Back to Writing / 5-29-2007

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The point of view expressed by Alva Bernadine through his art is equal parts fascinating, surprising, humorous and downright freaky. Brilliantly playing with light, mirrors and stop-motion, he unites the disembodied shells of his models with the everyday world, creating the "anti-portrait" in his surrealist world. We spoke with Bernadine about the male gaze, religion and a juxtaposed world.

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Sez G: Your website is a rollicking good time, laden with sex and religious imagery. What's your religious background and how has it influenced your art?

Alva Bernadine: I am a one-time Catholic, now an atheist. The religious imagery came about because I had a clear perspex portfolio case. I wanted to put pictures in the lid and came across a Dali picture of a levitating Jesus…I thought a religious picture would look good. I found two kitsch pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and put them in both sides of my case.

I then started collecting cheap Catholic kitsch, and when I repainted my flat, I decided to decorate it with images like these. It was then that I started photographing in my flat as I was drawn to the colour.

Shortly afterwards, I started to take erotic pictures. I suppose if you photograph a nude with a religious picture in the background, it takes on a different complexion. The alternative would have been to take down the decoration every time I wanted to take a photograph, but I couldn't be bothered, so I left them on the wall and did not give it much thought.

Sez G: You do painting as well. What's your artistic background? Which came first for you, painting or photography?

Alva Bernadine: I don't really paint anymore. I started off as a photographer, then began combining photography with airbrushing. I would print images from different negatives on one sheet of paper, colour them with dye and unite them with an airbrushed gouage background. About that time I also took up oil painting, screen printing and printed T-shirts for a time.

Sez G: And how did your interest and skills in surrealism develop?

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Alva Bernadine: The first pictures I took were cityscapes of London. Soon after though, I came across the work of Rene Magritte and was fascinated by it. I wanted to do something like that. My first attempts were clumsy studio still-lifes, but the following summer I started shooting outdoors, and my style was born. My first ones were mostly pictures of me. I began with a picture of me bending over to pick up a Jackson Pollock-patterned shoe, and it grew into a series called The Fetish which I eventually won the Vogue/Cecil Beaton Award for. I am mostly self-taught. I was never an assistant.

Sez G: Your ass-smacking'ly good series Four Hundred and One Blows produced many very cool and interesting images. How did the idea for this come about, and how much trial-and-error was involved to get that perfectly surreal shot?

Alva Bernadine: I came across a stop motion photography book of bullets going through apples and crowns formed by drops of milk etc. I decided to shoot some fashion along those lines. A friend of mine had a sound activated switch, and I used that. He later built me one. I started off shooting bursting balloons and smashing panes of glass.

One day, a friend (whom I met when she bought one of my pictures at the Skin Two Rubber Ball), phoned me up and I told her what I was doing. She was a masochist, and I think it occurred to us simultaneously to do some spanking shots. She came round with her partner and a bag of various whips. We went through them.

The pictures are taken in the near dark. The sound activated switch is attached to the flash and the shutter is opened just before the shot is taken. The noise of the whip sets off the flash. There are two controls on the switch; one for sensitivity and the other for delay. You can adjust these by eye to get the maximum depression even though the duration of the flash is so short. This technique allows you to arrest action that is just happens too fast for us to normally see.

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Sez G: What is the "anti-portrait?"

Alva Bernadine: When I first started taking photographs, I had just moved and did not know anyone in my area; so I decided to use myself as a model. I would wait for the early evening when the sun was out, and go off to a location. I knew I would be showing these pictures to art directors and did not want the embarrassment of them asking if it was me in them, so my face never appeared in them. My head was cropped off, my back was to the camera, I was masked, or I was seen as a shadow. When I eventually started photographing other people I kept these techniques which became part of my early style.

It also kind of fitted my philosophy at the time. I did not have much interest in portraiture; what I wanted was an art of my own creation. I would create a surreal event, and although I had a person in it, the viewer's eye would go to the event first. There was no face.

As soon as we see a face in the picture we begin to read. How old is it, how good looking, is it intelligent or not? All of these things go through our minds at a subconscious level. By putting a headless body with no personality, so to speak, I was turning that body into an object. I began to see all my pictures as still-lifes because the bodies were empty shells. I coined a term for it, the anti-portrait.

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Sez G: Speaking of empty shells, you've created several pieces in which a nude woman serves as a mere distraction for a fully clothed man going about normal daily activities. The woman is an object; the man is real and complex. What are the intentions of these pieces?

Alva Bernadine: The clothed male in my pictures is very much a voyeur. He is a representation of the person looking at these pictures. I realized early in my career that I see myself as a voyeur. I was photographing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and afterwards reflected that looking through the narrow angle the camera gave had so restricted my view that I had not really experienced the event. I was on the outside looking in.

Having to make images puts me in situations and causes me to meet people I would otherwise not be interested in. But I am always just passing through.

My pictures are very much about the "male gaze," which is the only gaze I've got. Even in 19th century pornography, there are many clothed males and naked females. Being clothed makes you more powerful next to a naked person. In SM the dominant one is always more fully dressed than the subordinate. One of the things sex is about is power.

Sez G: You spin a good yarn about your first Skin Two Rubber Ball in How to Become Debauched While Remaining a Virgin. Have you been back? How involved are you in the "fetish scene?"

Alva Bernadine: I became interested in fetishism because I wanted to take extraordinary pictures and this scene seemed replete with them. These people seemed to be using a lot of imagination in their sexuality and I wanted to tap into that. I went to a few fetish clubs for a while then I stopped. I still have a lot of fetishism in my work but I do not have the models dressed up in latex much anymore. I think that if I do it in ordinary clothes or naked it becomes more universal, whereas, if it is in fetish dress most people can't identify with it.

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For some reason the type of model that contacts me most are Goths who like to dress in latex and be tied up.

Sez G: Why do you think your art has moved from "gratuitous violence to gratuitous sex?"

Alva Bernadine: It has not really moved, it's just that it is easier to get people to participate in gratuitous sex than gratuitous violence. Violence is still a subject I want to explore. There is so much of it on television, film and in books. I was in the library the other day and the biggest fiction section was detective thrillers. There is not much violence in commercial photography as it has to look nice to sell something. Whereas, if I shoot for myself it can be as disturbing or as strange as I like.

Sez G: Tell me about the cunt flower series.

Alva Bernadine: The first work I saw of Araki was a series of close-ups and among them were pictures of vaginas that were so close they were abstract and it took me time to figure out what they were. Some looked like mollusks. I liked the way the everyday could be transformed by a macro view and bought a close-up lens and a ring flash myself. Dwelling upon his vaginas, I was reminded that they were often compared to flowers and that in turn brought to mind the work of Georgia O' Keefe. I had never seen a vagina and a flower placed side by side for comparison before. My first attempt was to do a collage using dirty magazines and a gardening mag also. After that I decided to collect my own.

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The spring and the summer can see me haunting flower gardens around London while up to date I have photographed nearly forty cunts from volunteers. Rather like fingerprints they are all different. Funnily enough, I seem always able to make time to snap a lady's front bottom. I guess you could call me an amateur gynecologist!

Sez G: What annoys you most about society?

Alva Bernadine: Nothing much annoys me about society. It goes its way and I go mine.

Sez G: What's next for you?

Alva Bernadine: At the moment I am looking for a publisher for my next book. I am part of an exhibition called Blacks which will be shown at the Gora Gallery in Montreal in June/July 2007. It is curated by Carlos Batts. It has already been shown at the Antebellum gallery, LA back in February. I bought a nice big monitor from the work I sold to edit my film.

Having had no interest in film making before, I bought a camcorder and I am now making a drama documentary entitled How to Become Alva Bernadine. It is about my artistic life, and having seen it, anybody will be able to photograph like me. I am making it with my friend Jason Fiddler and we are learning as we go along. I am learning how to edit and he is learning special effects. I'll be posting bits of it on YouTube as I go along. Here is one scene. Look out for more.
To learn more about Alva Bernadine, visit

Alva Bernadine - by Sez G