francesca delorenzo's intimate photos of men from craigslist
Three years after her premature death, the work of the madly talented photographer is being preserved by a new archive project.
One day in the winter of 2004, California College of the Arts photography student Francesca "Frenchie" DeLorenzo sat down in front of her computer in her San Francisco apartment. She signed up to Craigslist and started drafting a post. It read something like this: "Young female photographer. Looking for men, to photograph at their place. It's for an art project." She then spent the next three years talking to over 30 local guys, visiting their homes and staging intimate portraits with them, inserting herself as the female protagonist.
"It was pretty gutsy to do that, and also, dangerous," says Maria DeLorenzo, who recently launched an archive project to commemorate her sister's work. "I think these men were certainly excited by the idea of being in these photos with a beautiful young woman in her underwear. And that tension and thwarted desire shows up in the photos. I remember being worried that she wasn't taking more precaution. But then, she was always fearless."
Images from this poignant series, Trompe L'Oeil Love, are among the hundreds of works that have resurfaced since the archiving began. In these pictures, Frenchie appears with her internet-recruited male counterparts, bizarrely mimicking moments of domestic life, while also hinting at a brutal solitude. At times, the scenes' social dynamics call to mind the raw work of Canadian photographer Alix Cléo Roubaud (who also died in her early 30s), while the almost comically domestic settings evoke the work of the late Larry Sultan (who mentored Frenchie at CCA, alongside Magnum photographer Jim Goldberg).
"The project was an exploration of how she related to relationships and monogamy. It was an open-ended question," explains her close friend and ex-lover Seby Caceres, who is helping to archive Frenchie's work. "I went to a couple of shoots with her. We would be at school and she'd be like, 'Hey I got an email from one of these guys from Craigslist, wanna check it out?' She would arrive and take a look at the space and the man she was working with. She would build tiny narratives around the shot, like 'Let's get ready for work. In your room.' She would ask the guy to play the scene while she set up her 6x7 film camera on a tripod. It was almost a study about the guys and their behaviors."
From a young age, growing up in San Diego, Frenchie was known as the artistic type. She started to take pictures in high school, wrote extensive journals, and made collages with a punky aesthetic. "I remember her work always being moody and shadowy," says her sister Maria. "She was always so cool. Her artwork always felt more advanced than our ages."
But she also struggled with drug addiction, and had attempted suicide shortly after graduating from high school, by driving off a cliff. When she hit the water, "she realized she wanted to live," recounts Seby. She managed to extract herself from the car, leaving a bulky scar across her arm. "She saw the absurdity in life and that's part of what she was exploring," her friend remembers, "She was deeply saddened by life, but found it super funny too. She laughed everything off."
That intersection of profound loneliness and often comedic social awkwardness is where Frenchie's work strikes so beautifully. "She wanted to accentuate the distance between people," explains Seby of the photographs she took with strangers. "It was about how solitary we are, and how we never know that other person." There's also a desire to challenge and deconstruct male-female heterosexual dynamics in her work. Frenchie is seen with men of virtually all ages and backgrounds. Placing herself in these absurdly mundane scenarios often reads like a middle finger to the banality of life and the relationship standards we are told to aspire to. Sometimes she looks bored. Sometimes she looks fierce, or vulnerable. She comes in and out of these scenes effortlessly. Like she wants to convince us how easy it is, how easy life is.
"In her work, I see reflections of strength and anger," wrote Maria on the project's website. "The kind of loneliness you feel when you are surrounded by life and other people. Her dark moodiness. Her distinctive pout. I see her fearlessness. I see the way in which she was unapologetically herself."
It was in March 2014 — a decade after starting the series — that Seby received a phone call from Frenchie's landlord. She'd put his name down as her emergency contact, to his surprise. The then 31-year-old photographer had died of an overdose. "None of us knew she was still using drugs," recounts Maria. "She'd just gotten a new job and a new puppy. It was pretty clear that it was an impulsive act, and her death was accidental."
Soon after they cleared out Frenchie's flat, Maria and Seby decided to launch the archive project, to celebrate her work and put it back into the world. "Alive, she never would have let me go through her stuff. In fact, she likely never would've agreed to this project," says Maria of her sister, who was known for being very private. A GoFundMe campaign for the archive has raised $8000 so far, with donations from friends, family, and strangers. The main purpose of the project is to scan the negatives of Frenchie's work to create digital files and ensure they are protected, archived, and shared.
As we continue to regularly observe the tragic passing of young artists due to mental health and addiction problems, Frenchie's story deserves to be shared. Her work also speaks for itself. It tells its own story: of Frenchie's raw sensitivity, her eye for gender powerplay, and her tragicomic universe.
Text Benoit Loiseau
Photography Francesca DeLorenzo