The Canvas | Alva Bernadine
26 November 2013
Alva Bernadine is an unconventional, sometimes surreal, sometimes quirky photographer, whose style ranges from a classic use of perspective to experimental work distorting nude forms. He has won multiple awards for his work, such as the Vogue/Sotheby's Award for his series of self portraits with a high heel shoe, and 3 time nominated and once winner of The Erotic photographer of the Year in the UK. In 2001, his book Bernadinism: How to Dominate Men and Subjugate Women was published and he is currently taking pictures for his next project.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on pictures of clouds taken from my balcony. It will either be called A Taxonomy of Clouds or The Epic Sky. I hope the pictures will be epic because the sky is epic and I have photographed it with a 36 megapixel camera so they can really be blown up huge, if I get the chance. I have images of tortured and tumultuous skies as well as clouds that look like figures and faces, from a death’s head to a sleeping gnome. I have also included planes and birds that flew overhead. I hope it will be as good as I envisage.
Has your art or approach/method changed over the years and if so, how?
My approach has not changed much at all, there is just more work and more varied subjects. Within 18 months of taking up photography seriously, I developed a style that I have used to encompass many and varied subject matter. I have even developed different styles but it is always this one I keep coming back to. Some of those early pictures are still among my best ever.
What made you join Body of Art?
I was surfing the web when I came across 3D galleries. I searched for more and came across your site. It is quite interesting to see what your work might look like in a gallery situation but I am still not sure if they are of great practical value or a gimmick that quickly wears off. I remember seeing a friend of a friend building one in the 3D programme, Maya, but that was of a large exhibition space, which was formerly a church and it was going to be used to visualise the hanging of exhibitions.
What is your biggest ambition as an artist?
To have enough money so I can expand my vision and finally realise the pictures I sketched out 20 and 30 years ago.
If you could own any piece of artwork, what would it be and why?
It would probably be Dali’s, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. How someone can hold an egg between their fingers and see the reflection of a man, is beyond me. I had a poster in my bathroom for many years. In the end it faded and then the frame crashed to the ground and broke and that was the end of it.
What makes you laugh?
The Simpsons makes me laugh.
What is the central theme of your work, do you have one?
When I took up photography, I looked about at all those fabulous documentary images and thought, "I can’t compete with the hundreds of thousands that have gone before me, let me try a less rutted path and maybe I can find a new vista."
From the word go, I always attempted to grab people’s attention, even if it meant I had to beat them over the head to do so. There are generally three things happening in my pictures. There is nearly always a strangely intriguing or quirky happening that I call an “Event.” There is also the strong use of colour to attract the eye and then there is location. I have rarely photographed in studios because I find them sterile. I prefer a lived in look and would much rather go to a real place and take stuff out until I get the right balance for the image.
I even wrote my own manifesto to set out primarily for myself what my work was and the lines it would run on. It was entitled "Bernadinism: The View from the Edge. The Artist as Megalomaniac." It basically says that I am the creator of the universe within my imagery and everything in it is created in my own image. And if it does not look like me, or rather reflect my artistic personality, then it is of no use to me.
Which of your works is your favourite?
I have two favourites at present the first one is called "The Equestrienne," where I took a toy horse I bought in a charity shop and tried to emulate what Dali called his Paranoiac Critical Method, by creating a image which looked both like woman riding a horse and a face at the same time, but I did it in shadow form. I had to attempt the picture several times until I thought it worked. This is not the way I generally work. Once is usually enough.
The second is "What Women Keep in Their Handbag." I imagine the murderer, perhaps a psychotic lover, sitting, staring at the scene and sketching the outline of the face in lipstick on a mirror and carefully positioning objects to make a face that can only be seen from his contemplative point of view.
"What Women Keep in Their Handbag"
What is your favourite word, the word you tend to use more often?
My favourite word is floccinaucinihilipilification, which means to estimate something as worthless. We had to do it in a spelling test at school once. I do not have much occasion to use it but it is among the first words in a personal album of photographs I once made – “In the beginning was the word and the word was floccinaucinihilipilification.” The album has 198 screws coming through the cover and the heads of as many on the back so when it is shut it may look as if they are going all the way through.
Have you got a bad habit, if so, what is it?
No, I have no bad habits. Not one!
If you could choose any new skill that you could master, which would you choose?
It would be to learn a 3D programme like Maya that is used in the movie industry. Nowadays visual effects are so photo-real that you often can’t tell what is real and what is made up.
The last time I made a real effort to try to learn a major new skill was 2007. I had enough money to buy my first digital camera or get a decent video camera. I realised I had not learn anything significant for a very long time and chose video. It was a steep learning curve but I learned enough to be able to document my work and my thoughts about it. My most successful video thus far, Born with Three Mouths, got over 7 million hits on YouTube. It is just over a minute long and has a girl with mouths for eyes.
What makes you angry?
I am quite even tempered and seldom angry. I can’t bear a grudge for long because it requires much more emotional energy than I possess.
"The Butterfly Collection"
When you were a child, what did you want to be?
I think I wanted to be a soldier but soldiers kill or get killed and I don’t fancy either now.
Who would you like to meet and what question would you want to ask them?
I have never been one for celebrities and the only person I ever wanted to meet was the late Guy Bourdin, who worked for French Vogue for many years and was famous for his Charles Jourdan shoe campaigns. He died in 1991. About the time I won the Vogue/Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Award for young photographers, I got hold of his number and tried to call him. There was only an answering machine in French, that I could not understand. I later learned he was a difficult man who would sometimes pull the telephone cord out of the wall.
I would not have asked him the “Where do you get your ideas from?” question that I often get myself but I would have liked to have shot the breeze with him for an afternoon. I doubt there are any profundities he could have told me about photography or life but I would not have been looking for those. Our books came out about the same time. I was the first one ever to make a website in his name as I felt it was a shame that he was so forgotten and that I could only find three of his photographs on the web at that time. I even mentioned him to my publisher, but little did I know that his first book was already in the works.
What do you consider the greatest invention of all time?
Apart from fire which kept our ancestors warm and meant they could eat a greater range of food, I would say it is electricity. It moved from being a quirky phenomenon that moved the needle of a galvanometer and caused the animation of the legs of dead frogs to being, what modern society is built on. Without it there would be no television, phones and of course no internet. It is amazing that in a few short generations we have gone from taking 3 months for a letter to reach Australia to being able to stand on top of Mount Snowdon, take out a miniature device and phone Sydney.
What would be your worst nightmare?
That would be to get an illness such as cancer, where you can see your death coming from miles away.
If you could go down the history books and be remembered for something, what would you want that to be?
I would like to be in dictionaries of photographers under the Bs with a little paragraph about my work. I had a book of my work published in 2001, Bernadinism: How to Dominate Men and Subjugate Women, so that was a bit of an achievement. When you are young you read art books looking for inspiration and you hope one day you might have one of your own. It is nice to be able to pass it on.
What is your all time favourite movie or tv program?
The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, there have been many great serial dramas in recent years. I would also like to throw in the original Star Trek, where Kirk, McCoy and Spock beamed down to alien planets in sweat shirts and everybody looked like us and spoke English. My favourite though must be The Simpsons.
What would you scribble on a wall of world’s greatest quotes?
“I Am a One Man Subculture.” It is something I first printed on a t-shirt many years ago. It is for true individualists everywhere. I often have it as the slogan at the end of one of my films.
If you had to give art students today some advice, what would it be?
My advice would be once you have enough pictures, never show people all you have. If you have 15 pieces show them 10 and you can be working on another 5 or more to show them again in 3 to 6 months. This will give you a reason to see them again and build up a relationship.
Art directors or gallerists always want to know the new thing you have been working on. Look how this interview began. At this stage I have lots of photos and a significant amount that I have never shown. If I have been too busy to create new ones or have not been inspired of late, I always have something to pull out. For all anybody knows, I could have taken those cloud pictures 2 years ago or could genuinely be working on them now.
I learned my lesson the hard way when I had my book published and was anxious to please and showed the editor everything. As a result work got in the book that I did not want, pushing out some favourite pictures. If I had never shown her the work I was not overly fond of, they would never have got in.
Where on the web can we find you?
Videos: The Equestrienne https://vimeo.com/20440808
What Women Keep in Their Handbag https://vimeo.com/20442162
The Butterfly Collector https://vimeo.com/20413375
Anamorphic Sodomite https://vimeo.com/17307015