Ariane Lopez-Huici takes many of her photographs in the studio, yet it wouldn’t be quite right to call her a studio photographer. Her oeuvre includes photographs taken on trips to Mali with her husband, the sculptor Alain Kirili, and a new series of images that emerged from their recent trip to Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. Among her best-known images are powerful contributions to the long history of the female nude in Western art. Many of her pictures of naked women invite comparison to the Venuses of ancient Greek art and the odalisques that began to appear, especially in the paintings of Ingres and others, during the 19th century. There are echoes, as well, of the courtesans en déshabillé that appear so often in the art of François Boucher and other practitioners of the Rococo. Thus Lopez-Huici continues a venerable tradition. Yet matters are not quite so simple, for even though her models sometimes assume poses made familiar by earlier art, their bodies do not conform to long-established expectations. The women Lopez-Huici photographs are often much larger, much more voluminous, than the female figures we might see in a gallery of classical sculpture or a painting by Ingres. Images of the nude body have served for centuries as symbols of wholeness and unity. One of Lopez-Huici’s models is a young woman who lost several limbs in an accident. Her wholeness is in her presence, not in her form. Thus expectations are overturned and one is reminded, here and throughout her oeuvre, that Lopez-Huici’s relationship to tradition and the idea of beauty is extremely complex. With each of her photographs she prompts viewers not just to respond but to reimagine the very nature—the bases and guiding assumptions—of their responses.
Our recent exchange began with a question about her latest series of photographs, which show lush, dark forms intertwining against an equally dark background. Lopez-Huici’s next exhibition will be at New York’s Hionas Gallery in April, 2017.
Carter Ratcliff (Rail): How did the most recent work come about?
Ariane Lopez-Huici: The model in these photographs is Shani Ha. She arrived in New York from Paris several years agoand called me on the recommendation of a friend of mine in Paris, who was her teacher in art school in Le Mans. I liked her and her energy, and when I found out that she was making these “fabric sculptural forms” I asked her right away if she would agree to pose for me inside them. I could envision them as very sexy and mysterious with a lot of room for imagination. I accentuated the dramatic effects of the lights on the fabric sculptures, and the result was something I had not experienced before. I usually have the models naked in front of me but in this case the body was hidden, with some hair, legs, arms, and hands just barely emerging from these dark forms. It was almost a metaphor of what some women have to go through in certain religious countries.
Rail: I’ve often wondered how your models can be so spontaneous. Often it seems as if they are not modeling at all, but responding in a direct way to the occasion. On the one hand, they always seem completely aware of the camera and, on the other, completely uninhibited by it. Or liberated by it. How do you interact with your models? Do you give specific directions?
Lopez-Huici: Each model is different. And because they are not professional, working with them is always an adventure. The reason why someone comes to your studio and agrees to undress and be photographed, especially when they do not correspond to the conventional idea of beauty, is very mysterious. And above all it is a very courageous and defiant gesture. You have to establish a trust so that they feel comfortable revealing themselves. To establish that trust, I have to make them realize that they are indeed beautiful to me. I feel a great tenderness for people who dare to be different and refuse to hide their differences. We begin by looking at paintings by Michelangelo, Rubens, Picasso’s giants, et cetera, to show them that they belong to a tradition where flesh is beautiful. They begin to realize that their images belong at the highest level of the representation of the body, as it appears in books and museums. This is a part of building trust with the women in my photographs, giving them feeling that I am not manipulating them for my own purposes. Then, when I am behind the camera, I progressively let them invent their own way of presenting themselves. Their own karma. In this sense it becomes a real collaboration, as they take possession of their own body! At a certain point, magic happens, and you suddenly see something that was not apparent but that the camera reveals: their inner self.
Rail: How did you become a photographer?
Lopez-Huici: For five years, I was the assistant of the great director Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who is the father of the Cinema Novo Brasileiro—the New Brazilian Cinema. I was a coordinator for him on all levels and I also enjoyed taking photos on the movie set, which could be used for publicity. It was an exceptional moment of creativity in Brazil, and Nelson always filmed in the most beautiful and lush black and white. Above all, his films give a humanistic depiction of people who were expelled from their land and ultimately abandoned as the military dictatorship attempted to transform Brazil into a more modern state. When I met Alain Kirili and we moved to New York, he encouraged me to devote my talent to photography. With photography, I am able to challenge the status quo concerning the body in our society and to bring to light the marvelous enigmas of individual human beings.
Rail: Do you make your own prints?
Lopez-Huici: I printed my photographs for twenty-five years, but I am not a fetishist about printing. Nowadays I have the best printer. He has known my work for forty years and allows me to direct him if there is any question.
Rail: Besides the ones you have already mentioned—Michelangelo, Rubens, Picasso—which earlier artists have been important to you?
Lopez-Huici: I have been looking a lot at Caravaggio’s paintings, with their dark backgrounds. In my photos, dark backgrounds allow my models to stand in the forefront of the picture. The black paintings of Goya are also a great source of inspiration. And certain writers mean a lot to me. The books of Georges Bataille stimulate me because of his emphasis on excess, transgression, and eroticism in opposition to the banality of a conformist society. There are some quotes from his books that I like to remember. In My Mother…, he writes, “Laughter is more divine and, indeed, more elusive than tears.” And in The Tears of Eros he says, “Eroticism is actually linked to birth, to the process of reproduction that continually restores the ravages of death.”
Rail: How would you describe the difference between your studio photos and the ones you take on your travels—in Mali, for example?
Lopez-Huici: There is no difference between the photos done in my studio or the photos done in Mali. In either case, you have to establish a relation of respect and trust in order to have a woman or a man pose for you. You have to explain what the motivation is and share it with that person. In Mali I did a series of women I titled Les demoiselles de Ségou. Ségou is a town on the way to the Dogon Country, a very pleasant small town where Alain and I stayed for a while. I had the idea of doing a series of photos of women in the nude. But this was complicated by the Westernization and Islamization of the culture. So it occurred to me that that there must be a bordello, which indeed existed. So I asked the owner of the restaurant where we ate every day to make introductions. After he had helped me with that I went and explained my idea of women à la “Gauguin,” which I was able to do with some Gauguin postcards that I had with me. I became best friends with the girls, who took great pleasure in posing for the camera, which is something they had never done before!
Rail: Do your models ever object to your photos?
Lopez-Huici: None of my models have ever objected to my photos. I always show them the contact sheet, and if there is anything they don’t like I will destroy it in front of them. There is one exception, which is very funny. Priscille, who is handicapped and fragmented, didn’t like one photo where it showed some cellulite! And in a case like that I would comply, but finally I am the one who makes the ultimate decision. Though I did face a further dilemma when Priscille had a conflict with her family about the photos, so I proposed to her that she change her name to Hecate, who is the Greek goddess of magic, and she loved it!
Rail: Do you ever intend your images to refer to myths or archetypes?
Lopez-Huici: I do not try to illustrate any particular archetype or myth but I leave the viewer free to imagine or interpret what those images evoke to each and every one.
Rail: You work in the two dimensions of photography, Alain’s sculpture occupies three dimensions, and yet I have always sensed that, despite these differences, your work and his are in close sympathy.
Lopez-Huici: Yes, there is a fundamental connection between Alain’s sculpture and my photography. We both incarnate a solar spirit in our work—an uplifting world, the glory of life and joy, Eros without tears. This is in opposition to a Thanatos spirit. In the battle between life and death, the winner in both our work is life. That is why my models trust me and feel that I represent them well. I am not in the Diane Arbus world. When they pose for me, their bodies reach a level of joyful exuberance that gives their representation a great dignity. I am offering a humanistic look at the world. This also shows in our long relationships with musicians of our time, especially those who play free jazz. So this music definitely has a relationship with my work. It has to do with the pulsations of life.
Rail: At your birthday party last fall, several of those giving toasts mentioned that you and Alain seem to be very close. How has it been to share your life with another artist?
Lopez-Huici: For me to live with Alain has been a joy. It is very stimulating to share the same interests, not to come home and be distracted by problems unrelated to our work as artists. Our lives are a permanent quest to express our feelings with art. As with any couple, of course, you need to give some space. As Simone de Beauvoir said, “In a couple there is room for two personalities.”