In Conversation with Laurence Philomene
Laurence Philomene's projects are an embodiment of her every day- and I say this as her friend. Her Instagram is stuffed with friend-filled, self-care lounge days, ramen binges and eclectic objects. But more than anything, it is full of colour.
I have been witness to some of Laurence’s key colour changes, from oranges, pinks and purples to yellows and blues; she is the master of complimentary colours.
Laurence’s work explores sexuality and gender identity in a way that is authentic and accessible to both subject and viewer. She has been a part of many exciting projects, from Camp Gallery to the Coven, and also has an extensive clientele list.
When being involved with Laurence Philomene and her #squadgoals of Hobbes Ginsberg, Chloe Feller, d0llfacewolfie and Bao Ngo, you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.
Vanessa Di Gregorio talks opulence, gender and the internet with Laurence Philomene.
Note: Laurence Philomene uses both pronouns she/her and they/them pronouns. For the sake of fluidity in this interview, she/her pronouns have been used.
Unsure of how to start an interview when we are used to talking as friends, I ask if she’s seen any good memes lately. We are used to a friendship that lives equally online, and even if meaning to break the ice, the internet has played a huge role in Laurence’s trajectory and evolution.
You have helped in the founding of a number of projects, including The Coven and Camp Gallery/Pop-Up. Within this, internet communities have had a significant role, many of which are much more critically aware and social-justice oriented than even a few years ago. What is the give-and-take relationship between you and the internet space?
I feel like I have been doing work that is at least perceived as political for a while - I guess since I started working with The Coven in 2012. I feel like the online photography and art world that I navigate has shifted from identifying itself as strictly feminist to attempting a more intersectional (*a term that was coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989) approach, looking at: race, gender, class struggles and other issues. This is probably the biggest shift that I’ve observed.
I don’t feel comfortable reclaiming that word for myself/my work. All I can do is listen to the WOC from who intersectionality originated and educate myself. Re: me & the internet…right now a lot of the work I’m doing has to do with non-binary identities. I feel like I’m having more conversations with my audience lately. A lot of people come to me to tell me their stories, tell me they relate to the work I’m doing, that’s definitely something that’s a big part of what I do.
When talking about Camp, you talk a lot about the actualisation of activism through art. How do you see the physical space (Camp/Soft Market) versus the virtual space with regards to this activism and where does art fit in?
I had some issues with this in the summer because I think there is a desire to make art spaces that are safe spaces, but in reality, it’s impossible to create a safe space. All you can do is have the intention of that. I feel I struggled with that with Camp.
Obviously, we had the best intentions with it, but when it came down to it, I think the space ended up being not as accessible to everyone as we would have liked it to be. It was a lot more white than it should have been. All of the organisers who participated were white. That in itself made it less accessible. Truthfully, I don’t think the world needs more white spaces, so I’ve kind of removed myself from the curating scene in Montreal. I want to let others take up the space they need.
I didn’t realise how much effort and emotional energy it takes to organise a physical space because when I do that kind of stuff I don’t want it just to be visually appealing, I want it also to provide emotional comfort to a certain degree. Doing that takes a lot out of me and everyone involved. With regards to the question, art [in a physical space] is an excuse for people to get together. In the end, it is just a way for us to promote people’s work that we love and it’s a way to spend time with each other.
I feel a bit jaded about the underrepresentation of artists such as yourself within the contemporary canon and the ways in which it can be brushed off as low-brow or kitsch. Where does your work fit in within the institution, and how can you continue a dialogue with this institution?
I don’t think it fits at all! That’s the straight up answer. I’m used to getting some recognition at least online - not official institutions like museums or grants, (you know I don’t get any of that), but at least I get a lot of recognition from my peers.
But Camp just completely went under the radar which I think took us completely by surprise, it felt like a blow to our self-esteem or something. I think the people that were there really appreciated it, but the art-world really didn’t care. Camp wasn’t something shocking, and I think right now the art world loves that - controversial for the sake of being controversial. I feel like softness isn’t the controversial they're looking for.
Yeah, but there was also a lot of representation in your work on gender identity, race- a lot of topics that are kind of controversial right now.
I know, but I think that especially in Montreal the scene does not care. Montreal institutions don’t care about Montreal artists if we're being real.
I’ve a show coming up in Berlin- a Canadian artist doing something abroad, that gets their attention!
I’m not trying to reject it; I’m just the kind of person who won’t seek out someone who doesn’t seek me out. Until I’m invited somewhere, I’m not going to knock on people’s doors. It’s more an act of self-preservation than anything.
You go through phases with colours. Why those colours at those particular moments? How can you explain your use of colour with your identity and experiences?
I go through phases. When I started out I did a lot of green and red, separately and together, and a lot of white outdoor shots with pops of colour. When I started Dawson College I got really into pastels, and all the teachers hated it, said it wouldn’t sell - which only made me do it more!
Afterwards, I stopped using pastels, even though some people still describe my work as using pastel tones. I got really into orange, blue and complementary colours and most recently I’ve been really into yellow & blue (Ikea combo colours!?) and red & green - I’m not sure what’s wrong with me!
I’ve been really into yellow, probably Hobbes’ influence- because [they] love yellow. I use orange definitely as a means of self-portraiture. The colours I use are often the favourite ones of my friends!
Why has red been less present? Is there something about it that sets more of a challenge?
It’s such a strong colour! For so long so much of my work has been about softness, and I feel red is the opposite of that. Even if it isn’t a “soft colour,” I’m feeling ready to explore that.
In the editorial for Chroma, there is this deep association you are making with Red and abundance, wealth, etc. What is tying these ideas together and why with red?
I was doing the shoot with one person, so couldn’t do anything about romance. I chose to work with my friend Wolfie because she’s expressed interest in the colour. She wanted to do something with latex and rich fabrics. She has got a leather thong with a devil face on it.
I saw this picture in my head of red dyed bread and thought, ‘I should do red foods.’ I wanted to think about opulence, but gross opulence. I spent $20 on cheap foods but didn’t end up dying bread red. I took a picture of Wolfie last year called ‘Reclining Nude with Jello’ and the image was red- so this became the departure point.
When Chroma reached out I was a bit uncertain because red is a colour I don’t usually do, then I thought, ‘You know what? I’ll take the challenge!’ There’s a quote from ‘Paris is Burning’ that’s like, “Opulence. You own everything.” That was a bit of the inspiration too.
Talking about food, the series uses food in a non-food way, which is something that we have seen before in your work. Why this relationship, particularly with nostalgic sugary treats from childhood?
I like my work to feel like it’s not super tied to an era. When I’m doing personal work I don’t show any brands; I don’t show many patterns unless it’s floral. I have this unwritten rule. I have pictures of people’s backs for the same reason. I do realise it’s obviously still tied to an era: using certain colours, having people with dyed hair, etc… But I don’t even put technology in my photos. It’s not meant to be nostalgic necessarily, but more timeless.
You have a series on non-binary individuals: what do you think can and should be done both in and outside of the arts for representation of queer/trans/non-binary folk?
This is something that has become really important to me because I’ve been photographing queer bodies for a long time and I think I was doing it in a way that, looking back, was kind of selfish. It was mostly me saying, “I want to create this scenario, so I’m going to use your body in the way that I want it to be portrayed.” I think a lot of artists do that and I’ve done it most of my life. I’ll have a muse, but it’s mostly my vision. But it got to a point where it didn’t feel good for me to do that anymore. I felt like I had exhausted it.
It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do next and how I wanted to move forward. The answer was simple and right in front of me: just asking my friends how they want to be photographed. It felt positive for everyone, and the viewers felt authentically involved. I think it’s an important practice for when we represent marginalised bodies- to have their input.
And finally, this type of branding and view on femininity has started to reflect itself in young online companies. Do you think that the two (visually appealing/graphic and conceptualised fine art) can marry? How do you, as a fine arts photographer who works commissioned work, see this changing?
I feel like I’ve gotten better at it. It used to be a really big struggle. People used to see my personal work and ask for commercial shoots that looked like it. Now I think I’ve gotten better at recreating my work in a more commercial setting.
It’s annoying when a brand appropriates my aesthetic without reaching out to me, but when a brand does, and they’re ethically sound, I’m happy to collaborate. For me, I am selective about what I share online. It’s more to show that I do commercial photography. My struggle now has become how much to share of my commercial work.
words: Vanessa Di Gregorio