Yvonne Todd, 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the Theresa Gattung Award for Female Arts Practitioners
Yvonne Todd, 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the Theresa Gattung Award for Female Arts Practitioners
31.08.19

An interview with Yvonne Todd

We talk with the 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the Theresa Gattung Award for Female Arts Practitioners.

How did it all begin?

I’ve always been interested in photography. I started studying it when I was 20, and it didn’t take that long for me to learn how to take photographs.

But I was never really interested in being a technician for hire because I’m not very good at listening to people, or following instructions. So I got into the arts. It was slightly accidental but it made sense, and it became apparent that this was what I should be doing, so I stopped trying to make professional photography work, and I started focusing on creating the images that I was imagining, rather than trying to get paid work trying to fulfill other people’s hopes and dreams.

Did you do any commercial work at all?

I did a bit and the results weren’t horrendous, but I found it hard not to deviate from what was required. For me, what keeps me interested in making art is the outcome isn’t always what I think it might be and I like that sense of the unknown.

I did do weddings for a while which I actually enjoyed but I wouldn’t call it easy work, although it was interesting, but I found commercial work quite high pressure. There is a different sense of pressure in what I do, but it’s only yourself that you let down, rather than a larger group of people.

At what point did you decide you’d like to study more?

I was dabbling in photography and started exhibiting on quite a modest scale and the works I exhibited were really positively received. But I was working full time as well as making work. And I just thought, if I’m going to take this seriously, I probably should invest my time and energy in it, so I went to Elam when I was 27, after about four years out in the real world.

I got higher entry at Elam, so I only had to do two years of the undergraduate degree rather than four. I’d already had quite a few exhibitions by then, a few high profile group exhibitions and a couple of dealer exhibitions as well, so I was getting established prior to going to Elam.

The year following Elam I won the Walters Prize. I guess it compressed what could have been a longer journey, because I didn’t have to slog away for a long time trying to get established and have my work recognised.

Datura 2000 C-type print, 50.8 x 40.6 cm, edition of 1 + 1 ap. Reproduced courtesy of Yvonne Todd
Datura 2000 C-type print, 50.8 x 40.6 cm, edition of 1 + 1 ap. Reproduced courtesy of Yvonne Todd

You graduated and won the Walters Prize. How did your journey progress after that?

I was then able to be a full time artist, and that was a good position to be in, not having to try and juggle art with a job. I think making art requires energy and concentration and thought and you need to be able to reflect on things and experiment. And you need time to do that. That was the most impactful element of winning the Walters Prize.

It sounds like that was a pivotal moment for you winning that award. Are there other moments like that, that feel crucial to your journey?

I suppose there are certain works I’ve made that have shaped the way I’ve operated and the way I make images, but I wouldn’t break them down into a series of moments. I think it’s a slower process than that, whereas winning the prize definitely was a moment.

There is a certain type of subject matter that has become more prevalent in my work, which is portraiture. It was always there, but that seems to be my main focus now.

My interest in constructing clothing, and designing outfits is part of the work as well. Before, most of the time, I was buying ready-made costumes, and now I’m enjoying the process of making them, well I don’t make them because I’m not very good at sewing, but designing them.

Also, my time management skills are much better, because I have three children aged three and under. I really don’t have time to deliberate now, so my methods of working have become far more efficient, which I think suits me. Now I have to commit to a decision and go with it, It’s better.

I’m really happy with what I’ve been making since my first child arrived in 2016. I feel that the work is far more decisive now. I attribute it to the fact that I don’t have time. Even though I talk about time being really important in the early days, I think I’ve been doing this long enough now that I know what I’m doing. I don’t second guess myself now. Because I’ve been a mostly full time artist for about 17 years, (with a part-time teaching job for about 5 years, ending in 2016) I’ve a much better sense of what I’m doing, even though I do enjoy having elements of the accidental and random happening, it’s just a much better run operation now.

The thing with having three small children, every day is about planning ahead. Any parent knows this but you’re always having to foresee what’s around the corner, you’re constantly thinking ahead. So, I’m still a last minute person with my photography, but I go into a shoot knowing what I want to get out of it, rather than hoping for the best.

Klerma 2008 C-type print, dimensions variable, edition of 3 + 2 ap. Image courtesy Yvonne Todd
Klerma 2008 C-type print, dimensions variable, edition of 3 + 2 ap. Image courtesy Yvonne Todd

Is portraiture still a theme that fascinates you?

Yes, it does. I think that people are intrinsically interesting, it feels like there are infinite methods of photographing someone. It’s not a subject I could ever tire of.

I’m also really interested in fashion and certain eras of clothing. Being able to bring those into my work is something I really enjoy. I like to take certain historical styles and make them contemporary, the space age sixties, and also hippy and cultic elements, but so they’re not just true to the era. I don’t think there would be any point making a faithful reproduction of something from another time, that doesn’t really interest me, it’s more how I can make it up-to-date.

For my new series, which is going to be opening at the McLeavey Gallery in the first week of September, I’ve done a portrait with an ‘80s heavy metal styling. I bring a biographical element to the work, things from my past, and my reason for being interested in a particular style is because it’s something I was exposed to or had experience of.

I loved the room in your survey exhibition Creamy Psychology that curated some of your influences.

I’m glad. It was really nice to be able to do that. I love glamour, and I’ve talked about that quite a bit, my interest in beauty pageants as a child, watching Falcon Crest, and various ad campaigns and fashion shoots in magazines that resonated with me as a teenager. I’ve always loved that. I’m not a glamourous person, I’m not that interested in that sort of thing myself, but the idea of being able to orchestrate a photo shoot where there are a lot of glamourous elements, I like to exert my energy on that front.

Since you had your survey exhibition are there new things that have come along and grabbed your imagination?

I’m sure there have been, but I can’t say what they are. It’s four years since the exhibition closed, and I had my first child the following year. Since then life’s been chaotic. I read an article in the New Yorker recently about a woman who’d written a book analyzing a whole lot of statistical data about children, and she describes having a baby like having a fire hose go off in your face all day. So that’s been my life for the last three years.

I don’t like looking at a lot of photography. It sounds a bit odd, but I find it exhausting looking at images. I think because I know how to take a photo when I look at a photo, I break it down technically, so the enjoyment isn’t there for me.

I think I enjoy photographers that don’t work in the way I work. Photographers shooting more in the documentary style or low-fi low-res gritty work. I’m quite averse to really slick polished images. I like them in fashion magazines and ad campaigns because I like to see that precise photography at its absolute best, but I appreciate quite raw gritty work, and the same with movies. That seems to be the subject matter I’m drawn to.

I don’t have time to seek things out at the moment. I’m processing whatever I’m exposed to in everyday life. I used to be a sponge in terms of absorbing contemporary art and reading about it, but I just don’t have time now.

But I do still shoot, so there’s energy to put into what’s important. Everything is strategic at the moment. I’m not shooting constantly. I’ve never really been a massively prolific photographer. And I don’t shoot digitally, I shoot large format analog film, so the process is lot slower. I have a digital camera, but I use it more for family snaps and that sort of thing.

Glue Vira, 2012 C-type print from 4x5" transparency, 120 x 94.7 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Reproduced courtesy of Yvonne Todd
Glue Vira, 2012 C-type print from 4x5" transparency, 120 x 94.7 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Reproduced courtesy of Yvonne Todd

Robert Leonard describes your work as suburban gothic. Does that resonate?

I think it’s a good description. I don’t think it necessarily applies to everything I’ve made. But I am from the suburbs and I continue to live in the suburbs, so I don’t feel it’s an incorrect description and I think it’s slightly humorous as well. Humour is important to me and it’s often quite subtle in the work. Some images are more overtly funny than others. I have a need to be entertained and I want the work to have elements of humour and I want people to enjoy it.

You say you’re from the suburbs. You were born, and studied, and now live and work in Auckland? Has that shaped your work at all?

I’m sure it has. I live in Northcote now, so I haven’t moved very far from where I grew up. It’s the next suburb. But I don’t think the work’s necessarily about that. A subculture of suburban malaise features in a lot of artwork and cinema, and I don’t think I’m making work about that, although it’s maybe an undercurrent.

I’m interested in aspirational behaviour and beliefs, I don’t see myself as being like that, but I’m quite interested in the fetishisation of consumer goods and that’s why advertising imagery interests me. It’s weaving that sense of magic around something and making it exciting.

And you do that in your own work, but there’s also a wonderful off beat element, the ordinary twisted so that it’s just a little bit creepy.

Yes. And I think creepy can be funny. I think there’s a scale for creepiness. What we find disturbing can also be amusing. I don’t try and orchestrate creepiness, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m really making images to feed myself, and I’m grateful that other people can get something out of them.

I came to photography because I wanted to learn to take technically proficient images, but the photography is almost beside the point. It’s just a means of documenting what I’m setting up in front of the camera. Cameras and lights, I just see as tools to get the job done. I don’t read photography magazines and get lighting tips and things. I don’t care. It’s not the camera that delivers the result I want. As long as it does the job. It’s a really utilitarian approach. I know how to take a photo and as long as that side of things are competent it’s all about the idea behind it.

You asked at the beginning where did it all begin? When I was 15, I was staying with my Grandma in Algies Bay, it’s a small settlement about an hour north of Auckland, mostly retired people lived there. Grandma was going to knit me a mohair cardigan and we went to the wool shop in Warkworth, the main town centre near Algies Bay, and as I was selecting wool colours I had an epiphany. I said to Grandma: “Grandma, When I grow up I think I want to work with colour!” Looking at all those different coloured mohair wools it struck me that colour was really important. The combination of colours together just grabbed me. That was my moment. So, I have mohair wool to thank.

What colours did you choose for your cardigan?

Well it was 1988. Purple, grey, emerald green and I can’t remember the fourth colour. And then Grandma dutifully knitted this elaborate cardigan that arrived in a brown paper parcel several weeks later and I wore it for a long time. I was very happy with the cardigan. So, it was the mohair wool epiphany. Just being totally struck by how colour works together. And I already had an interest in photography although I hadn’t put the two together at that stage.

You’d do a cracking series of knitwear shots. I’d love to see that.

Backlit mohair!

Yes! Please make it happen.

I actually called a show I had in 2015 at the McLeavey Gallery Mohair. Maybe that was why. It’s something I’ve always liked.

Phaedra 2000 c-type photograph, edition of 3 + 1 ap 306 x 384mm. Iamge courtesy Yvonne Todd
Phaedra 2000 c-type photograph, edition of 3 + 1 ap 306 x 384mm. Iamge courtesy Yvonne Todd

You described your studies of women as a rainbow of affliction.

You asked what draws me to pain, and I’m not really drawn to it. It’s almost accidental that the works are construed as having elements of affliction. I think I came up with that term quite a while ago when the work did have more of that in it. I think my work’s been a bit more, I wouldn’t say upbeat, but I don’t think it’s been quite as menacing of late. I think I’ve gone a bit soft after having children. I don’t think it’s happy, but the grimmer things are of the past, like the woman on crutches, the shadowy child in the wheelchair. But I do like the term, because it’s got the word rainbow in, and the word affliction. Two good words.

When people meet me, they always seem a bit disappointed and say, “but you’re so normal”. I never know what people were expecting. And I am quite cheerful. I like humour and silliness, that’s something I respond to in life. So maybe the photography is a way for me to work through the feelings of anxiety that everyone has. I don’t see it as a form of therapy, but maybe it’s an outlet.

You’ve started working with video. Tell me about that?

Well I haven’t made many videos, I think five, it isn’t a lot. Technology makes video so easy and the quality’s good and I find working with subtle elements of movement interesting. I do think in terms of still images, so my video has those qualities to them, they’re really moving still images with sound. And sometimes I think images work better as still images rather than moving.

I do enjoy making videos, but the challenges are different. I’ve ideas for more elaborate videos but they require more of a team and a bigger production and I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet. It’s a different way of working and I do like doing things myself. For my photography I use a makeup artist and sometimes an assistant, but generally I don’t like a big production. I like to keep it quite low key, and some of the video ideas I have are a bit extravagant for what I’m able to do at the moment. I think it’s something that might evolve more gradually over time.

Sound can really change the way something comes across. I often experiment with soundtracks and they make the work very different. It’s quite interesting how you can shape something with sound. I buy royalty-free soundtracks from sound libraries and a lot of them are used by corporate clients for informercials and in-house training videos. And I like that. I like that muzak approach to sound, that it’s a little bit generic, and that it might pop up elsewhere. Quite bland corporate material.

That fits with your interest in the fetishization of consumer goods.

Yes. I’m interested in those things. I go to shopping malls just to look. Products and the way they’re presented interest me. When I was a child, I used to go to Hannah’s shoe shop in Takapuna with my mum on Thursday nights. There were these girl’s shoes on display, and they were arranged a certain way, it was very tantalizing. These scraps and fragments of memories that I have appear in my work. And I remember as a kid the Swarovski crystal animals on their turntables going around in jewelers’ shop windows, and they were amazing, I remember being absolutely hypnotized by those. They were about $80 dollars apiece, which was a fortune, there was no way I was ever going to own one of those. I loved those. So, I use a lot of reflective glittery shiny things in my work now and I think that’s an homage to the Swarovski crystal animals.

Did you ever get to own one?

I got one for a wedding present. A cat.

And lastly, what does art mean to you and why does it matter?

I don’t spend a lot of time pondering what art means to me and why it matters. I make art because I’m compelled to.

Morka, 2017 C-type print from 8x10 transparency, 140 x 110 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Image courtesy Yvonne Todd
Morka, 2017 C-type print from 8x10 transparency, 140 x 110 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Image courtesy Yvonne Todd
New Portia, 2018 C-type print from 8x10 transparency film, 130 x 104.5 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Image courtesy Yvonne Todd
New Portia, 2018 C-type print from 8x10 transparency film, 130 x 104.5 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Image courtesy Yvonne Todd
Ida 2015 C-type print from 8 x 10" transparency, 120 x 94 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Image reproduced courtesy of Yvonne Todd
Ida 2015 C-type print from 8 x 10" transparency, 120 x 94 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Image reproduced courtesy of Yvonne Todd
Cleave, 2017 c-type print from 4x5 transparency film, 50 x 39.5 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Reproduced courtesy of Yvonne Todd
Cleave, 2017 c-type print from 4x5 transparency film, 50 x 39.5 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Reproduced courtesy of Yvonne Todd
The Crisis (5) 1999 c-type photograph, edition of 3 + 1 ap 400 x 314mm. Image courtesy of Yvonne Todd
The Crisis (5) 1999 c-type photograph, edition of 3 + 1 ap 400 x 314mm. Image courtesy of Yvonne Todd
Vol-Ron, 2004 C-type print, 108 x 88.4 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Image courtesy Yvonne Todd
Vol-Ron, 2004 C-type print, 108 x 88.4 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Image courtesy Yvonne Todd
Sick Pipe Arrangement, 2007 C-type print, 70 x 61.2 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Image courtesy of Yvonne Todd
Sick Pipe Arrangement, 2007 C-type print, 70 x 61.2 cm, edition of 3 + 1 ap. Image courtesy of Yvonne Todd