You’ve read this correctly, Alex Wallbaum eats, breathes and even dreams of still life – he’s in deep. This Chicago-based photographer is becoming very well-known in his own field, as he takes real life objects and photographs them in a way where they almost look unreal. One may say that they look as if they were taken out of a dream.
When did your interest in photographing still life start?
I think it started in late college, when I had a still life assignment that I found really exciting – we were instructed to photograph a q-tip – but it really took hold of me once I moved to Chicago and started working with Aleia Murawski. She has a way of elevating everyday objects and making seemingly normal things into something really crazy.
There aren’t many people out there doing the same thing as you, but which artists would you say inspire you?
There are so many. I am always inspired by Aleia, obviously, but some people that come to mind are David Brandon Geeting, Grace Miceli, Tyler Thacker, Maisie Cousins, Nadia Lee Cohen, Corey Olsen, Arielle Bobb-Willis, etc.
You portray objects in movement in a very distinctive way, as to create an ephemeral image, would you say you have created a unique style by doing so?
I don’t think I was the first person to do this, and I won’t be the last. But I do think the combination of things at play has created something recognisable and unique to me. I'm interested in making something that doesn’t totally exist in reality, but it almost does. That line is fun to balance on.
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What are you looking for people to take from your work? Do you want them to think about the intricacy of it all, or do you want them to get a laugh out of it?
I definitely want them to get a laugh out of it. I’m never taking any of it too seriously, although I do like to hear how people think an image was created. People really respond to the behind the scenes stuff because it’s cool to see how much actually exists, and how much doesn’t.
I’ve read that you have recreated dreams of yours before, how do you bring them to life? By the way, do you ever dream of still lives?
Yes. I will usually just pull one element from a dream that I thought would make a cool effect or mesh a few things together. Aleia and I will often bounce our dreams back and forth to make ideas/build from there. I have definitely dreamt of still lives! I have dreamt that I was tiny and wandering inside giant still lives; I have also just dreamt I was shopping for props for a still life.
You frequently collaborate with art director Aleia Murawski, as you’re telling us, and the work can be seen in the Instagram page @aleia. This account has garnered a lot of attention, I mean, it almost has 100k followers, what do you attribute the success to?
She really just has a totally unique brain. Her vision is totally hers and people are intrigued by it. I swear she can make anything interesting. She is also super true to what she does and doesn’t let anyone change that. Her client work is just as strong as her personal one, which I think is so hard to do.
This has given you both a great deal of exposure, and job opportunities. Which project that came from this would you say was the hardest to pull off? Which one did you have the most fun making?
The hardest for us to pull off together may also have been the most fun: the heart-shaped bath tub for Bulletin New York was kind of frustrating at the time and took so much planning and buying props. Ten hours in the car, shooting till 4 am, and Aleia was totally submerged in stinky well water for most of it. But it was so rewarding and we totally love the final images that came out of it.
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When and why did you start to get into miniatures?
Aleia is the mini goddess! I only ever get the chance to work with them because of her. My hands are way too shaky for all of that. Sam Copeland (another of Aleia and my collaborators) is a really amazing artist and skilled craftsman. So a lot of the minis you see of Aleia's are a product of her and Sam’s work.
How much post-production is involved in your work?
It really depends! I try to get as close to the final image as possible in the set. There are some images where all the effects are real with almost no post-production, and then there are Frankenstein images where I clip together twenty photos (because I am lazy).
When you create a still life image, do you ever think of the person whose objects belong to? If so, what kind of people would you say you are depicting?
Yes, absolutely! We most recently did a series for Mouthwash Magazine where we made still lives using people’s existing collections. So each photo was in some way a portrait of the objects’ owner.
Where do you find these quirky objects? I saw you recently travelled to Japan, did you raid Kappabashi, a street where you can find plastic and wax versions of food samples, in Tokyo?
We find these objects everywhere. Sometimes we'll start with one that inspires us and then go to thrift stores, online shopping, office supplies, etc. to supplement that picture. Tokyo was a gold mine for cool objects. We spent a day at Kappabashi, yes! Me, Aleia and Grace Miceli took a wax food making class and then walked up and down Kappabashi street buying resin cast foods. It was my favourite part of the trip for sure.
What’s your favourite object to photograph? And the most difficult? Is there any object that surprised you when taking pictures of it?
That’s a hard one. I don't think I have a specific favourite object but there are some things that seem to make their way into photos over and over again. Silk, smoke, eyeglasses, and computer/tablet/phone screens all come to mind. The most difficult thing for me recently was photographing air – a prompt from Ordinary Magazine. First, just figuring out how to photograph something like air was difficult, but then actually photographing the combination of light beams and bubbles all at once was a mess. But I loved the outcome of that.
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Do you prefer working alone or in partnership?
Working alone is really fun because you get into a groove and it’s totally therapeutic/unedited, but I think I prefer working in a partnership. It’s way more spontaneous and I love bouncing ideas in real time, making changes and going with the flow of two ideas at the same time. The best stuff I think I've ever made has been in partnerships.
What series of yours is your favourite?
I think the checkered picnic dinner series we did for La Monda is my favourite. It was one of the first large series Aleia and I ever did and still feels very true to what we do. It also set off a lot of our future work.
Any future endeavours you could reveal to us?
Aleia and I are working on a large-scale installation/immersive room in 2019.
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