Alva Bernadine Interviews
Alva Bernadine’s photographic philosophy can be summed up in five words: astound, confound, intimidate and Gorgonise. He aims to produce pictures of lucidity with “eye appeal.” He creates pictures so they can be read on two levels, either for their surface (colour, composition, etc.) or for their deeper meaning. Their are two things Bernadine requires in all his photographs — they should contain narrative and they should have tension. When creating a picture he starts with an event, usually an inconclusive narrative which the viewer must try to complete themselves. He tries to create a relationship between people and objects and to make the image as impending as possible.
There are few faces in Bernadine’s work, because he has renounced portraiture. “I found portraits rather static in a narrative sense,” he says. “They are also ‘lies.’ They pretend to be about the people in them , but the best ones are always about the artists themselves, and their vision of the world.” His renunciation of portraiture has lead him to use shadows, crop out faces, and partially or totally obscure them. “Where I have left faces, their function is to intimidate. These ‘unpersons’ become ciphers and let me express my will. Every picture I take , no matter what it is of, is a picture of me. They are all clones of Alva Bernadine. I am the Bernadinist. I am the artist as Megalomaniac.”
“I just don’t agree when people say my work is surreal. If anything it’s simply extraordinary.” The English photographer Alva Bernadine pulls every trick in the book: he uses multiple exposures and those fisheye lenses that completely distort perspective, anything to get the most radical looking pictures fit to print. The resultant images can’t help but draw the viewer’s helpless eye to pour over every lid-smacking detail. The seeming impossibility of the subjects, the highly narrative quality , and the disdain of conventional techniques have made this author the darling of many an art director and picture editor.
Bernadine started taking pictures in 1983, and just a few months later he was experimenting with the kind of images he is still famous for. He claims to have been influenced by the French surrealist photographer Guy Bourdin and paid tribute to him with an initial interest in one of the artist’s pet subjects: footwear. Tacking his own likeness into the images in the form of a silhouette, Alva was soon seeing his work appear in Condé Nast publications. He works mostly outdoors because he feels that “nothing can match the force of a picture with a carefully selected background landscape.” His use of a small format camera means that he can work with a greater sense of immediacy, concentrating on the business of taking pictures and not the endless preparation s of a set. The five-point “Bernadinian” credo runs as follows: The image must astound, confound, provoke, intimidate and “Gorgonise” by which he means hypnotize.
WOMEN ON THE VERGE. IT’S KITCHEN SINK DRAMA WITH A PVC CATSUIT AND A TAB OF ACID. ALVA BERNADINE INVITES YOU ON A TRIP.
A GLASS EYEBALL staring intently from a vagina; a washing line suspended from a woman’s breasts; a series of spanked bottoms undulating from the impact; and an assortment of images that the perpetrator describes as being “of such filth and degradation that the most cursory glance would turn a novice nun into a whore”. Welcome to the startling world of Alva Bernadine.
Bernadine’s imaginative images bind elements of surrealism and pornography together with lurid colour and absurdist humour. His collected snaps and writing entitled Bernadinism: How to Dominate Men, Subjugate Women and Stupefy Children acts both as a catalogue of ideas and a breakneck tour through this one-man subculture. At the turn of every page you encounter a montage of vaginas, flowers and butterflies, with chapter titles like “How to Become a Serial Killer” and “How to Become Debauched While Remaining a Virgin”
Bernadine Honed his skills with a smorgasbord of night classes, and his first commission was working door to door as a baby photographer. “I wasn’t very good at it,” he laughs, “but I got the bug.” Thereafter, he began developing his own ideas with a heady cocktail of influences ranging from Magritte to Helmut Newton; fashion photography to reportage. In 1987 he won the Vogue/Cecil Beaton Award with a series of pictures of a woman’s shoe.
In his photograph “The Philosopher Illumined by Candlelight” a man sits in a darkened bedroom reading by candlelight. The lighted candle is protruding from a woman’s vagina. This theme of woman as utility is a regular motif in Bernadine’s work. What exactly is he trying to express?
“I don’t really think about that,” he declares. “Normally, I get an idea for a picture and if I can’t think of a good reason not, I take it. I can’t censor my own stuff.”
What about accusations of misogyny? “That doesn’t bother me much,” he says. “You bring your own experiences to a picture. Sometimes I am surprised at the way they’re interpreted, but every opinion is as valid as mine because I haven’t usually formed an opinion before I’ve taken the shot. It’s only later that I work out the ramification. My work isn’t about subtlety. I need a reaction. It’s better to be a bad influence than no influence at all.”
ALVA BERNADINE, A Disciple of the anti-portrait
Alva Bernadine describes himself as a disciple of the anti-portrait school of thought”. The most important reason for which he renounced portraiture is that he does not believe people can be defined in portraits and this why you rarely see faces in his work. He first took this strict position in the mid ‘80s, when he hammered out his photographic manifesto, the Bernadinian credo which runs as follows: astound, confound, provoke, intimidate and Gorgonise.
The work of this photographer has been influenced by the French surrealist photographer Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. As Bernadine says, “I am an exhibitionist who needs people to notice – that’s why I’m always aiming for something extraordinary.” And he adds “I think of a provocative image then try to marry surrealism and haute couture.”
Bernadine’s philosophy has served him well. At the moment he is working with both advertising and editorial photography and has appeared in New Scientist, Vogue, GQ and The Sunday Times amongst other publications, as well as various ad campaigns including publicity for Kodak in France.
In his photography he always tries to relate people to the most diverse range of objects. And although there is a ‘double layer ‘ of meaning in his pictures , the impact of just the outward layer is spectacular enough for many viewers.
“I’m a disciple of the anti-portrait school of thought. I have renounced portraiture.”
Rebel with a cause and an extraordinary effect
When the Tories got back in 1987, Alva Bernadine came up with his own five point manifesto; a photo-philosophy. The ‘Bernadinian credo runs as follows: Astound, confound, provoke,
intimidate and Gorgonise.
The work of this award-winning London based photographer, influenced by the French surrealist photographer Guy Bourdin, just begs to be stared at – Gorgonise, if you will. “I’m an exhibitionist. I need for people to notice – that’s why I’m always aiming for something extraordinary.
“I think of a provocative image and then try to marry surrealism with haute couture. I don’t believe you can define the personality of people with a photograph so formerly there were few faces in my work. I tend to create ‘events’.”
This ‘view from the edge’ enables Alva to create pictures of ‘terrible lucidity’ with ‘eye appeal’. He adds: “My pictures are self-indulgent without being impenetrable. I make them to be read on two levels; either for their surface, colour, composition, etc. or for their deeper meaning. What I am trying to do is impinge the image in the mind of the viewer, either overtly, or subliminally by what De Chirico called “shock through paradox”.
Alva, who works in both the advertising and editorial field, (Tatler, Vogue, GQ, Sunday Times, Elle – and various ad campaigns, including a promotion for Kodak Pathé in France) leaves subtlety for those better able to deal with it and instead opts for ‘radical eye appeal with wit and incision’.
He searches or rather preys on two objectives with his images: tension and narratives. “There is no place for conventional beauty in my photographs. I seek an ugly beauty.” He adds: Other experimental photographers of my generation in this country choose to treat the surface of the picture by scratching, bleaching, toning, painting and so forth – but the underlying image is still the same as it has always been. I, on the other hand have kept the illusory fidelity of the photograph and imbued it with a new depth – a sort of ‘Expresso-surreality’ – a world filmed in ‘Bernivision’.”
Also part of the Bernadine brief is the development of the relationship between people and things. “I take still lives – but with people. I’m a ‘static’ photographer – not much moves in my work.”
Alva is no fan of portraiture – he has renounced it as ‘a lie’. “Portraits pretend to be about the people in them but the best ones are always about the artists themselves and their vision of the world. When I look at Bill Brandt’s portraits all I can see is Bill Brandt. All the portrait photographer is doing is recreating the world in his own image. And if you’re the one doing the sitting it is impossible to have a camera shoved in your face and be your normal self. As soon as the camera focuses, the subject becomes self-conscious and has a problem of what to do with his/her face. To be recorded for posterity is an awesome thing.”
For Alva Bernadine the essence of his surrealistic images lie in their ‘unresolvedness’. “If I choose to throw in the air, however gratuitously, a fish, a Coke can or my old mum – it is all still perfectly valid!”