From morphing Kate Moss with H.R. Giger’s aliens, inflicting a multitude of grisly fates on Kristen McMenamy decked out in Balenciaga to creating glitched out, kinky collages out of Sarah Piantadosi and Celestine Cooney’s editorial for the Summer issue of Dazed – the Instagram art of Doug Abraham AKA @bessnyc4 packs a visceral punch – sometimes shocking, arousing, hilarious, terrifying and thought-provoking all at once. Like abstract remnants of terrible nightmares, Abraham cuts up and reworks iconic fashion campaigns and images, chopping and screwing them with found images that casts a different light on the subject and re-examines contemporary notions of beauty, sexuality and good taste. Horror films, porn, bondage, transmogrification, cyborg technology have all been fodder for his twisted, dystopian worldview that has seen the 44-year old father of two become a cult sensation with over 31,000 followers and a recent nomination for CFDA Instagrammer of the Year. “I felt like I'd seen all of the pictures that were cool,” says Abraham echoing a common theme of image fatigue in a post-digital world. Making the collages was a way for him to provoke a reaction for both himself and the viewer. “Combining images with other images for me was a way to feel engaged. When I'm putting one kind of picture with another kind of picture, it's definitely about the choices about one or the other. It becomes like another thing, an image having a conversation with another image. I think it was like trying to find a way to startle myself or to have some experience of a compelling moment of looking. I think it’s good when they have urgency to it.”
For Abraham, it’s also a return to his art school roots after more than a decade working in the fashion and jewellery business he fell into accidentally. Abraham grew up as a punk kid worshipping at the altar of Joseph Beuys and Minor Threat, whose first exposure to fashion and counter culture came whilst working at cult underground store, Kim’s Video (frequented by the likes of Jenny Shimuzu and Chloe Sevigny) in the 90’s. He recalls, “I was pretty savvy about counter-culture fashion and I spent all my Christmas money on going to London so I was definitely into that vibe and by the time I was in college and there was that 90’s Calvin Klein CK1 campaign, I was definitely hip to advertising culture.” After studying sculpture in San Francisco, he majored in Combined Media where he recreated film stills in painting, a predecessor of his Instagram art. He started Bess as a fine jewellery line in 2000, naming it after his wife, Elizabeth. Expanding to include vintage fashion and accessories, Bess is now a punk institution operating out of Keith Haring’s old Pop Shop in Soho, NY. When Abraham’s first experiments on Instagram got deleted for its NSFW content, he decided to go beyond the morass of selfies and regramming ad infinitum that clogs up the photo-sharing app. He says, “Running a shop is not conducive to having a lot of expression. But after using Instagram for a while, I felt that it would be really lazy of me not to try and do something slightly more ambitious then just re-posting. I wanted to do something more specific.” While his initial Instagram account posted generic brand content, he approached the new account, @bessnyc4 as more of an art project.
“Making images just seems natural to me. I had experimented with mixing images, mixing campaign images in with other images just because I started looking at them on my iPhoto and it sort of seemed natural for some of them to start going together.” Early images cropped from horror and fetish porn films emblazoned with the Bess NYC logo eventually gave way to his first experiment in photomontage – a triptych of Celine ads shot by Juergen Teller of Daria Werbowy spliced in with bondage imagery. Since then, no brand has been safe from his devilish decontextualisation – he’s morphed Prada with Manga girls and Californian skateboarders, teleported Matthew Barney’s otherworldly creatures into Dior ads, and contrasted the serene purity of Calvin Klein with the nastiest S&M. While brands like Hood By Air, #BEENTRILL and Alexander Wang have resurrected a love of branding amongst its legions of fans, Abraham’s appropriations twists the concept of logomania even further. “The logos are interesting to me and what I do and it does make it somehow easier for me. Out of all the elements I take away from an ad, logos are something that I keep.” And in an age where the big luxury brands seek to micromanage every aspect of their image, Abraham has faced surprisingly little resistance for his often NSFW juxtapositions. “That’s never happened before; no-one’s ever gotten weird about that.” Then he adds with a smile, “But I hope at least somebody’s aggravated somewhere.”
“I feel like particularly with fashion, there are so many people involved in creating that one image and it takes such a long time that you get a very un-immediate sort of experience. I think, one thing that Instagram does is that it can give you an instant audience and reaction. ”- Doug Abraham
Far from it, in fact his transgressive work has gone on to garner a fevered following among fashion world heavyweights ranging from Riccardo Tisci (who regrams Abraham’s remixed Givenchy campaigns), Fabien Baron, Mert Alas and Werbowy. Says Dazed’s creative director, Christopher Simmonds who commissioned Abrahams for the Summer issue, “I think (what stood out for me) was the juxtaposition of the highly polished, and considered fashion imagery versus imagery that is anything but. Also his breadths of references are amazing. I think all the brands love seeing their imagery manipulated in this way.” Abraham is succinct in his appraisal of the love from the fashion community, “I think it’s because they are bored! They want constant visual stimulation and inspiration. It definitely has quickly positioned me as someone they look to make images for fashion. It's how fashion works, to be considered legit, you have to be put on the radar by people the industry considers legit.”
While he’s used this newfound fame to give props to the artists who’ve inspired him along the way (everyone from Andy Warhol, Tank Girl, Love and Rockets, Egon Schiele), perhaps his most intriguing ‘collaboration’ must be when he ‘borrowed’ Richard Prince’s controversial image of an underage Brooke Shields from his signature work, Spiritual America (itself an image actually taken by another photographer, Gary Gross), superimposing it with a Prada ad. Prince of course, is a leading light for Abraham, as a member of the ‘pictures generation’, he arguably perfected the art of transforming, heightening and giving new meaning to pre-existing images.Until recently, Prince was an avid Instagrammer - taken to printing pictures from other people’s Instagram account, rephotographing them and selling them as art. The very post-modern meta-ness of it all fairly blows the mind. Laughs Abraham, “That’s one of the amazing things about Instagram – that things like this can happen with very little effort. I feel like particularly with fashion, there are so many people involved in creating that one image and it takes such a long time that you get a very un-immediate sort of experience. I think, one thing that Instagram does is that it can give you an instant audience and reaction. It means that people can, in real time, engage with a lot of people and with another individual. It's all contextualised through an image.” It’s this daring fucking up of traditional notions of ownership and propriety that Abraham would like to see happen more often. “I think people that grow up with technology don't really understand all the ways. I think young people aren't thinking so much outside the platform about what it can do.”
Abraham is already taking the leap from Instagram onto the printed page – his first magazine editorial for Dazed sees him apply his rule breaking techniques to original images of the Central Saint Martins graduate collections taken by Sarah Piantadosi and styled by Celestine Cooney. Simmonds says, “I thought it would be cool to reverse the process – instead of him taking print ads and collage them for online, we would make it expand beyond Instagram.” (For his part, Abraham’s greatest challenge with the project was figuring “how to do my own thing but also to show the clothes!”) His rapid rise now prompts the daunting question of where to go from here – “It's definitely trying to figure out what makes the most sense really. How much do I put out for free and what do I ask for money for and is anyone going to want to buy the images as art if I'm too much of a cheap date?” He muses, “Everything in fashion trends up real fast and I want to make a contribution that’s kind of special and that lasts.” The prospect of seeing these digital mutations displayed in galleries is enticing to the art-school trained Abraham, “I’d prefer it to be an art thing but it’s hard because art and fashion don't always meet well together. I think you just have to play it by ear and hope someone will give you respect for something.” Whether it be on the printed page or on gallery walls, the possibilities for Abraham now are wide open - @bessnyc4 has a forward momentum that that is making the establishment go haywire.
Hair Cyndia Harvey at Streeters; make-up Thomas de Kluyver at D+V Management using NARS; models Mica Arganaraz at Viva London and Kevin Joseph Bailor ; photographic assitant Sarah Lloyd; styling assistant Poppie Clinch; digital operator David Wood at Passeridae; casting Noah Shelly