"Not only is the room covered in wigs and crisps and upside down furniture where I've been arranging a scene, but I'm standing there painted green from head to toe. On my own. What could I say?" says photographer Juno Calypso when I ask if she's ever been disturbed by hotel staff whilst staging one of her elaborate, cinematic self-portraits. "It would make a good story but I don't think I'd recover."
Juno Calypso's Joyce series is a marvel of baby pink bathtubs, chintzy curtains and 1970s finger food buffets, in which her fictional alter ego, Joyce, inflicts rigorous (and lonely) beauty regimes on herself. There's Joyce with her face strapped inside a claustrophobic plastic massage mask in 12 Reasons You're Tired All The Time, or Joyce naked, painted head-to-toe in green, looking like Botticelli's Venus if she was addicted to weight loss through seaweed wraps in A Dream In Green.
The series, which Calypso started whilst studying at university, reveals the hidden labour of women behind bathroom doors, undergoing modern rituals of seduction and restricting themselves in the process. Joyce preens, presses, wraps herself in cling-film and is always just waiting for the countdown of minutes until unattainable results can take hold.
The process of each of Juno's shoots mirrors the painstaking detail of the beauty regimes; the sets are elaborate and the details are just right. Juno once flew across the Atlantic and booked herself into the splendorous pink Honeymoon Suite of a Pennsylvania hotel for a shoot, after finding photographs of the room online. Each self-portrait features props and furnishings that hark back to eras we know are by gone but still can't put our finger on. Instead there's a sense of unease inferring the legacy of women exhausting themselves through emotionally and financially, grafting under a hyper feminine construction of what it is to be a woman.
Having just won the Series Award in the British Journal of Photography 2016 awards for Joyce, we spoke to the London-based photographer about staged self-portraits, suburbia and unattainable perfection.
As a series, Joyce varies from humorous self-portraits to images which are darker in what they infer about oppressive elements of femininity. How has the series developed since the beginning?
I made those first images of Joyce during my second year at university so I didn't really know what I was doing then. I didn't think I'd still be working on it four years later. The comedy was more obvious then because I was 21 and had classmates to show off to. I wanted to make something to make people laugh as a reaction against the serious work we were studying. After that I wanted to prove that I was a good image-maker. I started shooting on large format film and that's when it became very cinematic.
Exploring oppressive structures of femininity wasn't really the intention when I started. In a way it was the opposite. Originally I wanted to use models and have them dress up in cute uniforms. There wasn't much more to it than that. It didn't make sense because I always reading texts on gender and feminism but it didn't show up in my work. Those images of me pulling sad faces were only supposed to be a joke. It was my tutor who recognised something more meaningful in them than my previous work, and urged me to carry on.
How did you choose the different locations used in the Joyce series?
I spend so much time researching. I'm on eBay all day and I feel like I've been through every room on TripAdvisor. I like to find places that give you the feeling of being stuck in a time-warp. It doesn't have to be specific to one era - I like it when they stick mod cons in old hotel rooms. It just has to be weird. And usually pink. It's harder to find places now because whenever I search pink honeymoon suite on Google I just get pictures of my own work.
Do you ever feel drained by the process of inhabiting this character in these physically restrictive scenes in your work?
Completely. The fiction in the images completely mirrors the process. I'm trying to make a perfect photograph of a woman trying to create a perfect vision of herself. I think that's why people have responded so well to the work. It feels real. It's semi simulated. I feel drained before I've even begun shooting and I know it's never going to be easy. There's a lot of crawling around on my hands and knees. It's hard because there's no one there to give me feedback or tell me I've done enough. Shoots usually go on till the early hours of the morning.
The photographs bring to mind Tupperware parties and The Stepford Wives and the creepiness of suburbia…
It's funny I don't remember if I said my portraits were suburban or if someone else did. I try not to give the work a strict narrative. It's not supposed to be realistic, it's a fantasy. I wouldn't want to limit the work or give out the idea that all people living in the suburbs are creeps. I think I've just been influenced a lot by hyperbolised visions of suburbia. When I was younger I was obsessed by that film Pleasantville and the suburbs in Edward Scissorhands. There's a book by A. M. Holmes called Music For Torching that does dystopian suburbia really well. I guess when you grow up in the city - where everything is in a constant state of regeneration, it's nice to escape to a time-warp town.
Because your portrait photography is so carefully staged, I wonder if you're an extensive selfie-taker?
It's strange, I very rarely take selfies these days. I take about 10 selfies a year. And only one percent of those are successful. When I was younger I loved it and would spend a lot of time doing it. Maybe since it's become my life I can't be bothered to look at my face in my spare time. Because I've made a career out of taking pictures of myself people assume I'm very comfortable with myself but most of the time it's the opposite. I've always felt un-photogenic and looking at myself through a lens tends to feed my dysmorphia. Staging my photographs so carefully and using myself to make people laugh helped me get over that.
Did you enjoy dressing up and experimenting with girliness as a child?
I think I was a pretty neutral child - T-shirts, jeans and my brother's hand-me-downs. I did have this one flamenco dress I'd put on and dance round the living room in with the door shut. That happened quite routinely. It was when I reached 10 or 11 that I got really into make-up and dressing up. It reached its peak when I was around 19 and was lost in a world of fake tan and hair extensions. It's calmed down since then but I love using wigs in my work because it's makes a complete transformation - it's the final step in becoming someone else. The colour pink has been a constant obsession. Even more so as I've gotten older because it feels good to embrace it. If the world thinks you're stupid and infantile for enjoying the colour pink then that only makes me want to use it more.
Text Stevie Mackenzie-Smith
Photography Juno Calypso