Talking to Northern Ontario born photographer, Kourtney Roy, about her childhood, it’s hard to imagine that the tales she describes aren’t straight from the pages of a book. Dodging wild animals in frozen forests and spending summer holidays with her cowboy father, Roy was never going to be short of creative influence. Although her Canadian roots are clearly visible within her unusual, cinematic photo work, there are smatterings of various other forms of inspiration, ranging from B movies to Southern gothic novels.
Now based in Paris, Roy has recently released a new book of her latest project, titled The Tourist, a bitingly cynical yet undeniably humorous look at the concept of the holiday photo. Next on her list, she tells me, is a screenplay for a film that she hopes will be made in the near future, and a new book. However, in the case of Kourtney Roy, I get the impression that she could be taking photos on the moon by this time next year.
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From what I’ve heard about your childhood – learning to swing an axe before you could walk, shooting firearms as a child in the wilds of Northern Ontario and becoming the regional cross-country ski champion by the age of 13 – I’m unsure of how much I should take with a grain of salt. What was it really like growing up in the frozen Canadian wilderness, and how does your upbringing bleed into your work, if at all?
My childhood was definitely marked by the sort of 'rough' living I did with my cowboy dad in British Columbia. I also had a 'civilized' side to my life thanks to my mum, with whom I lived during the school semester. She preferred to live in a town, so we had the luxury of toilets, indoor showers and central heating (my parents divorced when I was very young).
There is something very unique and uncanny about the vast wilderness of Canada. People in Europe have trouble comprehending that you could go for a walk in a forest and you might never be seen again, or that you could possibly be killed by a wild animal if you’re unlucky or reckless. I’m not saying that it’s happening to people every day, but the risk is real.
Most of my work tends to take place among 'new world' architecture which harkens back to the vernacular architecture of my youth; it’s a sort of drab 20th-century utilitarianism that is so prevalent in North America. Imagine run down highway motels, corner shops with hand-painted signs, generic and bland institutional buildings, isolated gas stations, ubiquitous fast-food chains and industrial parks, all set against the backdrop of a never-ending and unfathomable wilderness.
You now live in Paris. What do you love about the city?
All the bars and art galleries.
Before discovering your adoration for photography whilst studying at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, you hoped to be a painter. What was it about photography that lured you in?
I was seduced by the immediacy and seriality of the photograph. Its indexical nature – the fact that whatever happened to be depicted in the photograph was something that existed and converged, if only for a moment, in front of the lens (baring CGI and digital manipulations of course) is still magical for me. The seriality was fantastic, in the sense that I could take many images and many different tries of a subject or idea quite quickly in order to test and see what worked best with what I was trying to do. I quickly abandoned my torturous painting exercises that would take days, if not weeks, to finish, in favour of this sparkling and versatile medium.
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There’s something about your work that embodies a Lynchian uncanniness, with characters that could be plucked straight from a cinema screen, and an often otherworldly colour palette and a veneer of false perfection that gives the sense that everything is not quite how it seems. There’s also a darkness present, like in 2014’s Hope series, which sees rows of suburban houses followed by shots of women forced into sinister positions, high heels still intact, sprawled across the floor, or running, from someone or something, away from the direction of the forest. Do you create a narrative in your mind for every image and subject before shooting or do you try to let the viewer create their own story?
I do not try to create specific narratives for each image, or even for each project for that matter. The intent is more a mixture between the spontaneous and improvised with the creation of a certain atmosphere or mood. The image comes about quite instinctually once I have set up the shot. I try to leave my work as open to interpretation a possible because trying to pin some sort of specific story or intent onto a piece is quite boring and didactic. Meaning is very fluid and ephemeral and is a constructed human concept, it does not exist inherently within the world. I prefer to employ this sort of nihilism in my work because the world is a bloody mystery; incomprehensible and obscure.
As well as its cinematic surrealism, the other element that strikes me about your work is its use of vintage iconography, whether it’s in the 1950s/60s locations, such as diners and bowling alleys, through the Tippi Hendren in The Birds style costumes, or your kitschy use of (often dark) comedy and colour. How much does pop culture affect your work? Also, can you think of any films, books or whatever else in particular?
It’s true that I do enjoy playing with a certain nostalgia in my imagery. There are definite references to '50s and '60s culture, but I also allude to other eras such as the '70s, ¡80s, and even the '90s. There is something comforting and engaging about employing codes and structures that people are familiar with. It also gives the images a false sense of security and seduction that can then be undermined by disruptive or mysterious actions and situations within the image.
Cinema is definitely a big influence on my work. I have a great affection for Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, Film Noir and old trashy B movies. I am also an avid watcher of contemporary cinema; I love the work of Andrea Arnold, Denis Villeneuve, S. Craig Zahler, Herzog, early Spielberg, Jane Campion… I am pretty open to most genres. I tend to watch about a film a day. Sometimes three or four if I feel like I need a movie day (those days where you stay in bed and order delivery three times and only get up to go pee). I do love to read as well. I like to read Southern Gothic and Westerns.
Which period in time inspires you the most? Where would you go if you had a time machine?
That’s a bit difficult to choose. One place I would be interested in seeing is Canada during the frontier days. I have read a few journals from early explorers and tradesmen and it seems like a pretty rough and precarious time, it's fascinating!
“Meaning of my pieces is very fluid and ephemeral and is a constructed human concept, it does not exist inherently within the world. I prefer to employ this sort of nihilism in my work because the world is a bloody mystery; incomprehensible and obscure.”
Although you do you use other models in your work, as seen in the series you did for Pernod Ricard that starred a large cast of the company’s employees, you often feature as the main subject of your photographs (albeit in many different guises). Was this always your plan?
It was definitely not my plan from the get-go. When I had started my photography degree at university, I was at a loss as to what I wanted to photograph. We were learning about the controversies and problematics of photographing others, people and things outside of our social/racial/economic/gender/cultural milieu and I thought that in order to sidestep the controversies of representation it would be simpler to use myself as a subject. I felt that it was a starting point from which to explore the world. After 20 years I am still photographing myself, albeit not necessarily for the same reasons. Now I feel it is based on a need to explore the imaginary realms within and to use the self as the protagonist in the parallel worlds I create.
You’ve recently released a phenomenal new book chronicling your latest series, titled The Tourist, which focuses on the concept of vacations and the obligatory ‘holiday photo'. Tell us more about it.
I had been reading about how tourism is one of the only 'sub-universes' of the imaginary where fantasy and reality coexist. I found the idea of the extension of the illusory into the physical realm to have ties with my own work. As such, for this project, I felt like I was pushing my work one step further in my exploration of the phantasmic worlds that I had already been engaged with for a long time.
In The Tourist, I created a skimpily-clad, overly suntanned, glossed-up lady-tiger who has gone in search of her ideal self in Miami and Cancún. I have a certain ambivalence about her – she is both repulsive and enticing, endearing and ridiculous, earnest yet manipulative. We tend to use our vacation snaps as a way to idealize the voyage. I conceived of the project as a photo album of a trashy and unlikely vacation. There are attempts at idealization but upon closer inspection you can see the cracks in the veneer.
And to finish, do you have anything else in the pipeline?
I just finished developing a feature film script with a screenwriter friend of mine and now we are focused on getting it made! Also, I have completed the layout for a new book called The Other End of the Rainbow that won the special mention in the Luma Rencontres d’Arles Book Dummy Award, so I am working on getting that ready for publication as well.
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