Annie Collinge’s work can’t really be pigeonholed as fashion photography, but neither does it fit the term still life. A more apt description would be ‘art-directed portraiture’, with a penchant for extremities in colour and personality. We talk with the photographer about dull fashion, oddball Linda Leven and the risk of skin looking like plastic when taking digital pictures.
In 1999, Annie did a foundation course at Central Saint Martins, followed by studying photography in Brighton. She thinks that she would’ve been better off staying in London, as the Brighton course was quite sober, black-and-white landscape photography. Pretty old-school, the mentality. “It was called editorial photography, but that wasn’t quite the case,” she says.
“What I think is beautiful, in my pictures, is something which is (slightly) off-key, has a lot of aesthetic quality, bright colours.”
When I ask her if her style now is any different from when she started out, I hardly even have to finish my sentence before she immediately says ‘no’. She then explains, “It’s weird, but it feels like I’m now returning to how I first started shooting. I think that when all the digital cameras and that stuff came in, I lost my way a little bit. I realised over the past few years that I didn’t really like the way my pictures looked when I shot digitally. I never use lighting, because I think it looks really sharp and horrible,” she says, and when I add that it perhaps looks a bit more ‘staged’, she enthusiastically agrees. “Yes, and everyone’s skin just looks like it’s made out of plastic.”
When one thinks about the differences between shooting on film and digital – ‘one shot only’ versus the option of shooting hundreds of the same image and seeing immediate results – it’s essentially about really having to look. Does it, in Annie’s opinion, add more value to pictures, as an art form?
“I never use lighting, because I think it looks really sharp and horrible.”
“I think that in a way, it makes you concentrate a bit more. When I first starting shooting stuff editorially, there often was a 3-roll limit. That had about 12 shots on a roll, so I would have to get the portrait or whatever I was doing, in a very small amount of frames. Now, if I shoot digital, I don’t shoot that much, because I don’t want to shoot hundreds of pictures. If I do, I spend hours editing them.”
When I ask her who the people are that she photographs, she starts telling me about Linda Leven (who allegedly lives on 5th Avenue and never opens the curtains). “I was walking down 23rd street in New York (I was living there until very recently, in December) when I saw her, and she was very unusual looking. She went into Home Depot, which is a DIY store, and I was following her and her boyfriend around. They were looking at paints,” she says. Annie then approached her, and they got talking. Linda said, “I do a bit of modelling, but I don’t do full nudes.” So, Annie took a few pictures of her in the street, got her number, kept it for months, and eventually plucked up the courage to call her. This was in 2008, and they’ve shot several times ever since.
Though Annie approached Linda because she was unusual looking, when she got to know Linda better, she realised that not being conventionally beautiful is quite a heavy cross to carry, as people say horrible things on the streets. Beauty is an odd concept, one that many interpret differently, and so I ask Annie what her perspective on it is. “What I think is beautiful, in my pictures, is something which is (slightly) off-key, has a lot of aesthetic quality, and bright colours.
The shoot she did with CSM tutor and artist Julie Verhoeven (see above) shows that off-key aesthetic quality too. About the collaboration, she says, “I really liked her work and just wrote her an email one day, saying I would like to take some pictures of her – this is a couple of years ago – so I went to her studio, we chatted, we got on. I brought some background and we just messed around. We didn’t have a big list of shots we’d be doing. I think we enjoy the same darkness and the bright colour thing.”
Why does Julie enjoy having her pictures taken by Annie? “There is a relaxed ease to her manner. She knows exactly what she wants, and there is an underlying determination which is exciting to witness, but the shooting experience feels contrary: so effortless and random. She has all-seeing eyes that move over the plain super fast to make a fabulous composition at speed. She sees beauty in the minute detail,” Julie says. What sets Annie apart from other photographers, is trust. “I totally respect her vision and way of seeing. She digs deep and shows compassion for her subjects. Annie exposes the melancholy and grief I often feel.” On the contrary, the most fun Julie’s had during a shoot was ‘being put behind a giant plastic bag and made to inhale, exhale.’
How would she call her style of working? Fashion photography? Art? Anti-commercial? “It’s kind of a combination between portraiture and art-direction. Art-directed portraits. Fashion photography is definitely something I would like to do in the future. I am always surprised how boring many fashion photo shoots are, because the industry is so creative…
When I was a student,” she continues, “there was so much more experimental fashion. I remember looking at Sleazenation and stuff like that, whereas now there’s a lot of quite dull fashion. But I love Charlie Engman, he’s brilliant.” I mention the shoot he did with stylist Tracey Nicholson, which included an old lady and a handful of backdrops, and she immediately says, “oh yeah, that’s his mum.”
She saw the two at a show opening years ago, and has been fascinated with them since. “It’s so brilliant, with his mum; so original as well. She poses naked for him as well, and stuff like that. There’s pictures of her topless in the woods…”
At the moment, Annie is finishing a book she’s been working on for 2 years. Her strategy for getting great shots? Meeting people on the subway, and inviting them to her apartment to take their pictures. Thinking about New York, she says, “I meant to go to New York for 3 months and I stayed there for 5 years. In terms of work, New York is more me. And, change is good.”