Kelia Anne MacCluskey, aka Kelianne, is notably without the need to impress others. Her photography is achingly cool – arresting and intriguing – and yet she speaks about it with rare lucidity and consideration. This lack of pretentiousness makes her a joy to interview and translates in images that enchant in their ability to speak as much of their creator as of their subjects. From Google to the divine, the Los Angeles-based photographer and director speaks with encouraging openness about her creative thoughts, processes and struggles. 
Did you find your time at art school worthwhile? What lesson did you take from it that is still with you today?
I devoted four years at art school to making mistakes with my work: one of the most important artistic endeavours. Quickly, I realized that almost everything has been done before. This haunted me initially. I felt as though I’d never make anything new. In the end, I had a professor enlighten me – he told me that yes, perhaps it has been done, but not by you.
Can you talk about your creative process? What are three things you think about every time you create? How much time is spent head-scratching over concepts and how much time is spent just going for it?
1. Has anyone done this before? Probably. Research its inception.
2. What’s the point?
3. Does this make you satisfied? No? Keep creating.
I start with an elusive concept. I like to communicate an idea with the subject I’m collaborating with. This is usually translated through Google images: I collate them in order to loosely illustrate an idea, a feeling. I shoot impulsively, moving in the direction that comes naturally, receptive to improvisation and the ‘magic’ that might happen unexpectedly. Somehow – afterwards –, I find the words. All at once. I see an idea come to life and suddenly, I’m able to articulate its significance.
You have mentioned a ‘creative divine energy’ playing a role in your creative development after moving to Los Angeles. Is creativity a spiritual process for you?
It absolutely is, but not in a romantic way. It’s a detachment from my work. While shooting, I go into a very intentional autopilot. It feels as though this ‘creative divine energy’ makes the decisions for me. I find it hard to take compliments on my work because I feel as though I wasn’t the creator. On the other hand, I find it easy to digest criticism and possess the ability to relentlessly critique my own work.
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You’ve recommended in a previous interview the works and philosophies of Roland Barthes. How did you come to be interested in Barthes in particular? Do his philosophies and theories reflect in your practice, and if so, how?
I spent a generous amount of time reading and studying Barthes while at school. His critical theory of the medium contributed to the elusive quality of photography that I’m obsessively drawn to. For me, his writing on the practice established its significance as an art form. Barthes effortlessly marries philosophical association with the mechanical reproduction of images. One of his most romantic concepts speaks to me – that photographs capture “what could never be repeated existentially” (quoted from Camera Lucida). By approaching my work with this philosophy, whatever is in front of me begs to be documented as such: ‘this happened, but only once’.
How did you become interested in the surreal? Can you talk about some other artists whose work lies in that vein that have inspired you?
I did not go out seeking the surreal. My work is true to how I go about my day. By omitting certain details and exaggerating others, I like my work to have a sense of grounding reality touched by subtle absurdity. In the way that William Eggleston elevated the ‘everyday’, I like to make the ‘everyday’ feel a bit fantastic. I am endlessly inspired by Pierre & Gilles: they have created a brilliant, surreal world which their subjects live in. They’ve absolutely mastered tasteful absurdity.
How do you go about achieving such a striking de-contextualisation of the familiar in your work? What elements of familiarity to you find yourself depending on in order to achieve this uncanny, ‘feels wrong’ quality? Which ideologies do you get the most satisfaction out of subverting?
Barthes also has a hand here – my work is thus inclined thanks to the influence of his writing so eloquently on semiotics. By taking words, symbols, and meanings and restructuring what is expected, there’s a natural sense of ‘something wrong’ that follows. By playing into the everyday – the expected – and changing the function or meaning of an ordinary object, it makes the whole image unsettling. Every recognizable object has an association, a function. It’s a simple reconsideration of an intended purpose, rendering it useless or exaggerating it. My friend Max Siedentopf has mastered this philosophy. Of course, traditional beauty standards are fun to subvert because they’re already unrealistic and outrageous.
How would you like the people who view your work to feel? Does it change with every image, or is there an overarching message you’d like to convey through your photographs?
To be honest (and selfish), I don’t make work for other people. In the same sense, I don’t want to dictate how people feel while looking at my work. Creating images feels intrinsic to my being, to my satisfaction. I’ve tried to maintain this approach so that my heart isn’t broken when someone doesn’t like my work. The overarching message changes depending on the image. I hate giving into clichés, but I like to think I make memorable work, something that sticks with you.
“Traditional beauty standards are fun to subvert because they’re already unrealistic and outrageous.”
Does taste have to be personal? How much of yourself (intentionally or otherwise) do you think manifests in your work?
I pour every bit of my soul into my work. It starts with my subject, I pour myself into them first. Having a connection, whether it be positive or negative, will always translate in an image (sometimes fatally so).
Your work possesses a certain timelessness, emphasising a sense of anachronistic ‘wrongness’ and feelings of not belonging. How do you react to the past? How do you find and collate inspiration? Are you more focused on moving away from the established into something original, or building on what has come before? Or something else entirely?
I am attached to the way that humans are able to foster memories. We are able to shape memories into exactly what we want them to be. We are able to polish moments, embellishing and omitting as we please. The work I create holds the same philosophy. In the same way that we daydream, curating a moment, a feeling, I manipulate my work to have the same timeless feeling. It feels perfect, without error. Because of that quality, something is off. Something is wrong. Nothing is ever this perfect.
What has been one of your biggest creative challenges so far?
The most frequent is the guilt I feel for not always wanting to create. I was born an artist. I have twenty-four hours in a day. If I don’t create during those twenty-four hours, I feel hopeless. Useless. My purpose is to create, and if I don’t, I feel as though I have failed. I’ve learned that creating is a process. It’s a day off, it’s a two-hour bath, it’s an indulgent moment with my partner. I don’t need to churn out work. I can’t force my work. My biggest challenge is being okay with that.
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