Interview between Blair Cannon and two up-and-coming young Latinx artists, lberto Vargas (A) and actor/artist Andrea Granera (B), discussing the roles of photographer and subject.
This improvised shoot is a project about how being a subject can be a performance in itself—it points to a confidence in us that we may not have in our everyday lives and that it’s achievable once we allow ourselves the comfort to play.
Walk me through why you chose to make this particular set of images.
A: So I took this selfie because I was having a really good time with these curtains I got and then I put it on my story. I had met Berto after yoga with our friend Maria. Then we all talked on the train and then I think–did we all get off at Myrtle Wyckoff?
B: That’s the best way to meet someone, probably.
A: It was such an NY chilled-out, NY story.
B: Super zenned out.
A: We were all just talking and it was really nice. And then Berto followed me on Instagram and I was like, “Oh my god, I love this work.” And then I posted this selfie and Berto was like “Oh I love this” because it was artfully structured. And I was like “We should totally shoot something inspired by this–which is me in front of these curtains.”
Isn’t that every conversation? “We should shoot together.”
A: Especially when you see someone that… I don’t know, I feel like when I first got to New York, I was like, “Anyone that does anything, hell yeah.” But now I’m like, no, I actually know what I admire in people and so I think I’m at that point. And it’s cool to have it be so organic, like I met this person through a friend and I think their work is so great. It was just a really good match. So then Berto came over and we didn’t really have an idea, but I just thought we could do me in my room with these curtains. These curtains are like the main inspo for me, this sparkly feeling. For me, it was like living out a fantasy of being that Petra Collins girl but my version. Not really that, but what my interpretation of that is. And not by Petra Collins, by us.
What attracted you to each other’s work?
B: For me, it was just about, as soon as we met, you know how you just kind of vibe with people. And I was like, okay cool, I’m interested in you. Sometimes I just meet people I’m interested in to photograph or to just be their friend. You meet somebody and it’s just like, you look cool and we had a cool conversation, like we should link up and see what happens.
It’s weird how this is how it always happens but I’ve never spoken about it out loud before.
A: And that’s the best thing. That’s the only way I want it to be. It can’t always be like that, and it’s really special.
B: It’s interesting to me because when I met you I was making an intention to be more that way.
A: What way?
B: Kind of like meet people more organically as opposed to how I was used to meeting people for the past couple years which was like, “Oh I’ve seen you online a couple times, what’s up? We went to the same places, or I like your work, let’s work.” And that’ll be it, like an online connection. But I just feel like there’s something really special in following your instinct when you see somebody in person. You just break character.
It’s a combination though, no? If you don’t follow each other, you’ll never see that person again.
A: It’s true, Instagram connection is a nice supplement, it’s a nice complement to knowing that person, but it is truly so far from the real thing–which is crazy that our art culture makes a culture of: literally, your Instagram personality, to some people, that’s you.
What kind of work were you making at the time? Or what were you looking to make?
B: In general, I was kind of looking for subjects, different types of subjects. Shooting portraits of different people, different artists, anybody I find interesting. Their spaces, their environment, how they want to express themselves. How they choose to portray themselves during this photo session.
Do you shoot more in studio or environmental?
B: I used to have a studio for a couple years, so I was shooting that way for a long time. But I’ve recently been transitioning into shooting more onsite, on location. Hence, setting the intention of being more organic. It all kind of came together.
A: I remember when you came to do it because I was like, “I don’t know what it’s going to be.” But I know what I had in mind, and you were like, “So what do you want to do?” And I was like, “I want to do just me in my room.” And you were really interested in that idea of capturing someone in their environment.
B: It’s one of my favorite things to do, so why not? For me, it’s the best way to capture somebody or get to know them especially when you’re first starting to have an artistic relationship because you’re just seeing what you want to show. And from there, like we did…
Girls in their room, that’s something that people recently started being really interested in shooting in the past five or so years. And it’s interesting that a guy shot it.
A: My relationship to art was in an interesting ambiguous place where I felt like photography–because I used to do, well I do photography, and acting and all these things–what was most important to me for all that work is intuition and playfulness. And I think that I really wanted someone whose vision and work I just trusted and felt comfortable around to really explore how far I can take being a subject? And how much of a drama queen can I be authentically? I feel like I have an authentic drama queen thing about me that is strange, genuinely very strange. It makes sense that I’m a theater kid to people. I did really feel like Berto was down to just explore that with me. What was interesting to me was that I wasn’t trying to perform drama queen in her room, I was trying to just be myself. And I’ve seen that the aesthetic is that in the last few years. And I thought that that was interesting when that’s how I actually am when I’m just hanging out by myself.
The lighting is the same as it is right now.
A: It was just my room’s lighting.
And that’s exactly what you look like right now. This is how I imagine you, Dre, when I think of you, it’s in this room, in this light, in front of this curtain.
B: That’s why it was kind of difficult to speak about the conceptualization of it because it was so organic. I was like, “Your room is so cool! You have so many little sets in your room.” Let’s shoot here, let’s shoot there.
A: I definitely have always liked to make everything that is mine into a bit of an art piece, I guess, but I don’t think about it that way. I have costume pieces.
Did you have cameras when you were kids? And little sets in your room?
A: That’s the thing!
Were you taking self portraits or photographing your friends?
A: I was doing it all for sure with a Best Buy digital camera, and I was really into MySpace and coding and my parents used to buy disposable cameras and I would take pictures. And after this, I found some of my photography from when I was thirteen with this digital camera. Always, always. The thing about sets that I used to love–well I used to love playing Bratz obviously. And Barbies, but definitely more Bratz. I used to make little rooms for them out of things that weren’t Bratz.
I used to do that too!
A: Right? Like make the environment?
I had the little digital camera.
A: So poppin! It was so fun. All of it, it was a shelf and I put magazines and stuff as the wallpaper and all of this random stuff.
B: I picked up a camera–I mean, I would always shoot way too much on the disposables–taking pictures of myself and my finger and the table and the chair. Being like this little interpretive, techy geeky kid.
A: You were more introverted?
B: Absolutely, yeah. Very quiet and studious.
A: Did you get good grades?
B: Yeah. Finding some sort of language through whatever art I was doing.
When did you start photographing people?
B: I would say, officially when I was in high school when I was like 15.
Did that seem like a natural thing to do?
B: Yeah but actually, people in general, I started photographing my friends skateboarding or my family at home. Those were the first people I started photographing because obviously the first people available were my little brother sitting there playing Playstation and my mom and dad hanging out in the living room, just natural subjects. But after that it was my friends skateboarding in the park, and after that it would be people in high school who would want their picture taken and I would have a nice camera.
A: What was your go-to to shoot on?
B: The first camera I got to experiment with was a Nikon cool pix.
A: Yeah, I had a cool pix.
B: And I had a 1 gigabyte card, or 256 megabytes or something just really insignificant and annoying compared to now. Yeah, Nikon Cool Pix.
A: What color?
B: It was silver. With a fat battery.
A: Gotta make sure to charge it.
Dre is from California, Berto you’re from New York. I kind of know what brought Dre to the city, theater and acting. And Berto you were born in a place with a creative industry, so you didn’t have to come here, but what made you get involved on a professional level? Why did you take it to the place that you’re at now?
B: I got really lucky to know I just had this drive in me early on. I trusted myself and a pretty good support system of friends and family around me.
A: And your friends were like that too?
B: Yeah very helpful, and we were like, “We’re all going to be skateboarders and artists or musicians or fashion designers.” Just kind of had a community around me of forward thinking people and young kids with exposure to all different sorts of artists and living artists and some people who have artists in their family. Just hustlers in general, people who aren’t even exposed to the art world but are creative in their natural instinct, these types of people.
A: When did you know you were going to do it professionally?
B: Once I started getting paid for it. And I realized I didn’t have to get a regular job like my friends, that set something off in my brain. I said, “Oh wow, I can work for myself and have fun and sharpen a skill that I really, really like and am passionate about?” In high school, I was doing little gigs for 60 bucks a headshot, at the Brooklyn Bridge, you know, like the kids who go to prom and I’d go shoot their prom with them. Hang out with them, I’d be like a grade under and they’d just take me with them and give me 40 bucks or whatever, and next time they saw me in the hallway…
You were really comfortable approaching people and taking their photo.
B: It was almost like they would offer to be a subject first. That’s how it’s always kind of worked for me, it’s always been like either there’s already a relationship between us or they understand that I’m a photographer looking for subjects and they want to be photographed. I remember I used to post a lot on MySpace like, “Looking for people to shoot, who wants to shoot?” Just trying to build it lowkey and get it started.
If you were on the same coast you would have met up from MySpace.
A: Who knows what would have happened in that case?
B: Just to wrap that up, there’s a better answer to that that’s really fast. I was really passionate about photography, kept it going, I had a mentor in high school who used to just send me to different photo programs and try to get me to do more artsy things. He sent me to this gallery to check out in SoHo. I pulled up and spoked to the gallerist. She liked me and we ended up linking up and she gave me my first show at 18 with a bunch of professional photographers who were really big in the surf skateboard kind of genre. After that I was kind of like, alright I can either go to school and not have any money for a bit–I couldn’t even afford to go to school, it wasn’t realistic for me. But I was accepted into SVA and all that and that was going to be my path, but then I just started shooting and hustling and got an assisting gig after that and kept it going since then. That’s the quick version.
You both haven’t done a whole lot of interviews?
A: I have such a hard time saying what I do nowadays. It’s so hard.
B: I was having the same.
A: I think I’m an artist, mainly an actor, I think.
I don’t know what I do.
A: I’m Andrea Granera. I grew up in Oakland California. My parents are from Nicaragua and then I moved to NYC three years ago to study theater. Ever since then I’ve been doing all kinds of art-related things in New York.
B: I’m gonna think about that. And I’m gonna write it down for you.
There are a lot of girls now shooting femininity but there’s also other perspectives.
B: Right. I try to just be honest with my perspective.
Are you drawn to subjects that are women or men or maybe it doesn’t matter to you? Or if you approach it differently?
B: I like what you said about the energy. For me that’s the most important thing, it’s just the energy. Sometimes I shoot women who I feel might have some more feminine energy but in the shoot they express more masculine, and I just follow that. I typically tend to just follow the subject. In the past it’s been–just because of my intro to photography and the natural eye of a young kid who picks up a camera and is around people who wanted to be photographed–I ended up shooting a lot of kind of sexy photos, appreciating the feminine body in that way. But it’s evolving, and it evolves every day. I’m just trying to be honest with the subject and see what they’re tryna express and follow that.
I really like when women express–it could be sexuality–but also masculinity at the same time.
A: That’s what I was going to say and I’m glad we talked about it and this came up because a great point for this shoot is that first of all, the girls shooting girls thing–the thing about feminine energy to me is that it’s not just in “women.” I personally couldn’t tell you what it means to be a woman. That’s something I’m still exploring. I think the feminine is something that’s inside of everyone. I feel like what’s most important to me with a collaborator is someone who’s on that wavelength. And that could be absolutely anyone. The reason we call it the feminine is because we have a gender binaried world so that’s important. Through this shoot, I definitely explored a lot of masculinity. I think when we were looking back at the photos, you were like, “Wow you have a very strong masculine energy.” I was like, “Yeah, I think I do.” This shoot really embodied, I guess you could say the feminine and the masculine, just at play, or in unison, for many reasons. For one reasons, you have someone who is considered a man to be shooting, but I felt like it was a very feminine overall energy because I feel like that’s something that’s bigger than what we consider to be “women.” As well as the opportunity to explore masculinity, and that happening organically.
What about being artists of color working together? Do you feel sometimes that you are safer in someone else’s hands with their vision?
A: Shooting with artists of color and shooting with Latino artists, there’s just a sweet familiarity that I appreciate to that.
I think about that more on the photographer’s side of, who do I want to capture?
B:I absolutely prioritize photographing people of color. So there’s that.
A: It’s just kind of natural, it is what it is.
Because that’s where you see beauty or something you connect to or that’s what’s important? Or all?
It’s natural and it’s the most organic experience to shoot people who look like me. As a photographer and somebody who considers themselves a documentarian, I feel like it’s very important for me to follow that and keep photographing people who are close to me and how we’re raised around each other but we lead different lives. That’s the most honest perspective that I can offer. That’s what I like to do and I think everybody should do the same.
A: That’s definitely how I’ve felt.