Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by DJ Pangburn.
Vibrant primary colors and repetition fill our everyday visual lives. And yet, we often don’t notice them—perhaps because they are so very common. But in the work of New York-based photographer Lissette Emma, primary colors as well as repetitious models and objects dominate the framed images, demanding that viewers take notice of her idiosyncratic worlds.
Emma’s worlds aren’t so much about narratives. Instead, the photographer openly explores characters without plots, limiting any conceptual aspect of the work, and amplifying mise-en-scène.
Typically, Emma shoots medium format film on a Pentax camera. She opted for film during her studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where coursework is strictly designed to get students honing their photographic eye by limiting the number of exposures for each project. One doesn’t have to be precious with a digital or smartphone camera.
“You really have to think about every photo you take,” she says. “I really like that process of not knowing what it will look like and just visualizing it, then seeing it a few days or a week later. And shooting Polaroid is really awesome, too, because you still get that feeling but get to see it right away.”
Emma says her sense of aesthetics comes from an obsession with primary colors. During Emma’s senior year at Pratt, the color red captured her imagination, so she held an exhibition of her work titled Red. From there, she began taking photos of people and objects fashioned in blues and yellows.
“I love how the colors pop, and I think that is something that’s really satisfying to me,” she says. “Then, generally, I became obsessed with bright colors. And I’m also obsessed with the 1970s, and I guess it’s pretty obvious, but I don’t look for anything from that decade for inspiration.”
“I really love the work of William Eggleston,” she adds. “He kind of makes things interesting that would usually be boring just by how he puts two colors together, like a green color next to green grass; but because you know his eye, it just looks like color on color. So I really enjoy color blocking.”
But color isn’t everything for Emma. To add some more complexity to the image, she began using patterns in conjunction with the colors, like patterns typically seen on wallpaper. Emma’s love of repetition also extends beyond backdrops to include repetitions of subject. For some photos, she might use two models or even two of the same object.
Emma’s work isn’t just about selecting colors, models, and objects. She also serves as her own art director, juggling tasks styling, makeup, and set production herself.
“For me, it’s about creating an entire image,” she says. “I like to work by myself because I can create an image I can claim. The world is mine: I can do anything I want, and I try to do things that are creative.”
When using the OneStep 2, Emma shot in a studio with natural lighting. In Emma’s opinion, it felt more real, and she hopes to transition more completely from studio to natural lighting in the near future.
As with her other work, color and repetition dominate these polaroids. Viewers can see this aesthetic in Emma’s polka dot backdrops. In fact, this shoot marked the first time Emma painted her own backdrops.
“This was kind of a test run for me, and I really enjoyed it and I want to keep doing it,” Emma says. “I want the photo’s styling and set to come together and create a world, where you think, ‘Wait, how did she do this?’”
“The people and poses aren’t my main focus when I’m taking photographs,” she adds. “I do really like fashion photographs and portraiture, but I don’t necessarily care about people’s faces, just that someone is in it.”
Emma likes to think of her photographic scenes as self-portraits made with other people—an ever-shifting collection of stand-ins. The autobiographical element includes dressing people in clothes from her wardrobe.
“I think in a way that I dress people how I would dress,” Emma says. “So I create a world around a look I really like. I don’t want to think through every detail of the scene because that kills it for me.”
As for what’s next for Emma, she is actively brainstorming her next projects. She’s currently thinking about making a book of photographs, and how she can evolve her own portraiture work.
“I really want to create interesting portraits where there is something strange about what they’re wearing, like they’ve got a super big dress or they’re holding a super big toothbrush,” Emma muses. “I’m super obsessed with Tim Walker, who has inspired my career, so I kind of want to get outside of regular fashion portraits and take it to the next level by creating characters and enhancing something strange about the person.”
See more of Lissette’s Originals on IG: @lissette_emma
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