Amanda Charchian is a Los Angeles based photographer who explores beauty, sensuality, memory and surrealism in stunning locations throughout the world. Disrobing her subjects, she captures the intimacy and the connection between herself and the women she photographs, translating the rush, the adrenaline and the subtlety of the moment.
The 26 year old artist recently had a group exhibition at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York, titled after her current project, Pheromone Hotbox – a book documenting her ongoing explorations and experiences with women from the International Girl Gang. We spoke with Charchian to find out about the girl gang; the Los Angeles mysticism school; and above all, the senses.
Where are you from? Can you tell me about your background?
My parents lived in Iran in ‘79 and I was born in LA in ‘88 which is where I live now. I’ve never visited Iran, though I would like to. It plays a big role in the fact that I work at all, considering I would never be able to do what I do if they hadn’t left. Pushing limits and the idea of liberation and freedom is definitely a part of how I make pictures but it’s more on a conceptual and subconscious level.
What are some of the themes that you work with?
I generally don’t think in terms of theme when I approach my work. It’s always a reaction to something else, or a feeling. I like to turn a personal experience into a universal one. To me that feels more authentic. I make work about things that I know, or I use it as a mode of discovering something new. Looking at my bodies of work as a whole, I can see themes like adventure and surrealism… But generally I think putting these themes is restrictive and arbitrary.
Can you tell me where you went to school and how you began working with photography?
In college I primarily did sculpture and painting. One of the requirements was taking photography and learning how to use the dark room. Taking photographs has always been something that I’ve done because I have a pretty bad memory and I think in high school it was a way to feel not bored and to curate my experience. My memory is super emotional, I can remember how I feel about something but I can never remember any factual detail. Early on photography helped me document my friends. I always had very vivacious friends and people with a lot of character and I would be trying to capture their charm, their mystery and strange things that they did to make themselves individual. In a way I am still doing that.
You’ve done a lot of fashion collaborations. How do you distinguish your fine artwork from fashion and what draws you to working in fashion photography?
It’s clear to distinguish for me because of the process. In the fine artwork there are usually no clothes at all and it’s more of a document of my experience with that person. It’s also about certain variables that are quite formal like composition, color and form. And then after that the fine art work is about pushing political boundaries and finding the vastness within people. Getting my subjects to go further within themselves with me.
Fashion photography is definitely something that I’m really into. I still try to make surreal fashion images or images that feel more natural and relaxed but I love color and I love fashion and I love the shapes that clothes can make. I try to push the picture further in the same way as I do with my personal work. For me it’s about the subtle in-between moments or an epic image. I am a maximalist. Art making for me is a way to experience life and to show myself the way I see.
Do you always shoot in analog?
I definitely shoot digitally as well when I’m doing more commercial work but it’s always film when I’m doing my personal work. It captures the energy better and it’s really important for me not seeing the picture right away. It’s part of the conceptual constraint that pushes my mind to be present.
Your images emanate female empowerment, a mystical sisterhood. Can you talk about why you photograph women and your relationship with your subjects?
I am involved with the idea of the International Girl Gang. It has become a real thing, starting with a dinner party that I had with international girls, who were all creative people in their own right from actresses, musicians, furniture makers, and writers. And then everyone became friends with each other and then all the ladies we know in common are all part of it and it keeps growing. It’s definitely an amazing time to be a girl and especially a creative girl because of all of the collaborations that you can do and all of the support that you have from each other.
I am definitely a girls’ girl and I see women as really powerful. And not just in a social sense. It’s what they emanate. I think I might be a little bit like that and that’s definitely what I’m attracted to. I love to show that part of a woman in photographs.
Tell me about your upcoming project that you are working on?
This book that I’m making Pheromone Hotbox is about me going on adventures with these girls from the International Girl Gang. It’s not a secret club, it’s ever evolving. It happens in experience. It’s about the times that we have together.
For the last three weeks every week I go with a different girl to a different place. Last week I went to the Charmlee Wilderness, the week before that I went to Mono Lake, before that we went to Corsica in France. I go on an adventure with somebody I know pretty well and the hotbox becomes a space where it’s just me and her and our intimacy and our expression at that moment and creating a bubble where it’s us versus the rest of the world. There’s always a bit of danger, getting in trouble and getting caught. Because it’s illegal to be naked outside and just that set of circumstances creates a heightened experience because we are doing something we are not supposed to do. These images become a document of that experience. But every person has an absolutely different chemical make up and when you put that with another female, our pheromones are firing, our attraction is firing, but it’s not sexual. You are with a girlfriend, and you absolutely trust each other, and you are totally want to have the best time you can possible have and you lay it all out there and you let your fears go and you have a magnificent experience.
I want to look at this book in 25 years and think wow, we have really lived and we were not afraid.
That sounds like an incredible experience.
Being naked outside is beyond sexy, nothing feels more natural or real. You can’t be bothered by the bullshit of the world if you are naked outside. We are so conditioned to believe that there is only one way to do things. I think International Girl Gang is about sorting it out in a new way.
This upcoming project sounds like a very intimate and sensual experience that you are trying to present to a viewer and translate to an image.
It’s a challenge for me to try to evoke those kinds of sensual experiences with that person, like the smell and the touch. The thing about the senses is that it’s not something you can describe to someone. You can’t tell someone what something smells like without referencing something else. We don’t have names for smells the way we don’t really have names for the different kinds of love. We can say something smells sweet. We can’t really say what sage and swamp smells like without referencing the thing itself while the Inuit tribe has 300 different words for love.
Images are the same in that they describe finitely. Images are a way to communicate abstractly. There once was a time when images were factual and true. Susan Sontag said images don’t lie but now they lie the most. But it doesn’t matter because reality is so fluid.
That’s a very positive outlook on art making.
I find irony and nihilism to be unsustainable. I’m more interested in something timeless.
The darkness is important too. The way I see the world, is people trying to figure out different ways to distract themselves from things that are a little bit more intense to handle.
So what is your view on spirituality?
Mysticism is something that is everywhere for me and living in Los Angeles allows you to explore it in many different avenues. Like a true Los Angeles person, I’ve been really fortunate to be involved in certain mystery schools where things are studied in very serious ways through lectures, readings and practice. Making art is magic in a way, it’s an alchemical process where you are turning one thing into another. It then projects a meaning or has an energy that it communicates. Magic and art for me are interchangeable. It is about internal power.