Above: 2000 Year Ache
Toronto-based G. Elliott Simpson has been shooting photographs of men drenched in black paint since he came out of a coma five years ago. His recent show, “Brotherhood,” was an exploration of duality and allegiance. His images have appeared in various publications throughout North America and Europe — most recently enlivening the AIDS Committee of Toronto's BDSM: Safer Kinky Sex booklet.
His work has been described a: “focused to a large extent on juxtapositions, inversions, and ambiguity; on one hand eerie, morbid, cryptic, on the other fetishistic, engaging and very cool. Some pieces are replete with a complex welter of feelings, others are remote, analytical and chilling, offering the troubling insight that we live in a world balanced on a knife’s edge between horror and beauty.”
The Advocate: Why are you a photographer?
G. Elliott Simpson: Photography offered me an outlet to express my creativity in a way that was accessible to me and for which I had a unique vision and skill set. I wish I could say that I do something more socially productive, but I try to do what I can when I'm called on — and sometimes that's just pro bono work for good causes.
What catches your eye?
Anything truly anachronistic or alien. Rare and wonderful things are very exciting to stumble upon.
Tell us about your process or techniques.
For the most part they're very loose. People can look very different from what I expected once they're painted, so it pays to be able to adapt to what's in front of me. Makeup, sets, and props are usually something I find or create, and I go into a shoot with only a sense of the mood and general themes I want to explore. Post-production is significantly longer and more involved. Because I need to blow images up as large as possible I have to be very finicky and precise, not sweeping and fast with my Photoshop work. Forty or 50 hours on a piece is not that unusual for me. I think it's more accurate to think of myself as a photo-illustrator rather than a photographer. If I'm lucky I produce 45-55 images per year at the quality I expect them to be for gallery. Of course, any commercial or casual work I do is not so complicated, and I can generate that fairly quickly.
How do you choose your subjects?
My only real concern is that the subject has an adventurous spirit. Generally speaking, most people are used to seeing my images of painted men, and for these I also like fit models with good definition, Beyond that, however, they range widely from short, slim, and lithe to tall, broad, and large. The paint and the lack of objects in frame from which one can reference scale often have a kind of democratizing effect, so men who are 6 foot 4 and 260 pounds can look very similar to skinny guys who are 5 foot 9 and 150 pounds. I'm often concerned with identity in my work, or rather the obliteration of it — it's remarkable to see two men who are radically different in size, shape, and color become virtually interchangeable when the finished pieces are compared.
How do you describe your work?
A collision between portraiture and figurative work — with a dash of fetishism and occultism thrown in for good measure.
What makes a good photograph to you?
Distinctive and memorable, technically strong — usually but not always — and evocative. To be a great image, it's usually important to me that the image has some conceptual strength behind it.
What artists do you take inspiration from and why?
I have a handful of photographers whose work genuinely influences me — Jan Saudek, Irving Penn, and Anton Corbijn most notably. Increasingly, my work is influenced by painters I admire, or aspects of their work — Modigliani, El Greco, Goya. My favorite inspirational tactic is to take a character from literary fiction and reimagine him in my "world." Mostly it's the villains and antiheroes that fascinate me — Heathcliff, Peter Quint, Steerpike — the mad, bad, and dangerous types. I'm similarly motivated when shooting women. I suppose I have a preference for the strong-headed and slightly deranged things (and people) in life.