In our conversation with photographer Maude Arsenault, we learn how her use of light outpaces its visual role, addressing the contradictions inherent in femininity, parenthood and identity. Her previous introspective narrative Entangled is a book that almost prophesied the domestic seclusion of 2020, foreshadowing the feelings of confinement that the pandemic would later globalise. Building upon these confines, the new series Resurfacing serves as both a continuation and a rebirth, where the artist confronts and uproots dated expectations that once sought to define her.
Bathed in a brighter, yet more provocative light, Resurfacing invites us to confront the raw, rugged beauty of transformation. The vulnerability spoken through the interview lends solace to those who see themselves within her words and images, and we thank Maude for her honest expression.
Maude shares, “We sort of follow paths that we are shown. My whole life I felt inside of me that something was wrong with this person, this path that was shown to me – getting married, building a family, having a house, staying at home, taking care of the children, doing everything that’s expected, the right way. Being a good mother, a good woman - a good-looking, attractive woman – all these roles. Quite late, in my 40s, I realised I don’t want a young woman to follow a path that isn’t properly thought out.”
Could you tell us about the significance of the title Resurfacing and how it reflects the themes explored in your photo-series?
I started with Entangled – so Resurfacing is directly linked to those same themes explored in that series. They’re very much about the same kind of journey as a woman, mother, female artist and as a photographer dealing with this sort of crisis related to femininity and bringing up a young daughter. Now she’s twenty, but it all started when she was about twelve, so around eight years ago. That led me to make Entangled, which was how I felt trapped in my relationship to femininity and motherhood. And then moving on to Resurfacing, it’s kind of the follow-up of what happened after I made some changes in my life. After I started to deconstruct my relationship to social media and some structures related to femininity. I tried to find ways to reclaim my self-determination by turning the camera onto myself and finding new ways to explore spaces of freedom. So Resurfacing can be read in different ways. It can be seen literally as coming out to the surface, finding some light, but also it can be thought of as transforming, like how we resurface furniture or other surfaces in our home, or even our body. It’s about transforming oneself, basically.
As just mentioned, your work is centred around themes of female representation, domesticity, and parenthood. What implored you to focus your energy on these subjects and what continues to motivate you?
I think its fundamentally a very important quest that has been in my life since I was a child. I was brought up in a very particular way, sort of non-binary, or you might say, in a boy-ish way. Being a child from the 70s, my parents left behind many traditional structures, like religion, and they wanted me to be strong, free and powerful. But, the world around me was still very binary, very normative. I felt very sort of free most of my young life, but still, you know there was always this duality between seduction and sexuality and the expectations of how to behave as a woman, how we are perceived – often very much objectified, especially as a young woman in the 80s and 90s. And then I became a fashion photographer, which was a very particular position. I started in my early twenties, travelled mostly everywhere, and most of my peers were men photographers in the early nineties. There weren’t so many women, and many of those women photographers were either lesbians or had to be very - you know, masculine. The way to be feminist and strong then was to act like a man, not showing sensitivity or vulnerability. As a young fashion photographer, I think I was very concerned with trying to bring into the world new images of women, more androgynous, sexualised in a different, more personal and powerful way, through a female gaze.
Then everything changed when I became a mother at thirty. I had a daughter and then everything changed, as a female. Bringing up a child, being pregnant and breastfeeding and all of this, it really changed everything in my life. I couldn’t work the same, I couldn’t travel the same way, I couldn’t support myself the same way. I couldn’t have the same freedom. And that really, really confronted me with the question of motherhood and how, even though the world’s changing a lot, our bodies are sort of trapping us into something that is inevitable, into certain roles. And then I became older and I had more children, and you know, my daughter became older and then all these subjects about how we live our lives and construct our identities as women is a world with strong patriarchal structures, remained central to everything I do. It’s still a quest for finding my place, my space, or a space of freedom, and I really hope this work talks very much to younger women because that’s when you make decisions that will affect your life forever.
The funny thing, I don’t know how it translates into the work, but my first quest when I made Entangled was to sort of open up the ideas that we don’t have about femininity, because a lot of young women don’t necessarily reflect deeply on what they want. We sort of follow paths that we are shown. My whole life I felt inside of me that something was wrong with this person, this path that was shown to me – getting married. Building a family, having a house, staying at home, taking care of the children, doing everything that’s expected, the right way. Being a good mother, a good woman - a good-looking, attractive woman – all these roles. And then, quite late, in my 40s, I realised I don’t want a young woman to follow a path that isn’t properly thought out.
I really wanted to confront my daughter with this. These ideas that she was taking from movies and literature and, you know, that happiness is in having children and a family, and all these ways of using our body and representing ourselves. I just really hope this work actually talks to younger women because that’s when you make decisions that will affect your life forever.
Your previous book, Entangled (2020), garnered acclaim for its feminist visual language. How does Resurfacing continue this visual poetry, and how have you evolved your approach since then?
As a photographer, I’m always looking for what Roland Barthes (French literary theorist and philosopher) would call the punctum – that element of surprise in the mundane in everyday life. A little thing that brings my attention to something broken or sometimes beauty that has faded. Entangled was reflecting a lot of darker elements, utilising a lot of soft lights, not much contrast. With Resurfacing, to be honest, in terms of feminist language, it’s hard for me to respond. I’m not exactly sure what defines my work as feminist, perhaps it’s the gaze. Many people tell me it’s obviously a woman behind the work. I think it’s my gaze, my particular position. I photograph a lot of my daughter and myself, but I do it with the benevolence of a mother’s eye. There’s a lot of care in the work. I like to show a lot of duality, which is often the case for most human beings but especially for women. We often navigate the duality between our public and private lives, our personas in public and how we must represent ourselves in front of the world.
Overall Resurfacing is a bit brighter than Entangled. It contains more violence, more elements of texture, there’s a lot more deconstruction. We can see it in a lot of images that show construction sites or places that are rough, but there is more light. I find in general that it’s more in your face, less poetic than Entangled, but as a whole it sort of still maintains the same relationship to elements of duality, what I like to call the power of softness, or how we can bring softness into hard surfaces, or power into soft ones. I believe in that contradiction.
In 2020 the world was confronted with a pandemic, and since then, for most, time has unfolded a period of growth and reflection, as our previously held certainties were upended by this radical shift. Given that Resurfacing follows up and extends the thematic narrative laid in Entangled - which was on shelves prior to the global upheaval - have your interpretations of your concepts evolved in the decisive years leading to this new book, and if so, how?
The book came out beginning of February 2020, so like three weeks before everything changed with the pandemic. It’s funny, this often happens with artists, some kind of instinct almost like hypersensitivity that makes you see things coming. The strange thing is, just before the pandemic I was doing a lot of work related to feeling trapped in the house. I obviously didn’t know what was coming, but it sort of felt like the work was almost related. Some of the work I made just before was called Home Trap, and there were a lot of elements in my work that made me think, Whoa, okay, that’s strange, it’s like I saw this coming. But for me, it was about how I felt trapped in my relationship with being a woman in a home and in a family and in that sort of relationship with all the responsibilities that come with being a responsible woman who takes care, you know. I felt really trapped also in my relationship with my partner.
So the book came out and it had nothing to do with the pandemic, but in a way it was sort of talking about how a lot of people felt that way, trapped. And then a lot of people sort of changed their lives while the pandemic was happening because the pandemic sort of forced us to face each other, right? Because we had nowhere to go. We had to stay home and be together and face each other. Face our partners, face our lives and the choices we’ve made and so the situation, for me at least, got me to change a lot of things in my life – to separate, to move out. I started my grad school degree at the same time and it got me to be really involved in gender and female feminist studies. And yeah it gave me a lot of validation to make changes - it was a confronting time, to ourselves, but also with how the world would evolve and I think it gave us the need and the desire to be more truthful and more authentic. I don’t like this word, but yeah authentic with the choices we make and the life we want to be living. So I think Entangled sort of feels like it could have been done during the pandemic or around the pandemic because we felt trapped.  Resurfacing also refers to finding the light at the end of the tunnel, even though there is never any real light (laughs), but sometimes there is, you know. So yeah, it was a desire for, again, finding spaces of freedom and self-determination.
I find it so odd how Entangled feels like it foreshadowed the pandemic. The term trapped is quite elusive, whether its feeling trapped within one’s identity, within a relationship, or literally within the walls of a house due to a spreading virus, I find it resonates similarly across these contexts. Trapped is charged with similar emotional weight, no matter the scenario, so what makes this all crazy to me is that your work almost predicted how the entire world would be feeling in the years to come.
So when you published Entangled, you introduced a set of ideas through the book. Over the course of the pandemic, as you worked on Resurfacing, did your thoughts on these ideas change? How have they evolved in response to the circumstances you’ve described?
Basically, my life before Entangled was really different, I was in a very bad place. I was not working, I was at home, I was very depressed. And then, I made these images that are in Entangled, from 2016-2019, when I was going through a very difficult time, feeling very depressed, but also very discouraged with what my life was becoming and what to do with it. So I took the camera in a sort of active survival to just photograph what was around me, which was my children, my house, my daughter. And then, when I made the book, that was really sort of like a break in life. I met Clint, my publisher, and it just all happened really suddenly, really fast, really sort of in a dream kind of way. And then, the book really changed everything, the book came out and suddenly I got into grad school and also got all this spotlight for my work and then it sort of hit like a tsunami. Everything started happening, even though it was a pandemic, I was getting a lot of attention and a lot of space to express myself. And also I was doing grad school, so it also gave me the strength and the courage to make some changes in my life. As I said, also because of the pandemic, I was confronted with how things were not necessarily what I wanted for myself. So, you know, I separated, I moved into a new place, I had to learn to live sort of with my kids, but by myself because I had been in a relationship for 20 years. I had to really learn to live a life on my own and rediscover all these elements that make you free. When you live with someone you’re in a relationship with, you compromise all the time, everything is a negotiation. But now suddenly you’re by yourself, you have this place and you can make it exactly the way you want. You can use your time the way you want, you can cook whatever you want, you can not cook if you don’t want to. So all this for me was like the beginning of finding a new space for myself. With grad school on top of that, I was meeting all these new people, and then the book was making its own life, which was bringing me a lot of attention and gave me a lot of strength. It gave me a lot of confidence to follow my instinct and to keep going.
As I look through the images, they seem to sway between calm natural settings and what I would describe as the untamed chaos of unkempt outdoor spaces. To me at least, it feels as though this contrast suggests themes of renewal and rediscovery, of reclaiming and redefining one’s self or surroundings. Can you share how these images reflect the narrative of Resurfacing?
For some reason, I think It’s because I was changing so many things in my life and reappropriating elements of power for myself, I also felt in a way broken. Not broken in a purely negative sense, but in a way that I’m not a clear surface anymore. I have all this past and I have accumulated all this experience. I became really interested in everything cracked, everything textured or cracked that had history, whether it was a wall with cracks or looking [at] myself through the camera. I had looked at a lot of other women, younger women, my whole life, and suddenly I wanted to face this. I wanted to face my age, my history, my story, and the power that lies in all these imperfections, all these cracks and folds. So, I think the poetry maybe comes from something less flat, from something more textured. I also became very interested in transforming my images into something more material, adding more materiality to everything I do, like collaging, drawing, and printing on different surfaces and materials that I would transform into sculptures and installations. There was this very strong element of wanting to transform my relationship to myself, my body, womanhood, but also to photography, which I have done all my life. So, I was looking for more textures, more life in the elements. What I was very attracted to all this time, and I still am, is anything decomposing, or in transformation. I think there was a strong appeal for me to relate to anything in transformation, whether it’s deconstructing or constructing, like building sites and anything my eyes were attracted to. Also lots of folds and textiles, always in contrast and in conversation with the sensuality of softer structures, like fabrics and curtains and all the ways things are used to cover and hide things. Sometimes I was just trying to find a little light in between to figure out what was behind things and what was hiding.
Your photo-series predominantly features black and white images, interspersed with occasional coloured photographs. How do you decide whether a photograph should be in colour or monochrome, and what intention guides this choice? How does the use of colour, or lack thereof, contribute to the overall narrative of your book?
I have always had a hard time responding to this question, I’m very interested in both colour and black and white, but I find myself using black and white a bit more. I think it helps me bring things to a sort of neutral place. I appreciate the duality of black and white – I like how the different shades of grey can express varying emotions, from softness to a more contrasty hardness, which feels rougher and tougher. As for colours, they introduce a certain seduction. I think colours add more seduction and poetry to the images.
Your work has been described as oscillating between abstract compositions, self-portraits, landscapes, and documentary images. What attracts you to exploring such a diverse range of subjects and styles in your work?
It’s interesting. I don’t quite see it that way. I like to think that it’s the narrative that draws me into all these aspects of my work. I don’t see myself as limited to one type of subject. I could probably photograph anything, but I find that I’m consistently drawn to the same things in my work, which is textured and sculptural shapes, bodies and spaces of the bodies and how they translate and dialogue with the world, whether it’s nature or urban life, for I think it’s always about a relationship between the private and the public. It doesn’t necessarily translate into just doing landscapes or portraits. But definitely I don’t do a lot of portraits – I mainly do self-portraits. When I do, I often use my own body to perform for the camera. If not, I use a lot of elements of intimacy, whether it’s clothing or the body or elements of the home. And then I like to put that in conversation with the elements of the public, as I said, whatever is outside intimacy or privacy.
As a photographer, artist, mother and feminist, one can assume that the intersectionality of these identities inform your creative expression. If so, do you find yourself feeling the need to navigate through the complexities inherent in these intersections?
Definitely, I do see myself at the intersection of all these things, for sure. I think we mentioned this a little bit at the beginning, that my work is definitely informed by all these aspects of my lived experiences. This involves working in fashion, being a mother, being educated as an artist, my education as a child. Also my relationship to a very particular place, which is Quebec, which is where I come from, which is a very feminist place in the world. We have a very strong posture, and that informs a lot of who I am in my work. I think that intersection also related to the previous question about how I intertwine various locations and subjects in my work – whether through more seducing images using light or the subjects of the photographs themselves, or through self-portraits, taking photos of my kids, and capturing public spaces and nature. All these elements intersect. I think there’s nothing fixed about me and my work, and I don’t see myself as someone who is trapped in one style or posture. I like to think of my work and myself as fluid and in constant motion. I’m interested in movements, in following your journey, and then obviously the work follows with it. And all the people we represent, all these intersections come along, right? They inform us, and the work is definitely shaped by that.