“I was terrified of my dolls when I was little. I used to think they came alive at night, that they’d open their eyes and come at me. I used to have nightmares,” says French photographer Elene Usdin of the time she and her family lived in Quebec.
“I was four and we were living in a house in Canada; my father is a doctor, and whenever he worked late and my mother found herself alone in this big house with the three of us, she’d start to worry about prowlers and vampires and other fantasy creatures that just aren’t real.
“That’s probably why I had so many nightmares about my toys – I think I felt all her fears. But it’s also how I learned to create my stories.”
Featuring her naked self in her carefully staged shots, Usdin takes the notion of “woman as object” and transforms it into a farcical representation.
Many of her self-portraits can perhaps best be described as the ‘mockification of objectification’, a piss-take of the tiresome consumerisation of the female body.
“I’m trying to express a different representation of the female form,” she says. “The stereotypes are very strong, and they’re always the same, so I try to present them in a funny way – as something surreal. It’s not meant to be serious at all.”
A graduate of École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, Usdin painted cinema sets and worked as an illustrator in Paris before discovering image-making in 2003.
Her boyfriend at the time was a photographer; one day she picked up his camera and started taking pictures. To her, it was merely an amusement at first – something to pass the time – but she soon realised that she could create stories using a camera, just as she did using illustration and paint.
“Then I really became passionate about photography,” she says. “It gave me a new perspective on making stories, but I felt I had so much to learn. I can’t really explain why, but I created a sort of personal universe, an ‘autofiction’, using a new medium.”
When Usdin first started taking self-portraits more than a decade ago, she lacked confidence in her work, and in herself, and often questioned her ability to convey what she wanted to express. So she placed herself at the centre of each frame, experimenting with lighting, composition and setting.
“I was trying a lot of things by myself because I didn’t feel certain enough about what I was creating to ask anyone for help,” she says. “I was too shy and I didn’t trust my own work, so I used a tripod and a shutter button with a long wire to take the photos. In fact, if you look carefully at my self-portrait with the lampshade, you can see the wire.”
Usdin considers herself more “plastician” than photographer, because creativity is really just a game – “a very passionate game”. She describes the composition of her images as a dance, where all things convene. “They are a choreography of the body and the objects that surround it – a mattress, a chair, a window. Everything is linked, and there are no empty spaces.”
She often craves time alone, she says, and when she does she’ll jump on the first train out of Paris. “One weekend I boarded a train to Marseille and ended up staying in Hotel Peron near the sea. It’s a beautiful, strange place, full of nostalgia. That’s where I took the picture with the phone. In it, I hide my face and become a sightless figure, with no visible expression, a slack body, loose hand. It was my way of expressing my feelings about my boyfriend at the time – waiting for a phone call that never came.”
In another image she wears a strap-on penis and play-acts as a man. “It’s a playful photo. I pretend to be a man. He’s a sweet, tender man, with a pink wool penis. A gender mix. In a bedroom, an act of seduction – an invitation to a sex game – but in a kitsch, sweet way. It’s also an interpretation of what people believe to be true of women and men. Women are often thought of as tender and lovely, and men powerful and rude. It’s a schematic feeling, of course, but in the representation of women and men in advertising, for example, it’s exactly like that, even today. That image makes a joke of it.”
Usdin won the Prix Picto for young fashion photographers in 2006 and her self-portraits have exhibited at Arles, as well as Farmani Gallery in Brooklyn, Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica and elsewhere. Today, her work is a fusion of her two passions – photography and painting. Femmes d’intérieur, which is currently on show at Galerie Esther Woerdehoff in Paris, is a series of painted photos that questions the representation of women in classical art by focusing on the ‘codes’ used to define her status – her attire, how her hair is styled, the expression on her face. “The idea of painting ‘in the style of’ – copying the classics – is a way of making each photograph unique. It’s an additional way of personifying each of these women, of giving them back their difference and originality,” she writes on her website.
“When I’m travelling, I always have my camera with me so I can take self-portraits in hotel rooms as memories – to remember that I was there. Some of the self-portraits in the hotels are from those travels. After all, we are the main actors in our lives,” says Usdin, “everything else is merely composed around us.”