Photos of what tripping on LSD in church might feel like

Photographer Joanne Leah draws from her experiences as a teen raver raised in a strict Catholic household to create a warped, colourful and uncomfortable universe

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Joanne Leah
Photography Joanne Leah

Brooklyn-based sculptor-turned-photographer, Joanne Leah, has channelled her experiences of growing up in a strict Catholic family into a striking photo series centred on fetish, isolation and everyday eroticism. Leah’s aesthetic style draws influence from the “psychedelic voyeurism” of her teenage years, when she would take LSD at raves before being forced to attend Sunday church. Her explosive, beautiful, and sometimes comedic, portraits of the human body reflect her desire to challenge the confines of human experience and playfully unravel our sexualised attachment to ordinary objects. Using a variety of materials, such as gelatine, glitter, homemade slime and food colouring, among many others, Leah presents a world that is both familiar and strangely detached; a kind of distorted reality that reflects our eroticised relationship with the mundane. “I am interested in the fetish of ordinary objects and our physical relationship to them,” she says. “I study how these objects envelop (smother) us and become a part of who we are. I objectify the body so it appears confusing or broken and ultimately transform the image into a symbol that is part of its own visual language.”

Leah’s work was just shown in an erotic art group exhibition in New York,  – a title which gives the middle finger to Donald Trump’s increasingly dangerous comments about a woman’s body – and will reemerge in Detroit next month. Although Leah never thinks of her visual art as directly political, she admits that her photographs are becoming more extreme and grotesque in the face of traditionalist social scripts and the recent election. “My subjects are politicised because I change the way we view female nudity by responding to political systems, commodity fetishism and the role of religion in society,” Leah explains. “All humans fall into political systems naturally and we are all influenced by them.” Like many of her artistic counterparts, she echoes a feeling of anxiety about the future of freedom of expression and sexual liberties, but rather than sit there quietly, this photographer is fighting back with increasingly lewd and radical imagery. Here, we talk to the photographer about her “wearable sculptures”, fighting censorship and conservatism through art, and reimagining the world through a vibrant, fetishist lens.

Do you have a background in photography?

Joanne Leah: I never considered myself a photographer. I was a sculpture student, then switched to studying fashion design because I wanted to make wearable sculptures. I took photography classes in art school to document my work. I have always obsessed over the interactions of materials and substances with the human form, in one way or another.

My work is about my own personal experiences with the unreal, by acts of rebellion and psychedelic voyeurism that I repeated frequently as a teenager. I would take LSD, go to raves, and my mother would make me go to Catholic mass on Sunday morning while I was still hallucinating. The images are based on this world: ritualistic, isolated, trapped, detached, bizarre, childlike and somewhat violent.

How has your artistic style evolved?

Joanne Leah: Five years of experimentation and failure define my current aesthetic. When I first started using photography as a medium, the images were extremely erotic, then I decided to do the complete opposite and focus on dark classical portraits. I became bored with the dark and reversed again and started working toward a bright and vivid colour palette. At first, I was shy about my ideas and asking strangers to remove their clothes to pose in uncomfortable positions while I apply mysterious substances to their bodies. The images are always evolving and have become more about the process of making them. I spend most of my time thinking about ideas, making sets and props and working with bodies. Now I am playing with different presentation formats such as public art, installation and video.

Your images convey something sexual, yet almost unsettling, what are you trying to say?

Joanne Leah: I grew up Catholic, my mother was a nurse and my father was a scientist. Sex, outside of the realm of reproduction, was something we never talked about. With each image, I want to create an out-of-body experience through a sense of confinement and restriction, whether it be through composition, physical positioning or the tactile quality of the materials used.

I take objects, food or other substances, that are used in everyday life, and place them in atypical contexts. My work is about sensation, I want the viewer to feel what my subject feels using their own sensual interpretation.

There is a sculptural aesthetic to your work – what materials do you like to use and how do you direct your models on shoots?

Joanne Leah: I use glitter, homemade slime, powders, gelatine, hair, food colouring, water, candy, plastics, grass, body paint, skin and paper. I push boundaries to find mutual trust with my subjects. This is the starting point of the narrative. As I work with a person and their body, I ask myself questions: “What do people find arousing? How do people normally react to bodies, fluids and fleshiness? Is there something else within this flesh, something deeper? How can perceptions change?”

Many of your images are quite comedic and playful in their treatment of the body – do you want satirise life and living?

Joanne Leah: I am influenced by Dada, Deconstructivism and Surrealism. I use common objects in unexpected ways, objectify the body so it appears confusing or broken and ultimately transform the image into a symbol that is part of its own visual language.

“With each image, I want to create an out-of-body experience through a sense of confinement and restriction, whether it be through composition, physical positioning or the tactile quality of the materials used” – Joanne Leah

Why have you chosen to focus largely on the female form? Are you conveying some sort of anxiety about being female?

Joanne Leah: I feel less anxious working with the female form, probably because I am female and I originally learned to draw the female form. As someone who identifies, but does not define herself, as female, I often feel smothered by societal pressures.   

Would you describe your photographic cannon as political? Are the subjects politicised?

Joanne Leah: While forming ideas, I never think about politics specifically, although I feel that politics are impossible to avoid. Not unlike organised religion, humans fall into political systems naturally and we are all influenced by them. My subjects are politicised because I change the way we view female nudity by responding to political systems, commodity fetishism and the role of religion in society.

You’re currently showing your work at an exhibition, Hotter than July: Hands off my Cuntry; how does the current political climate in the US, and Trump more generally, impact your photography?

Joanne Leah: My work is becoming more extreme: grosser, weirder and messier. I am fascinated with tumours. I am thinking about censorship, even in the most mundane forms, every day.

Hotter than July: Hands off my Cuntry will be exhibiting in Detroit in February, keep up to date here

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