Elsa Leydier uses photography and found materials to unpack and re-think popular narratives of exoticism in South America.
"My work begins where the postcard breaks," writes Leydier, who has been making a range of challenging photographic series for the past 7 years. Her approaches include deconstructing visual representations of South America's regions in found imagery, manipulating press images, creating cyanotypes, and culture-jamming postcards and Olympic commemorative postage stamps. With these varying treatments, Leydier aims not to represent the terrain or people, nor to immerse the viewer in lush natural wonders, but to reveal the problems and false narratives in its constructed fantasy.
I contacted the artist via email to learn more.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Elsa Leydier
Jon Feinstein: There's a lot to talk about here, but let's go back a bit. When did you start working with photography?
Elsa Leydier: I was always interested in arts and liked taking pictures. But the moment I realized I really needed photography to express myself and decided to work with it for real was after living for a while in foreign countries. During my studies, I had the opportunity to live in places like Japan, or Latin America for a while. While I was living in those places, I felt that the everyday life I could experience had nothing to do with the perception I had from the place first, when I only knew it through images.
I realized then the power of images when it comes to describe a territory and to feed the imaginations about a place, and at the same time their incapacity to transcript accurately experiences from reality. This is when I started feeling the urge to explore those paradoxes, the gaps between pictures and reality through a photographic/artistic practice.
Feinstein: You mix straight photographs, collage, and appropriation. What initially inspired you to move beyond straight photography?
Leydier: I often use pictures because of their role or status. My interest in images is more for their role or function than for their aesthetics or visual qualities. This is why my work often has to do with already existing images. I guess as this has always been important in my work – I have never been satisfied enough by only taking pictures myself, and have been working with re-appropriation techniques since the beginning.
Feinstein: You were born in Lyon, France and now split your time between there and Rio di jinero. Does this influence the images you make?
Leydier: Of course, it does. The fact Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil in general) is a place I first knew through postcards and idealized images from outside makes me feel kind of a gap between this imaginary image I first had, and the "reality" I can find in the everyday life. Feeling this gap is necessary for me to be able to create, and this is why experimenting with territories that are foreign to me allows me to find new stories and images I will explore in my work.
Feinstein: Building on that, much of your work addresses colonialist or western views of South America and their impact on its culture as well as indigenous response and resistance. What's driving you to explore these issues?
Leydier: It is the gap, or mismatch, between the "exoticising" western representations and what you can actually feel when you experiment a territory that makes me willing to use those images. Stereotyped images exist because they are true somehow, but they are only a very tiny part of the reality of a place. Most of the stories that belong to a territory are hidden by a number of dominant ones — often western points of view. And often, local cultural and indigenous stories are hidden under them, and as they are issues that affect me, I like to reveal them, or talk about them in my work, so they become more visible.
Feinstein: In your statement, you acknowledge your conflicting role as a cultural outsider. What have been some of your greatest struggles or conflicts in approaching this subject matter?
Leydier: I think that as a non-native from places I was working on and about, I had struggled because I didn't feel legitimate to talk about those places. Once I started to assume my point of view as a foreigner, to undertake the fact I was always starting from the external/western point of view, I started to feel legitimate to work about foreign territories and to produce images about them.
Feinstein: I'm drawn to your ability to take regions and cultures which are often distorted through a western lens and pull apart the problems of their gaze, yet still produce traditionally beautiful images. They are critical and subversive, yet lush, colorful, pastel, sunlit and inviting.
Leydier: I think I always have a different approach to each work, a different pretext that leads me to create those images. But basically, what is common to every work of mine is the fact I need and want to make the images becoming images again. I don't want the viewer to "dive" into an exotic place through photography. On the contrary, I want them to feel an incapacity to dive into the reality of this place through images, and to feel them stand in front of a surface, of a built and manipulated image (as they all are), and not of the place itself.
Feinstein: You introduce your overall statement with the words "My work begins where the postcard breaks." I love this. Can you elaborate?
Leydier: I am interested in the visual representation of iconic territories — the ones that are often over-represented by postcards, the ones that have only one or two images of them, always the same ones, that circulate about. Postcards, and nowadays posts on Instagram and other social media are part of those "dominant" images. When I say that my work starts "where the postcard breaks," I mean that I actually am interested in those "postcards", those stereotyped visual representations of territories. But if I like to take them into consideration in my work — I often use them as a "plastic" basis or starting point —, I like to break them, to show their failures, and then to reveal the lesser and more local stories and images that are hidden under them.
Bio: Elsa Leyder was born in 1988, France. She lives and works between Lyon (France) and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), and is represented by Intervalle Gallery, Paris