’ve worked for.
BP: Did living in America have an impact on your work?
AC: I think it was massive actually. It was a bit of a turning point for me. When I went there, I felt really fed up and I wasn’t really sure of what kind of work I wanted to make and then I went to New York and I just started to make projects. I did this project about mermaids. People were very open.
I did this project with a woman called Linda Leven. Now lots of people have shot her but I just met her in the street and I started photographing her and she was kind of into it and willing to do what I wanted. We just made weird pictures, and it was quite a revelation for me. I think it changed my attitude to work loads. I remember this distinct moment being in her apartment and she was in some yoga pose on her bed and she was quite strange looking and I just thought, “This is it. This is the thing I’ve been wanting to do.” And it was almost like I went back to the pictures I made at college, before my vision had got skewed by commissioned work. I feel like I’ve gone more full circle. I’ve made more similar pictures to when I began taking pictures.
BP: With your pictures of Linda, or Julie, of the Rottingdean boys, all of these people have a very strong visual identity but there doesn’t seem to be an obsession with looking pretty.
AC: Yeah, I think that’s true. Very often I pick people that are willing to be honestly photographed. Some people enjoy it. I don’t. I hate it.
BP: How would you describe the beauty that you’re drawn to?
AC: I just like things that are aesthetically pleasing on one level and have a bit of a sadness to them, and I think I’m always drawn a bit to that in people.
BP: Was there a person, maybe when you were younger, who you found and felt that connection with?
AC: Probably myself. [Both laugh] I think maybe I’ve always felt I’ve got a bit of a melancholy personality so I’ve always sought that out in other people.
BP: What music did you like as a teenager?
AC: Oh, you know, I can’t shame myself that much. [Both laugh] Oh you know, the usual. Oh god, I can’t even go there, it’s too bad. Portishead, things like that.
BP: Did you belong to any subcultures?
AC: Not really, no. I wasn’t like a Goth or anything. People think I’m a Goth now because I’ve got black hair. I had gothic tendencies, but I was never really a Goth. I’m interested in subcultures for some reason, but I wasn’t really part of one apart from being a really awkward teenager like everyone else is.
BP: Talking about Goth, I love the Whitby pictures that you did.
AC: Oh god yeah. That’s definitely a good day out, if you haven’t been, it’s quite good. All the goths sitting in the fish and chip shops and stuff, amazing.
"I think what’s big for me is just continuing to make work that I believe in. For a long time I worried about what other people thought."
BP: What do you think your approach is when you’re talking to a stranger?
AC: I always quote this because it has been very helpful to me, but basically Martin Parr gave a talk when I was at Brighton saying that, “If you wanna approach strangers, don’t linger.” It was a very good way of looking at photographing strangers, because you basically realise that if you linger they start to think that you’re staring at them and it really puts them off. By the time you get to them, they’ve already made their mind up, whereas if you don’t give them the chance, you’re just very direct, it has a much better affect on them. So now, if I see someone and I’m thinking about taking a picture I just go straight up to them, I don’t even think about it.
BP: With this slightly melancholic beauty, do you ever worry that the person you have gone up to might feel in some way like they’ve been isolated, in some sort of freakish way?
AC: I guess I probably do worry about it a bit. I did a series about Lolita girls and one of them, was actually really amazing to photograph, but she told me she was autistic and I did worry… But then I realised that her whole Lolita culture it’s very creative.
But then there was one incident – I wanted to do a project about LARPing [Live action role-playing]. I met this LARPing group online and I drove out to New Jersey, and I saw all the LARPers were there in their costumes and they were like, “You have to be part of it, if you’re gonna take pictures you have to also LARP with us.” It was so full on. And when I got the pictures back, I decided to just not continue. A lot of the people were slightly socially awkward and I felt like the pictures I took somehow made fun of them a tiny bit. I don’t know why, they just felt more exploitative than other pictures I’d made, and I didn’t continue with it because of that.
BP: You shot for Issue Six BIG. What is BIG for you right now?
AC: In life or in my work?
BP: In anything.
AC: I think what’s big for me is just continuing to make work that I believe in. For a long time I worried about what other people thought. After years of doing that, now I seem to do it a lot less. So yeah, just continuing to make work that I think is good.
BP: What do you think is the most beautiful thing?
AC: Being happy, which is always a fine line between happiness and darkness. I would say that would be the most beautiful thing. Is that really cheesy? [Laughs] I feel like being happy is an underrated thing. Even if you are living in a cardboard box and you’re happy, that’s an achievement.
BP: How do you get there?
AC: How do you get there? I feel like you dip in and out of happiness. Is anyone happy all the time? And if they are, are they really annoying? [Both laugh] I don’t know. I’ve always wondered that, if some people live in a state of permanent happiness. Is that actually physically possible?