the rebellious youth of photographer elena montemurro
Like a dark, sweet Larry Clark for internet-era teens coming of age in the 2010s.
Photographer Elena Montemurro is sitting in her bed at her parents' home in Long Island. "I'm obsessed with astrology," she admits, slightly sheepishly over the phone. "I'm a Pisces moon and I read a lot about how it's easy for people with that moon sign to get lost in a dreamy, nostalgic lifestyle. We'd rather escape reality." It's a perfect description of her work (and yes, maybe also her lifestyle), which since graduating from Parsons in New York has revolved around slightly surreal explorations of youthfulness - both her own (she's 24) and her friends', but also a kind of shared pop cultural fantasy about what coming of age should involve.
For one series, called Jamie, Elena photographed her friend's younger sister over the course of seven years. Brooding over diner tables and ghostly in the artificial lights of suburban playgrounds, Jamie seems to emanate all the strangeness and vulnerability of teendom in Elena's subtly staged photographs. In another ongoing series, Boyfriend at the Time, Elena shapeshifts into other versions of herself, Cindy Sherman-style ("I prefer her early stuff"), to capture various characters she became in different romantic relationships. And for her longest running project, Coming of Age, she casts her friends in reenactments of seminal sleepover movie scenes and fantasies plucked from the collective teen subconscious. "My characters are often dark, isolated, like there's something wrong," she says. "It's all those anxieties about being a teenager - that's just kind of where I go."
Can you tell me about your series Jamie?
Jamie's actually about to go to college, and I want to make a book of the photographs, dedicated to the past seven years. I've always been drawn to her - just the way she looks. She has a strange beauty to her that I think not many people have. Where I'm from a lot of people look the same. At first I felt weird asking to take her picture because she was always shy, but for some reason she opened up to me. I think she kind of took it as a compliment.
How old was she when you started? And what have been the most interesting changes to observe?
She was probably 13, and she's grown up so much since then. You can really tell in the photos. Just recently she's kind of grown into herself. She got a boyfriend, and I photographed them together. Then they recently broke up and just seeing how she's grown as a woman… I'm confused and upset that she's leaving.
It's so cool that she'll have those photos when she's older.
I know, I love that. They're all these different parts of her life. Even though they're not genuinely her - they're more me directing her into this way that I view her. A lot of the photos that I take are a reflection of me.
Is that how you think of Coming of Age also? How did that series begin?
I was taking portraits at the time but I didn't feel like they had substance to them. Then I got really inspired by the movie Jawbreaker and I directly recreated it - I didn't really care that I was copying it - and that jump-started everything. It was also Welcome to the Dollhouse and all of Todd Solondz's movie, as well as Larry Clark movies like Kids. I felt really connected to them. My friends and I all lived in Brooklyn and we were poor and weren't doing anything. None of us really wanted to grow up. And I really played up that theme of youthfulness. I made these little film stills. I have my own story behind every scene in the "Coming of Age" series. I always tell my friends who model for me what the story is behind their character. I like it because I'm able to give the viewer some information but not the entire story. There's some mystery.
Most of the coming of age movies I watched growing up were for and about girls. It's interesting that you shoot boys just as often.
I didn't at first. I've always been shy and intimidated by men, and I only felt comfortable shooting girls. It took time to become more confident.
What I find interesting is that a lot of my friends who ask to be in my photographs then don't want them to be shown. I warn them that they're not going to be portrayed as this beautiful, angelic thing. I try to find a flaw and make that the image. There's one picture of a friend I went to school with. Something about her was always so perfect. She reminded me of one of those mean girls in movie, so I really played up that character for her and made her wear this really skimpy outfit and took her to Nathan's. She was kind of offended but after she saw the photos she felt better about it.
What other projects are you working on right now?
I have a series I'm always working on called "Boyfriend at the Time." It reminds me of Nikki S. Lee because I change the way I look in each photograph. It's about how when you're in a relationship you change yourself in ways you think will make someone stay interested in you. When the relationship ends you're like, "Who am I?" So in each photograph I try and create a different type of girl. I want to keep doing it. But it's difficult because it hits so close to home.
Looking at the images together, does it help you have a clearer idea of who you are or do they make things less clear?
I think less clear. It's so easy for me to change into a different role. It's scary in a way. I'm kind of avoiding my real self. I think that's part of the project. Maybe if I make enough of these images it will kind of define me.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Elena Montemurro
- Elena Montemurro