Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard. Ilona Staller and Jeff Koons. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Some of the most outstanding pieces and series that’ll define pop culture for generations to come were the result of incredibly fruitful partnerships between artist and muse - and the latest addition to this illustrious circle goes by the name of Socrates Mitsios who realized a couple of outstanding series with Actually Huizenga that offer raunchy and unique snapshots of modern day Americana. Originally hailing from New York, photographer and filmmaker Mitsios spent quite some time traveling and actually living in Europe, before he moved back to the US and relocated to Los Angeles - amongst many other things a city rich on light, colour and dreams, attributes that perfectly back up his distinctive style in terms of narrative and vision. Lodown hooked up with the very talented Mr. Mitsios in late March.
Socrates, after having traveled Europe and actually lived in different places for quite some time, what made you decide to settle down in London of all places? I mean, the competition and prices over there are just insane...
London happened purely by chance, seven or eight years ago over Jagermeister shots listening to 90s industrial in a small town on the edge of the Black Forest in Southern Germany. Everything about this was totally random; location, placement, music, and the Venezuelan fine-artist friend of mine who made the decision with me. I had just lived in Athens for the past 10 months and wanted to stay in Europe instead of returning to New York where I was born and raised.
Through a haze of fiery and elemental intoxication, my future in London was forged… and later re-forged into my current life in Los Angeles, where I have been living for the past 2 years. LA of all the places I’ve lived or stayed, most closely represents my work and aspirations. A tropical city with endless light and space … a city that lends itself to narrative and story telling because it can be anonymous and endlessly versatile to shoot and create in. A city surrounded by epic nature, vast endless desert and mountains and ocean. And yet LA is also a breeding ground for manufactured glory and twisted vanity… elements that are also great to play with.
In the early 1900s, the founders of Hollywood wanted to make LA the new Greece. Imagining that through this new and powerful medium of cinema a new Pantheon of Gods could be established and thrive. A lot of the vegetation and plant-life was even imported from Greece to realize this living myth, creating an almost Meditteranean-esque feel to LA. A feeling mixed with other strong and sometimes discordant qualities. And so on a much smaller and more personal level LA has become my new Greece…
It makes perfect sense then that a major aspect of your work is to twist and turn the symbols of the American Dream - and its related pop culture - any way you want to...
Yes, exactly… I love the immediacy of certain elements of American pop culture – simple easy to read elements - direct and immediately comprehensible because they infuse our day to day culture. This ‘pop’ element becomes my hook, I capture attention while other elements, sometimes opposite in nature, play out in the image subversively and under the radar of your attention. It’s almost like the pop element is there to bait you, much in the same way David Lynch or John Waters does, and then to subvert or layer your instant moment of attention with other meanings.
Similarly, I like playing with ephemeral pop qualities and elevating them and freezing them in an iconic form. Forever staring back at us etched on their elevated stage.
I was wondering if there is quite a lot of research and preparation involved before you approach a new series... or does it basically come down to trusting your instincts in the end?
I approach my shoots much in the same way as film. I write out a detailed treatment with a story line and characters. I break this down into different shots that include potential compositions and story lines. I have imagery that references and supports the atmosphere or mood or technique of a shot. This may include make up, styling, movement, composition. And then I leave it there, intentionally not going further in my treatment.
In film, or moving image, a storyboard with a shot to shot chronology is really important for establishing rhythm and pace between the shots and in the overall work. Photography doesn’t need this and I think over-defining the final image makes photography stale and dead, diminishing the true gift of photography, which is its instantaneous feeling. An image, which is one moment alone, and lives and dies in that moment- that is its beauty and power. Over-defining smothers this instantaneous feeling. This is where your instincts come in and the freedom of photography takes over.
By contrast, shooting off the hip often looks pretty boring to me because it isn’t layered with the kind of meaningful experience I like in fictional non-documentary photography.
Your strong connection to movies shows off in the SoftRock films you’ve made... they reminded me a bit of what Jonathan Leder is doing in terms of delivering a fresh breeze of kinkiness and sexiness off the beaten track of today’s stereotypical imagery. I was wondering if there’s a similar project in the pipeline for you? Will you maybe even focus more on filmic stuff in the near future?
I am happy you brought this up. I only started doing photography to flush out my storyboards for potential films. While shooting these images for my storyboard, I fell in love with the instantaneous quality of photography and began my career this way. Instant cinema. So I feel a return to my origins is a return to filmmaking.
In the SoftRock series, opposing forces shine light and shadow on one another. They are the dialogue in a sort of dance that expresses an ever continuing and returning narrative. Sex is pleasure and joy and ownership and self-destruction in the other. In SoftRock, which is ostensibly a film about sexual violation, I’m looking deeper into the story and the narrative one begins to see another message. In the best stories the dynamic between the characters must change and flip unexpectedly. Looking at the imagery in this film, one begins to sense what the film is really transmitting: An adoration and edification of the ‘love story’ between Actually Huizenga and myself. In fact, this kind of emotional and physical/sexual union which is so pure and unexpected, has to disguise itself within the folds of ‘darkness.’ SoftRock II and III elaborate on this further. In Part III we use obvious Disney themes and sounds and the union of marriage and subvert these basic cornerstones of culture into sexual depravity. But the more one looks into the films one begins to see a woman character who rises above any seeming social and sexual violation to a position where she is exalted and edified for her feminine power.
My next project is a triptych film installation called Beast… Beast, intrinsically related to its’ predecessor works, the SoftRock series and the photographic series Devils’ Angels and Zoned, will elaborate their themes further. These themes will be projected into a world more ‘operatic’ in feeling and ‘universal’ in experience, a Machiavellian world in which power and dominance and duplicitous hierarchy are of utmost importance. The three films deal separately with sex, mind, and feelings, and will invoke, through the installation format, a kind of psychic spell on the viewer participants.
These days everybody has access to the very same tools... as a photographer and filmmaker, do you find this rather threatening or challenging?
I think photography will be valid in so much it gives us something unique to look at and experience. The fact that everyone takes pictures from their phones is just a fact of life. It’s a bit like photography replacing painting as the primary means of taking portraits and documenting real life events. The iphone has done that to photography. Painting became less relevant in that sense but flourished in its abstracted and conceptual forms, capturing something the camera could never. Photography has to bring a multi-dimensional understanding in order to give us its unique and relevant experience. It is forced to go beyond the iphone and the general over-saturation of imagery everywhere.