INTERVIEW: JUNO CALYPSO
At 28, Juno Calypso is clearly comfortable with the inherent weirdness of her life. It must feel strange to photograph yourself naked, save for a coat of green paint, reflected in the infinity mirrors of a Honeymoon Hotel bathroom in backwater Philadelphia. Stranger still when those images go viral.
As a young female photography graduate Calypso’s degree show was met with ecstatic fanfare by a host of critics and industry bodies. These earlier images featured the photographer in character as Joyce, a snaggle-toothed woman in heavy make-up, enduring a sequence of prosaic and absurd scenarios with dead-eyed stoicism. Later, in 2016, the stylised series shot in said Philadelphia hotel, all pink and neon bright, picturing Joyce in a sensual world of her own, equal parts fantasy and demoralising nightmare, were seized upon for their boldness and distinct visual language. For Calypso, seeing her work go so far so fast was both, in the first instance, isolating and, in the second, exhilarating: “It was way too much pressure way too early. But then the second time, I was ready”. She is coolly self-assured.
Like other female artists who garner such rapidly intense praise, Calypso has ended up in a position where her work is expected to speak to every issue that women face. She has inspired a wave of think-pieces about ‘redefining’ or ‘challenging’ our ideas of womanhood, that often bulldoze over the subtlety of her work. As a woman whose work has a strong visual style, Calypso is often pushed to deliver damning judgements about what effect the world of Instagram might have on women. “Can we get you, a woman, to agree that it’s really bad?” Her response simple :“Do whatever you want. Stop scrutinising.” Calypso embraces social media as liberating and egalitarian. “Photography was something that women were excluded from for so long and now a 14 or 15 year old girl can be a photographer.”
The highly stylised nature of her work is sometimes mistaken for fluffiness and a lack of substance, but the process is often laborious, solitary and demanding. “Most of the time I’m pulling my hair out, it’s long and hot and sticky. There’s no joy in it until you’re back home and you’re editing.”
People aren’t so quick to ascribe that kind of autonomous self-sacrifice in pursuit of art to women, especially not art that is so predominantly, bombastically pink. Calypso is part of a long wave of female (and fashion) creatives, such as Petra Collins, Polly Nor or even Petra Cortright, reclaiming the once abhorrently girlish as something worth edifying. Her particular lens reveals amongst other things the symbiosis of our narcissism and self-consciousness: the contradictory nature of ‘feminine’ womanhood. Whether playing on the way culture consumes women, or the nascent ideas she found confirmed in Naomi Wolfe’s The Beauty Myth, Calypso’s work deals with themes of female exploitation without being didactic.
“When I started the project I was very much angry, like why are women wasting their time, this is all a distraction?” So, she created work like the Eternal Beauty series, where we see a forlorn woman in a parade of almost degrading scenarios, using what looks like torture devices to beautify herself. All of this is wryly undercut by the works’ titles, lifted from real life and rendered absurd as standalone lines: 12 Reasons You’re Tired All the Time or Reconstituted Meat Slices. As her work developed and reading Wolfe refined her initial outrage, her views on femininity shifted into the more balanced outlook she has today. “If we want to choose to do it, and enjoy it in all its glory, then we shouldn’t be punished for that”.
Predictably there has been a lot of hand-wringing analysis about the nudity in Calypso’s Honeymoon Hotel series. “For me it’s almost asexual. Because she’s on her own it’s more like she’s wrapped up in herself rather than trying to seduce someone else.” Perhaps the resolute female gaze that shines through them is what makes them so unsettling. Seeing a woman seize upon her own sexuality has always proven frightening. Calypso recognises the almost scandalous intimacy of seeing a nude woman regard herself infinitely reflected in a wall of mirrors, even if she is in character.
“Everyone, when they’re by themselves in front of the mirror, tests out their own seduction, and kind of explores themselves, and it can be a bit creepy.” The concern that she is somehow undermining any layered meaning by showing herself nude completely erases the idea that women can revel in their own sexuality.
Shooting fashion editorial for a magazine like Rollacoaster might not be her obvious next step. And she surprised herself in taking on the project. “In the beginning my work was pretty much a piss-take of the fashion world. In all my pictures she’s completely deadpan because that is what you see. That’s the only acceptable facial expression for a woman in fashion.” Ultimately though, she came to realise that the effect she has as a woman taking pictures of herself is something important, and a way of working that she knows she will always feel comfortable with. “I don’t feel like I’ve exploited anyone.”
The collaborative creative process of working on a fashion editorial was entirely new for Calypso, working with a team for the first time including set designer and stylist. However, when it came to actually making the work she turned again to her consistent independence. “I was like, ‘Just give me all the stuff and trust me’. I think when you’re shooting yourself you just need to be alone.”
With reflection Calypso discovered that working on this fashion story was not such a world away from the work she has made previously. There’s something about the idea of accessories as a frivolous indulgence that compliments her earlier thoughts about letting women enjoy their beauty rituals. It suggests that they are actually inherently democratic. “Accessories are kind of accessible to everyone. Anyone can have a handbag, it doesn’t matter what you look like.” Even so, taking on a new project is always daunting and the photographer worried that the work did not meet her exacting standards. On the second day of shooting, however, she had a revelation. “I just thought, I’m just going to put a fucking bag on my head, that’s how I feel. I just want it to look how I actually feel, like how I felt when I took the picture.”
The world that Joyce inhabits is one that plays beautifully into the escapism fashion often strives for, but for Calypso it’s bittersweet to think of her work in that way. “Some things only work like smoke and mirrors behind the camera. In real life you feel the edges of the wig and see the cracks in the make-up.” One day she might decide to focus on those rough edges, but for now she’s focused on her next project and how she will continue to develop as an artist. “I can feel myself moving away already... I find that old stuff a little bit kitschy.”