Artist-photographer Justin Dingwall evokes bullfighting to symbolise the battles faced by women, writes Andrea Nagel
What does the title of your new project refer to? “Beautiful Terrible” is an art series that explores the complicated representation of women in society, representations that are both beautiful and terrible, as are the consequences of this dichotomy in their depiction. The words are borrowed from the writer Frederick Buechner in the quote “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
These words are apt for a series that focuses on the battles women face in society. Fear plays a part in these battles, but strength shown in these battles is admirable and notable.
You’ve used images of women in bullfighting regalia. What does this signify?
The bullfight symbolises the complexities of the battles women face — they are both bull and bullfighter in this visual metaphor. Both fighters experience fear, but both possess strength. The series depicts the interchangeable and unstable roles in various aspects, including challenge versus resistance, dominance versus submission, action versus passivity, strength versus weakness, victor versus vanquished ... By evoking the hypermasculine contest of bullfighting and focusing on depictions of female matadors in powerful imagery, it confronts society’s common perspectives and tries to change them.
Is the representation of women and the roles they’re supposed to play problematic?
Yes. This series focuses on perception, and how stereotypical notions are constructed based on perspective, historical traditions and social discourse. It asks, how can the typical images and representations, which seem fixed, be changed?
What does the shadow in the images represent?
I was inspired by the quote, “Where there is light, there must be shadow, where there is shadow there must be light. There is no shadow without light and no light without shadow,” by Haruki Murakami. A shadow of the past can follow us into the present and can seem inescapable. But shadows can be manipulated and distorted, they change as light changes. Shadows are used in the artworks to represent historical shadows of the past that linger, but can be altered through enlightenment.
Like a mirror, shadows reflect a version of us. When they are distorted and manipulated, they reflect something different, they take on their own form. They can be beautiful and terrible. Shadows are connected to a person or object, but can reflect another form, like our preconceived ideas about women and their roles in society.
How does your use of colour enhance the work?
Colour is important in this series. It’s also important in bullfighting — in the costumes and the associations and symbolism. Because of the elaborate decoration and colours of the costume, the Spanish refer to the outfit as the “suit of lights”. When bullfighters put on their costumes they’re playing a part. The matador becomes an actor taking on a role — the bullfight is a form of theatre.
This is reflected in the artworks with green stage curtain. Here, the colours enhance the notion that bullfighting is a show, a spectacle. But it’s a spectacle of life and death. One example is the reference to the saying, related to bullfighting, “seeing red”. Three of the artworks show the model lit with a red light to create the effect of the matador bathed in red. The idea is to show the effect of emotion on our senses, distorting our perceptions. The colour red symbolises anger, danger, fear and passion.
Why have you shot some images in Polaroid?
I used a combination of photographic mediums — film, Polaroid and digital. I applied photographer Dorothea Lange’s ideas about photography: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera … While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.”
I’ve used different mediums to explore different perspectives and ways of seeing.
How do you decide on which models to use?
I also work as a commercial photographer in the editorial and advertising industry with lots of talented models, and find “muses” for my art projects inspired by a gut feeling, something inexplicable — a feeling that a certain model would be perfect for a series. Models, makeup artists, designers, stylists and myself work together to produce the artworks.
What’s the difference in the process of creating an art series or shooting a fashion editorial?
I allow the personal projects to develop naturally over a longer period of time, allowing me a better understanding on the subject, so the images evoke a more intimate perspective. My art involves more gut feel and emotion than the specified briefs of commercial work. They’re the way in which I explore the world and expand my understanding of it.
Richard Avedon. He was an innovator, ahead of his time, best known as a fashion photographer. He shot for Vogue magazine and other major fashion brands, but pivoted into fine art portrait photography. He was able to switch between the worlds of fashion and art. Diane Arbus, for her approach to photography. She photographed people in a way that exposed the cracks in society. Roger Ballen — his work is unique and recognisable. He consistently thinks outside the box and his art has an unconventional beauty. His work is constantly evolving, but there’s a common thread that runs through his series that make it distinguishable.
I hope to exhibit this body of work in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Paris, London, Brussels and Berlin in the coming months.