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Lara Wy­att dis­cusses sub­ver­sive fash­ion with one of New Zealand’s most prom­i­nent art pho­tog­ra­phers on the eve of her big­gest ex­hi­bi­tion to date

Lara Wy­att talks to provoca­tive art pho­tog­ra­pher Yvonne Todd on the eve of the big­gest ex­hi­bi­tion of her ca­reer

It was a freshly opened tub of mar­garine, a pho­to­graph, and the words ‘Creamy Psy­chol­ogy’ scrib­bled un­der­neath that lead to the nam­ing of Yvonne Todd’s lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion, cur­rently open at City Gallery Welling­ton. The mal­formed knob of mar­garine, left when the ma­chine filled the con­tainer, lin­gered on the top of the un­scathed sub­stance, and once Todd had snapped the shot and noted it in her vis­ual di­ary, she didn’t think much more about the name un­til she was asked to ti­tle the show — Yvonne Todd: Creamy Psy­chol­ogy.

Todd has worked with the ex­hi­bi­tion’s chief cu­ra­tor, Robert Leonard, to put to­gether a se­lec­tion of around 150 of her pho­to­graphs made since the late 1990s. The pair started off by cre­at­ing three piles of images — the yes, no, and maybe piles.

“I tried to dis­creetly slip some of the ‘no’ pho­tos into the ‘yes’ pile — a cou­ple of those man­aged to sneak through,” Todd says.

For the first time at City Gallery Welling­ton, a solo ex­hi­bi­tion will span both lev­els of the gallery, a feat Todd rec­og­nizes as be­ing quite an achieve­ment for her work.

“To be the first artist with a solo ex­hi­bi­tion that fills the en­tirety of City Gallery is a sig­nif­i­cant un­der­tak­ing, but I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced an en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse to my work in Welling­ton since I first ex­hib­ited there in 2002. It feels like the right place for the show … I haven’t had a solo show on this scale be­fore, so it’s a mo­men­tous event in my ca­reer,” the pho­tog­ra­pher ex­plains.

Due to the in­tri­cate na­ture of Todd’s work, Leonard says giv­ing over both floors of the gallery was nec­es­sary to en­hance the ex­hi­bi­tion and take it to its full po­ten­tial.

“It’s a com­plex body of work. I wanted to ex­plore it in de­tail, and I needed space to do that. The show is epic. I thought this would en­able new read­ings of Todd’s work — she’s a great artist, and funny. There won’t be other chances to see this much work brought to­gether.”

Ad­mit­ting to en­joy­ing both so­phis­ti­cated and trashy cul­ture and en­ter­tain­ment, Todd says she’s in­ter­ested in find­ing con­ver­gences be­tween the two in her work.

“Of­ten I’ll think about some­thing com­pul­sively and pho­to­graph it so I don’t have to think about it any more. I can also be in­spired by ob­scure glimpses and frag­ments, things that res­onate in my mem­ory and imag­i­na­tion … it could be some­thing I see on TV, an ad­ver­tis­ing cir­cu­lar, or a con­ver­sa­tion overheard at a shop­ping mall food court.”

The prod­uct of th­ese in­spi­ra­tional mo­ments and find­ings leads to what Leonard de­scribes as pic­tures which ex­em­plify a know­ing ar­ti­fice, a creepy air­less­ness, and a tragic glam­our. “She is fa­mous for her por­traits of fe­male char­ac­ters who seem to suf­fer from some malaise, ex­plicit or im­plicit. Her cast in­cludes cos­meti­cians, crip­ples, anorex­ics, dowdy Chris­tians, tragic heiresses, and cult

mem­bers. They’re nos­tal­gi­cally styled us­ing cos­tumes, wigs, make-up, even false teeth.”

Todd has re­ferred to the na­ture of her work as be­ing sub­ject to her repul­sion/thwart­ing sys­tem. “I have an on­go­ing tus­sle with be­ing a con­form­ist and non­con­formist, and this seems to man­i­fest in my work. When peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence my pho­to­graphs I want to be their friend, but make them un­com­fort­able at the same time.

“I’m of­fer­ing up con­vinc­ingly ‘main­stream’ images that are some­how dis­con­cert­ing and un­palat­able. There’s an el­e­ment of the in­ap­pro­pri­ate per­vad­ing some of the work.”

As Todd’s ca­reer has pro­gressed and her body of work has grown, a wider ar­ray of sub­jects — both peo­ple and ob­jects — have been in­cor­po­rated into her pho­to­graphs.

“In 2008 she be­gan pho­tograph­ing men, de­vel­op­ing a se­ries of por­traits of imag­ined cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives, spe­cial­ists, and con­sul­tants, as one might find in an­nual

re­ports and com­pany prospec­tuses. Her lat­est se­ries is of ac­tual ve­g­ans,” Leonard says.

Stand­out images for Todd have been of a dif­fer­ent sub­ject mat­ter al­to­gether. “Some of my all-time favourite images fea­ture plas­tic plumb­ing pipes,” she ad­mits.

Cos­tumes and sets have al­ways been a part of Todd’s vi­sion for her por­traits. She says she was par­tic­u­larly in­trigued by the pho­to­graphs of her Ed­war­dian an­ces­tors that she would “ob­ses­sively scru­ti­nize” in her grand­par­ents’ photo al­bums. Once Todd would trawl through Auck­land’s sec­ond-hand stores col­lect­ing cos­tumes, but this has changed since of­fer­ings have be­come more generic.

“I have about 20 re­ally in­ter­est­ing cos­tumes that I’ve col­lected over the past decade to use in my pho­to­graphs

… I’ve re­duced my pur­chas­ing as it was spi­ralling out of con­trol, but I will still buy some­thing oc­ca­sion­ally if I feel I must have it. My more re­cent work has in­cluded cos­tumes that I’ve de­signed and had made out of up­hol­stery fab­ric.”

De­scrib­ing Todd as a “frock fetishist”, Leonard says cre­at­ing a frock room to ad­dress her love of cos­tumes was Todd’s idea. A num­ber of her vin­tage designer cos­tumes have been ex­tracted from her images and will be show­cased on man­nequins in the frock room, which has been cu­rated by Claire Reg­nault from Te Papa. Todd has been known to pur­chase cloth­ing pre­vi­ously owned by celebri­ties, in­clud­ing Whit­ney Hous­ton and Liza Min­nelli.

The Yvonne Todd ex­hi­bi­tion ex­pe­ri­ence wouldn’t be com­plete with­out the ad­di­tion of a sources and in­flu­ences room, where a va­ri­ety of ma­te­rial by other pho­tog­ra­phers who in­spire Todd, in­clud­ing Diane Ar­bus, Morton Bartlett, and Mike Dis­farmer, will be show­cased as well as a col­lec­tion of Vic­to­rian carte-de-vis­ite pho­to­graphs (small por­traits), vis­ual di­aries, and var­i­ous books that high­light Todd’s spe­cial­ized in­ter­est within her prac­tice.

A se­ries by Gil­bert Mel­rose taken at a chil­dren’s fancy dress ball back in 1957 will also be in­cluded.

“I wanted to cel­e­brate Gil­bert and his ca­reer as a pho­tog­ra­pher … He was an impatient pho­tog­ra­pher, like me, who felt com­pelled to doc­u­ment any­thing that was a vis­ual spec­ta­cle,” she says.

A sec­ond cousin of Todd’s, Mel­rose had a “wacky, awk­ward, and strange” style of shoot­ing that drew her to in­cor­po­rat­ing his work into her own af­ter he died.

It was the ar­eas of rep­e­ti­tion and ac­cu­mu­la­tion, such as brown an­i­mals — wom­bats, koalas, kan­ga­roos in Aus­tralian zoos — that in­trigued Todd. There was also a set of cow pho­tos, each an­i­mal named on the slide, and end­less doc­u­men­ta­tion of small-town flo­ral fes­ti­vals in the 1970s “where flower ar­range­ments were in­spired by the signs of the Zo­diac or LSD”.

How­ever, the work of Mel­rose that will be ex­hib­ited in the City Gallery will be the fancy-dress ball and a por­trait of his sis­ter Joan, wear­ing a dress and apron, sit­ting atop a horse in a pad­dock on the fam­ily farm.

The show cov­ers off a huge range of work and in­spi­ra­tions, and there is no set chrono­log­i­cal or­der to experiencing the ex­hi­bi­tion. Re­cur­rent sub­jects have been clus­tered to­gether, and other more uni­form se­ries sit to­gether as well, with an au­dio guide pro­vided for those who want to ex­pand their knowl­edge of se­lected works.

“There is a sense of struc­ture as well as some sur­pris­ing jux­ta­po­si­tions within the spa­ces,” Todd ex­plains.

No spe­cial prior knowl­edge is needed to in­ter­pret Todd’s cre­ations, but find­ing hu­mour in cer­tain as­pects of the show, and find­ing some­thing re­lat­able, is what she hopes ex­hi­bi­tion go­ers will be able to ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Some of the images are de­cid­edly un­com­fort­able, some are com­i­cal, and some are tragic. Col­lec­tively they em­body my per­spec­tive as an artist; how I see the world and my de­sire to re-ex­am­ine and re-ad­dress the con­ven­tions of photography.”

Creamy Psy­chol­ogy is on now and will run un­til March 1, 2015, at City Gallery Welling­ton. Visit city­ for more in­for­ma­tion on the ex­hi­bi­tion, and visit er­ for what Todd de­scribes as es­sen­tially an ar­chive of her cre­ations.

Yvonne Todd, Taka­puna, 2009, C-type pho­to­graph, 520x424mm

Yvonne Todd, Re­tired Urol­o­gist, 2009, C-type pho­to­graph, 1000 x820mm, from Wall of Man

Yvonne Todd, Self Por­trait as the Corpse of San­dra West, 2008, light jet print, 760x620mm

Yvonne Todd, Mulkie, 2010, light jet print, 157x125mm

Yvonne Todd, Gy­nae­col­ogy, 2006, light jet print, 1400x1027mm

Yvonne Todd, Mor­ton, 2012, C-type pho­to­graph, 110x865mm, from Sea­horsel

Yvonne Todd, Pipe Study, 2008, light jet print, 1580x1210 mm

Yvonne Todd, The Greasy Harpist, 2010, light jet print, 1160x939mm

Yvonne Todd, Val­ley Can­dle, 2008, light jet print 159x120mm, from Saints

Yvonne Todd, Ve­gan Por­trait 16, 2013, 800x630mm, from se­ries Eth­i­cal Mi­nori­ties

Yvonne Todd, Self Por­trait as Christina Onas­sis, 2008, light jet print, 350x285mm

Yvonne Todd, Lim­pet, 2005, light jet print, 1000x740mm, from se­ries Va­grant’s Re­cep­tion Cen­tre

Yvonne Todd, Eth­lyn, 2005, light jet print, 440x330mm, from se­ries Va­grants’ Re­cep­tion Cen­tre


Yvonne Todd, Frenzy, 2006, light jet print, 1080x1350mm

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