Simple foldings of regular photographs—think vintage movie stills and mail-order catalog photos—repurpose, in the hands of artist Eli Craven, archival photos into sexually charged works that take on a second life. For his series “Screen Lovers,” Craven turned to books of iconic movie couples: while the original images are romantic and only lightly sexual in undertone, Craven’s arrangements reveal a much starker, sexually charged aesthetic.
For Craven, what’s hidden is more telling than what’s shown—remarkably restrained in tone, his work questions identity, privacy and context. To learn more, we sat down for a chat with the artist.
What five words best describe your work?
I think five words that relate to my work are voyeurism, desire, melancholy, fantasy, and humor.
What got you into photography?
My interest in photography started in the early 90’s as a teen looking at skateboarding, music, and fashion magazines. I loved flipping through them and I felt some form of escape through the images. I thought taking pictures like that meant that you lived the kind of life that existed on the other side of the photograph. This inspired me to pick up a camera and I taught myself how to develop film and process prints in a makeshift darkroom I put together in my sister’s basement. I mostly played around until I went to college to study art and photography in 2005. I found there were many things that I enjoyed about taking pictures and creating my own images at the time, but that my real interest in photography came from my desire to look at images and to investigate the effect they have on the viewer.
Your photos seem to start out from very simple, almost mundane beauty shots. Is the choice of source material intentional?
I would say the selection of my sources is more intuitive, but an unconscious intent seems to surface. I select sources that I am attracted to for the color, content, and sometimes for reasons I can’t explain at first. I have to study them before I know how they’ll be used. It ends up being a variety of sources and I feel what they all carry is the desire to look upon or a desire to be. I don’t find beauty shots mundane though, ubiquitous and common, but not mundane. They say a lot about what people strive to be or become.
“Some people don’t want to see Brando and Steiger kiss, but I say why not?”—Eli Craven
Most of your work appears to protect, or hide, identity by cutting out identifiable features: faces, even bodies. What is your intent with this?
When the face or body is obscured the viewer is forced to pay attention to its parts and maybe consider what is missing as well. It activates the imagination. There is something about removing the identity or context that forces the viewer to consider what remains in a different way. The subject isn’t a famous actor, athlete, or sex symbol anymore, they are just pieces of a person like the rest of us. My intention is to create this new reading of the image through the process of subtraction, or obstruction. Some of the images are erotic to begin with, some are banal and commonplace, but when covered they are activated with exciting possibilities.
Your ‘Screen Lovers’ series is particularly interesting because it not only uses “public” photos, but the arrangements appear much more severe in terms of actions they allude to than the photos they originated from. Were you trying to provoke, in some way?
Initially, I didn’t intend any provocation, but eventually the project became more playful and sexual as the series developed. The series began with the discovery of the book “Screen Lovers” by Anne Billson at an estate sale and as I flipped through the pages I wanted to make the images physical or real so I started by simply folding their faces together. I felt that the stills were missing physical interaction, but they also lacked a realistic representation and making them explicit made them comical, yet somehow more realistic. At this point I brought in additional sources and film stills that I could reconfigure that weren’t romantic scenes to begin with. For example, the collage “Men” is a still from the film “On the Waterfront” with Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger. When I introduced two men to the series along with the more explicit positions, they were destined to provoke a response. Some people don’t want to see Brando and Steiger kiss, but I say why not?
Whose artists’ work inspires you?
Robert Heinecken, John Stezaker, Isa Genzken, and Robert Gober are big influences, they helped me realize that simple and subtle can be powerful. Currently I am inspired by Gabriele Beveridge, Monika Baer, Jordan Clark, Harold Diaz, and Marlo Pascual, to name a few.