With her trademark bright orange hair, it’s no surprise that Montreal-based photographer Laurence Philomene is drawn to colour. Fascinated by imagery since she first discovered photography, when she obsessively took pictures of Blythe dolls, Philomene uses her photography, which explores themes surrounding femininity, identity, softness and colour theory, to work through self-exploration and uses colour to control the chaos. Examining gender binaries and working with models wearing wigs resembling her hair to document her body through photographing others, Philomene creates fine art imagery that is thought-provoking and beautifully intriguing.
Fascinated by colour theory and the power that colour can have in conveying emotions and ideas, Philomene’s images look at both complimentary colour matches and tone on tone shots, using different shades and shapes to create images that evoke feeling and make you question the idea of personality and gender binary. Gravitating towards particular themes as part of her self-discovery, Philomene draws from her experiences and reality, using colour combinations that make her feel good, and in turn, allows her viewer to question their own.
When did your interest in photography begin and what made you realise it could become your career?
I’ve been obsessed with pictures (both taking pictures and looking at photographs for hours) since I was a kid but I started pursuing photography more seriously around the age of 14. I started collecting Blythe dolls and photographing them in various scenarios. I put my photos up on flickr and got good feedback, which encouraged me to keep going, and eventually I stopped taking photos of dolls and turned more to self portraiture. I would also bring my camera to class in high school and just shoot my friends whenever I could. I went to college for photography so from that point on it became pretty clear to me that it would become my career. I don’t know anything else so there’s no plan b. I graduated from college 3 years ago and I have been working as a photographer full time since then!
Do you prefer film or digital, and why?
I used to prefer shooting film and in theory I still like the quality of film about a million times better than digital but I’m not the most technically-driven person and I feel like I don’t have the patience to scan and clean dust on negatives for hours etc. I shoot constantly, everywhere, all the time, so I would say 99% of my work these days is digital simply because it’s more convenient. Regardless I’m a firm believer that the camera you use doesn’t matter much if the composition and colours in an image are strong enough.
When did your interest in colour theory begin?
Probably sometime during my college years? I was always told that I had a very specific style but I couldn’t quite pinpoint what made my images distinct, until I realized that one common element between all my images was my use of colour. After that, I started making more of a conscious effort to keep refining my colour palettes. I think I just naturally gravitate toward certain colours but I also tend to go through phases, which I only notice once they’re actually happening. For example for years I pretty much only photographed the colors pink and blue, then recently I’ve shifted more toward complementary colours, specifically orange/blue. The last couple of weeks I’ve been really into blue and yellow, also green on green. Any “tone on tone” gets me really excited.
Why do you think colour is so powerful?
I mean I’m not a scientist, I know there’s things that happen in our brains when we look at colours (the wording of this sentence goes to show…I’m not a scientist). All I can draw from are my own experiences, and I just know that for me it’s important to surround myself with colours that make me feel good. Maybe it’s my way to control the chaos of the world for a second, to have colours that match and soothe me. I remember looking at Wolfgang Tillmans’ more abstract work a lot as a teen and I think that inspired me and still does, to make work that’s purely colour-based. Sometimes a colour is all you need to evoke a certain feeling.
You work around themes of femininity, colour, identity and softness – why are you drawn to these themes and how do they intertwine in your work?
I’ve come to realize that most of the images I create are really just self-exploration. As I said I gravitate toward colours naturally as a way to soothe myself. When it comes to femininity, identity, softness, it’s something I look at in others when I photograph them but mostly a lot of it is just me projecting my issues onto my subjects and trying to look at them from different angles. I’ve explored femininity a lot throughout the years because I’m confused by it, what it means for me, who I am in relationship to it as an idea.
Why do you think exploring gender binaries and identities through art is so important?
Because it consumes me, and this is a way I’ve found to express the way I feel. All my work exploring gender is very personal, I can only speak from my own perspective and experiences. As someone who identifies as non-binary it’s really important for me to showcase other non-binary people, that’s mostly what I’m working on right now. Hopefully I can create work that resonate with others and maybe makes them feel less lonely. I also want to highlight that when having these types of conversations it’s important to prioritize the voices and experiences of trans women (especially trans women of colour) as they are typically the most marginalized and face tremendous violence worldwide.
Are you spontaneous with your shots or do you carefully plan shoots?
It depends! Most of my shots are more staged in the sense that I’ll ask someone to come over and pose in my studio etc but the moment that is captured itself is rarely planned, I usually have a loose idea of what I want to do and then I kind of go with the flow.
How does taking self portraits differ from projects such as Tender and Dreams?
My self portraits are different from any other work I do because those are the photos I take out of necessity. When I’ve been working on something for too long or I’ve been sick in bed for several days and I’m feeling a bit disconnected from the world, that’s usually when I’ll take self portraits, because it’s something that helps me feel more in tune with myself. The “dreams” series on my website is comprised mostly of earlier work, when I took photos of my friends to escape the real world a little bit. Tender is a series I’ve been compiling over the years, it’s a mixture of self portraits that make me feel tender and not so (tender).
Why do you often dress your model in wigs resembling your trademark bright orange hair?
I started that project (“me vs others”) on a whim a couple of years ago when I was feeling uncomfortable about my body but I still wanted to photograph myself somehow, because it’s something I’ve always done, like writing a diary. I asked my friend Edwin to come over, I put him in my clothes and wig and I shot him from the back, so that you couldn’t really tell if it was actually me or not. After that it sort of became a habit, I bring the wig with me whenever I travel or I have friends over, just sort of documenting my life through other bodies. It allows me to compose the image more than when I’m using my own body so I think those photos tend to be a bit more technical and cold than my actual self portraiture.
What’s the Montreal art scene like and how does it inspire you?
Montreal is a weird city art wise! It’s known to be very “artsy” but the truth is there is no money being invested in young artists here. It’s a very affordable city so it’s relatively easy to live here and have enough down time to create a large body of work, but there’s not a big industry so usually people will leave once they reach a certain level and go to New York or LA instead. It’s a very transient place, people come and go. I have a lovely community of artists that I love here at the moment and they are a constant source of inspiration to me but not the city itself. Most of my clients are not based in Montreal, and most of the exhibitions I’m in happen internationally, not here. But regardless I’m here for now because I can afford to work on my own stuff here and I can travel when I need to!
What projects have you got coming up?
I’m working on a new non-binary portrait series which I’m really excited about. I’m also producing a short film with Hobbes Ginsberg, Chloe Feller and Hana Haley. I’m always working on a million things at once but those are the projects I’m the most excited about at the moment!