Chloe Aftel lives in Los Angeles and works in Los Angeles, New York, Portland, Detroit and San Francisco as a local. With a strong focus on narrative photography and a MFA from USC in film production, she specializes in still and motion storytelling. Chloe’s work has been featured in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, New York Magazine, Fast Company and Rolling Stone Magazine among other publications. Exhibits include MOPLA and New Visionaries.
Chloe sees each photograph as a one-frame movie still and each person as someone with a story to tell.
It’s a breath of fresh air, getting to talk to someone who's really considered their craft, who’s constantly looking to grow and challenge themselves. It’s one of the joys of talking to photographers for TPJ, was definitely a part of the fun in talking to Chloe Aftel, whose work is both aesthetically stunning and provocative.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
I was in film school, and I was very unhappy there, it was a really difficult place.
USC. I thought it was going to be much more of a community experience than it ended up being. And so, I was learning about the elemental parts of lighting, and I was like, “okay, I want to really create something of my own, and take this idea of a filmic narrative and put it in into a still frame,” I had enough basic tools that I could understand how to do it. I could light, very remedially, to accomplish that.
So I taught myself, basically, how to use hot lights and how to light with hot lights, and then I started to shoot these one-frame movie stills, these very ornate scenes with these girls posed in all these different ways and places. Which, I think, is how everyone begins: “Oh, I’m going to do this nouveau-fairytale thing.” So I started doing that on my own, and I did a lot of them. I really enjoyed it, and I didn’t really think anything of it at all, I just needed an outlet, I needed something to create that was my own, where I wasn’t dependent on other people and could just execute something the way I saw it.
I did that, got through the rest of film school, and when I graduated, I don’t totally remember, I submitted my work to Fuji, they had a student photographer of the year competition. I don’t even remember how it occurred, or what I submitted, I just sent it in and never thought about it again.
Yes, all film. I taught myself how to light with hot lights, but I mean movie hot lights, so it was a whole thing. So I did all of that, I submitted this picture, and I was living in New York managing a film production company because I was still, “oh, I think I’m going to pursue this movie thing more and see what happens.”
I love motion, but I really love short form, and I really like the world of short form, like commercials and music videos, where you have an idea, and particularly with music videos you can get particularly creative, do something, and then move on to the next project. Which is also really nice about photography. So I was managing this production company, and I just got a call asking if I was Chloe Aftel, and they said, “oh, you’ve won this competition!” And I didn’t know what they were talking about. And then I thought maybe it was a solicitation. So I was like, “sure, send me an email about it.” But then I got the email and realized, hey, this was legit. I won Fuji’s Student Photographer of the Year, that year. Which…I don’t know why they chose me, but whatever. So I started thinking, “oh, maybe I don’t totally suck at this and can pursue it a little more,” because I had been shooting on my own anyways.
The thing about photography for me was that I loved film, I loved the idea of a narrative, loved the idea of a still frame that told a story, but what I really liked about it was having a still frame you had to actually investigate a little bit, and I tried to maintain that, where it’s not just a flat expression. Where there’s something happening. Whether it’s something off frame or in the frame, the emotion, that it feels real and genuine, which I find interesting. Because those very forced, weird things where someone’s contemplating their naval, and you have no idea what the hell is going on, that is just not my aesthetic. And there’s the super-retouched digital world, where someone isn’t actually responding to anything, that is not my aesthetic.
So it became, “how do I make this interesting, but also make it so someone can walk away with different impressions?” You could see it one way, and I could see it another way, and someone else could see it a third way. But there’s at least enough context where there is some structure holding it together. I just really liked that. Then I got an offer to run a studio for a very famous photographer here. So I came back to LA and I was like, “fuck it, let’s see what happens.”
Peggy Sirota. I ran her studio for two years, got to see how it was done, learned an enormous amount, then I decided…I had been shooting the whole time and was getting published the whole time, and thought, “let’s go for it.” So I just went out on my own and have been working since then. But you know, it sounds like a rather simple story, but there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into building each little piece to sort of go where you want to go.
I don’t think so, but I don’ t think that’s…I know it’s a cliche, but I feel complacency is not a good thing. I’m not sure if it’s death, but it’s certainly not a positive. I think being satisfied with yourself breeds the kind of work that is redundant and over time becomes tremendously uninspired. People that don’t really think about where they are or assess it, go into these areas where it’s not really working anymore and it’s of a mess.
So no, I don’t feel satisfied with what I’m doing, but I think that’s the exciting part. Someone will show up and I’ll think, “okay, how do I get this done, how do I capture this experience or whatever the fuck it is,” and that is THAT person, then you’ll meet someone else and it will be a whole different game.
That’s what is exciting about it, that it changes so drastically, you never know what someone is going to bring to the room that day. They may be really out there, or they may be really shy, or putting their head to the side and making little bunny ears is the only way they want to take a picture. And the question becomes: how do you deal with and interact and get someone to trust you over and over again? To see what’s possible with them rather than having these stock props and stock responses, that you try to generate over and over again. At least that’s what I think.
That’s my response, does that answer the question, in a very convoluted way?
I shoot a lot of instant film, and I love shooting instant film. And Flickr was the one place where that stuff could really live. Because on my website, sometimes it’s just too out there for regular commercial work. I don’t want to alienate people or scare them if there’s this barrage of very dreamy stuff, so I feel like having another avenue where…it makes sense, and you can see it in a larger capacity and all the different ways that it’s been done, that’s great. The website is more editorial and advertising, but I do a ton of film on my website.
For me, I love film, I love instant, and I love the instantaneousness of digital. It is really nice to be able to look at something and think, “this is what I have.” However, when I shoot digital, 99% of the time I’m shooting film concurrently with it. If for nothing else than for a color match. Because, to me, digital lacks some of the depth and a lot of the color play, off the bat, that you can get with other mediums. For me it’s like, “oh, okay I’m going to shoot this digitally,” and take it to my poor retoucher, who has become really well-versed at turning digital into film. I’ll go to her and say, “I want it to look like this stock.”
Or if there’s an older stock or expired stock I’m interested in replicating with this particular shoot, I’ll shoot a roll of that so she can at least see the light goes this way, this goes this way, the green goes that way, the yellows are over here or whatever. Then we also do a lot of work to give the image more depth, which is a lot of what would be dodging and burning when you would print.
But in this case, it’s more like dodging and burning with the tools, and making it so every layer feels concurrently either darker or lighter with how far away it is from the subject, depending on how the subject is lit. That’s a large part of what we do, but I think for me, and I always feel like such a douche saying it but I just think it’s true, there’s a beauty to film and there’s a beauty in the way that because I think it’s a tangible, physical thing, it just handles shifts better. There’s shifts in skin tone, there’s shifts in light, there’s shifts in a bright window onto a face. There’s just a way that it handles that gradient more eloquently than digital does. And so it’s trying to figure out with digital, how to get some of that true change back into the medium. I feel like as long as I have something to draw from, that’s great.
For instant, for me, I know people feel it’s very nostalgic, but that’s not my take on it. I feel like it puts it into this sort of other world. There’s a dreaminess, there’s a color play, there are flaws that you don’t get in anything else, but the way I feel about instant is also the way I feel about a Holga. Where there’s a way that you can manipulate images, and overlay them on top of each other, which you can do also on traditional film cameras, but it’s a sharper image. But I think of some of the toy cameras where everything’s not so exact, and that it allows the image to go into a strange or dreamy or less literal direction. And exploring that is really fun. And if you can make me not sound like a douche while saying that, I would be totally grateful.
Okay thank you…”I like bunnies.”
At least that’s my feeling, because it takes it into a whole other arena where you’re in a different place. It is beautiful and wonderful, but that’s part of what’s nice. And I don’t feel, “you’re in the ‘70s”; you’re in the current time, just a different place. And it is sad to me that the medium has been so reduced to just a nostalgia. Because I just don’t think that’s all it has to bring.
It’s a good camera, has a lot of feelings.
Would you use Impossible Project?
I love them.
The film has struggled, but I do love them.
Even if it’s not formulated correctly, just by pure happenstance you throw it down so it’s darker because you know the film fails anyways and you’re just like,” fuck it, let’s see what happens,” and you get something that’s white-washed up to maybe their shoulders, and then a face, and then it goes back into whiteness again, and then you’re just thinking, “yeah this is pretty awesome, actually. Didn’t expect that to happen, but I’ll take it, looks good.” That’s part of it. And if you’re reliant on it for consistent results it can be frustrating, but on the other hand, when it does pull out something crazy, and it’s beautiful, I feel like, “okay, that’s what we’re doing, that’s what we’re doing.”
I understand, I totally understand.
Yes! I love lots of different kinds of assignments. And I love lots of different ways of shooting. So the thing that I feel has gotten a little bit lost these days is the idea that a photographer is an approach, not a very specific style. It’s an interpretation of something. That’s really exciting, “oh, you want me to shoot this can of beans on the floor or do you want me to shoot someone jumping off of a building?” The question is, how does this person see it, not can this person shoot bunnies in a field and then more bunnies in a field and that’s what they do: they shoot bunnies in a field. It’s an approach, a way in which you execute something.
For lack of a better word, it’s a way in which you see the world. And I think that, rather than it being, you only do it this way, and you only retouch that way, and you only do super-digital images, the question is: what is the feeling? What is the way you look at things, and is that interesting? And then how do you apply it to an incredible breadth of subject matter? That, for me, is what is so exciting, you never know what assignment is going to come next, but it’s always a challenge, or a lot of the time it’s a challenge. You can think to yourself, “oh, I’ve never done that before, how would I accomplish this, how do I interpret this?” I always enter a shoot with a plan, but that plan might go right back out the window because it won’t be what needs to get done. But I think that I would like to approach…I would like to have an idea, and if the idea fails, that’s cool. But I think it’s better to at least consider the scene before you enter it, if that makes sense.
Yes, except for my beautiful ladies I think aren’t that marginalized, unfortunately.
Yes! A tough life for these girls. But what is nice about them is that it’s a relationship over years at this point. I’ve really gotten to…I don’t know if it’s an evolution, but I’ve gotten to build a relationship where I am able to work with and explore who they are in a very broad breadth. And as they change, the images have changed as well. So that part I enjoy. But no, the gender queer and the furries, the children with rare genetic conditions, I think the other thing about them, with an exception of the furries series, which was meant to be more lighthearted because I think they’re marginalized so often in a very negative light.
I don’t know, people get all high on their own supply that these groups need to be talked about and put out in the world. I have a lot of ideas about gender dynamics and how people do live and the identity that one constructs for themselves. And also, physical things that one is born with and how that affects their life or physical changes one needs to have to feel comfortable. I find that whole idea of gender, sensuality, and sexuality to be very interesting. I think the work that I do tends to be quite sensual regardless. I think having people really let you in, in that way, and being able to explore it is very unusual. I also think, without wanting to toot my own horn, being able to shoot people that choose to live in a way that’s not the traditional standard and being able to explore that and then being able to present it is very rewarding and exciting.
I just shot a girl that’s intersex yesterday, and afterwards it was one of those experiences where you met someone and you really had to think about how you’re going to shoot them what do you want to feature? She’s a very beautiful girl, but technically she’s intersex, and there’s so much stigma, and inappropriate feeling about that. She passes very much as strictly female, and I think that’s what’s interesting to me. There’s nothing wrong with her, there’s nothing that should be seen as alien or not okay about her, yet she is stigmatized and I think struggles tremendously because of how people treat her. And then the question is, how do I present this girl. Part of it too is the images, from time to time, are somewhat erotic and somewhat sensual. And people will look at them and think it’s a woman or think it’s a man. Then I’ll say, “this is my gender queer series and is an anatomical male that presents as female,” and you can see people don’t know what to do, because they’re wrestling with themselves.
And I don’t give a shit, this person should be able to live however they want. And moreover, the fact that there is so much judgment and so much weirdness but that it’s coming from the observer, it is coming from someone else. The people that I’ve shot actually, as long as the world doesn’t attack them or do inappropriate, savage things towards them, they all seem really okay with who they are, and actually very happy and it is sad to me that they can’t just be themselves.
So I’m not on some mission, but I feel, very selfishly, I am gaining a huge amount from being able to interact with them and photograph them and the challenge of figuring out how to do it justice, I hope. Also, I feel lucky that I get to do it. I don’t feel that there’s some soapbox that I’m going to get on top of and bang my drum, that is really a way to be self-serving. I think that because people want to talk about them, because people are interested, and perhaps I can speak of it in a way that isn’t totally a sound bite. Because I have been exposed to a lot of different pieces of it at this point, I would like to do that. Beyond that, it’s just something I really want to do, and I’m grateful for that.
What is it that draws you in? I hadn’t even crystalized it in my own head until we started speaking about it, what draws you in to these different marginalized groups?
The children…I don’t know, I’ve haven’t thought about it in terms of an overarching context, because I think it’s different. With the furries…again, the people I’ve met…I think part of it is really spending time with and connecting with the actual people. And some people are weird as fuck, and some people are really fabulous and interesting and dynamic; it just varies person to person. With the furries, it’s like they had been treated, I think, very badly, and they’re an eccentric group, and I like that about them.
I think there’s something interesting about people who want to dress up as animals and the idea of even human-ness or gender is, again, sort of not really a part of what they’re talking about, but this other personality. One guy I shot had this amazing fur suit…there are so many ways that these people express themselves. It’s like, okay, what is that about, what does that mean, who are you, let’s sit down and explore it. That I really love.
With the children with rare genetic conditions, it’s a marginalized group in a different way, where people think, “oh, that kid’s sick, different, I don’t know what to do with that kid.” And I think, okay let’s talk about it a little bit, let’s see what it is. And then the thing about the kids that really kills me is that because they’re such a small set of the population, so there’s so little funding and so little interest.
That to me is a travesty because, cancer: a lot of money. Leukemia: a larger amount of money. There are places where people feel that the money is more justified, but I also think that suffering is suffering. Alienation is alienation. Even just endeavoring to understand a little bit of what progeria looks like and what this kid is going through, because they’re still just a little kid, their body is just aging at a tremendously accelerated rate, but what does that mean? Okay, you can treat this kid like any other kid, I mean you can’t toss them around too much, but you can treat her like any other kid. You can talk to her, play with her, interact with her, and it’s the idea that people feel they shouldn’t approach them, or shouldn’t look at them, that it’s inappropriate to even be curious about it. I hope in some way there’s a way to lift that a little, but to also understand that this is serious, and a lot of these kids die very young; they should enjoy the time that they have. Rather than feeling like they’re “other” and that people don’ t know how to deal with them so they just don’t. That is very painful and unfortunate.
Then with the gender queer, again for me, I’ve always just felt that gender is not a binary thing. It’s not this or that. because I’ve met many people where it’s not and it’s not a dude that would want to fuck every dude you meet. It’s not just one dude that would consider that. It’s like okay, great, I don’t totally understand why what people are interested in sexually is even a topic of discussion anymore. I feel like do whatever you want to do and enjoy yourself. As long as it’s consensual, who cares? I feel like people look at certain groups and talk about them in a way without any understanding, like gender queer is often seen as gender-confused and my experience with them is they are not confused at all. These people are very clear on who they are. It just doesn’t fit within the normal binary context by which we understand everything. But that doesn’t mean it’s not around.
So the thing is for me dealing with different communities and interacting with them is just very enriching. Going to someone’s house and having them trust you and be willing to expose themselves, I don’t mean just physically, but put their face in your context. That is very rewarding. And again to feel that you have done a good job with that, not that you’ve done some neutered picture that no one would find offensive, but rather that you hope that you’ve gotten some sense of them or that you’ve pushed it a little bit, and presented them in a way that wasn’t expected necessarily.
Yes, that is really interesting.
No, if I don’t get a picture I like, I am not pleased with what I have done. I have to leave…and that’s my feeling with anything, I have to leave with one…even if it’s the job that is incredibly challenging, I have to walk away with one picture I like. That is the goal. If I can walk away a thousand I’m really happy, but I will not walk away from something that I feel like I didn’t do a really good job.
Yeah, but in the process, again because I know that everyone douches out about catching the moment and being authentic and whatever, but the real way, at least for me, to do that is to have a connection. And to accept and interact with the person on their terms, then figure out where to go. I see that you like this and you don’t like that, you want to do this and not that; okay, how do I put that into something that to me feels real and right and true.
I have always been interested in people, whoever the hell they are. They don’t have to be a celebrity or whatever, I’m genuinely interested. I’ll meet someone I don’t know, and I’ll ask what they do, what they’re interested in, how do they feel about this, do they like the color blue, whatever. I just want to get a sense of who they are. And with a subject there’s a more focused intent. Where it’s like great, I want to know about you, tell me what it is you feel comfortable, and then in doing so, you sort of feel it out. Is this pushing it too far, can I ask about this, can I do this other thing, and you sort of see where their lines are. Also if I can tell that they are really controlling, like a celebrity and the PR is there, like, why don’t you look at stuff as we go, and that can take a bit longer because there’s more cooks in the kitchen, but by that same thing I feel like letting people know that their say matters and that you’re not there just to exploit them or get something and run away. Rather, you really want something collaborative. I feel like that then engenders a feeling of, great, let’s explore. Let’s see what we can do,” rather than I want them over here looking this way because I have an agenda of who they are. So that’s what works.
Totally! I mean, I love lighting, but I love doing other kinds of lighting and exploring. The hardest thing in my opinion is lighting to make it look real. People always talk about it just being off the cuff, and the thing for me is making it off the cuff is a huge amount of intent. You can go and run & run and shoot the shit out of something, that’s fine, but to really get something to where it feels beautiful and interesting and authentic and there’s enough going on in the frame for the person that’s in it to play off of and react to or engage with. I mean, that’s why the cinematic part was so important to me, because I feel like you are creating a little movie, because you want it to be, “what’s going to happen next?” That there is a context to this moment. Rather than it being this staged pro-forma thing. Again, that’ s just my interest. So it’s like how do I explore that and what does that look like.
I would love to work more on lighting, just because I really enjoy that. I would love to…I don’t know. I would love for something I don’t expect someone to think of me to do to float across my desk. It’s just such a variety. I love shooting underwater, I love shooting weird people in eccentric places. That’s why editorial is so fun.
They’ll say, “go shoot this rich person in their insanely wealthy house,” and I’m like, “no problem,” let’s go see what happens. It’s not a very simple response, because I just want something I haven’t done before, and sort of, like the one thing I would want in that context is some time and the patience of the subject. Because sometimes you get 20 minutes and you can get something good, but it’s really nice when you can have a little time to get in there and figure out if you’re into this or into that.
I shot William Friedken for Vogue, and I thought I was going to get 20 minutes, but they gave me 2 hours at the end of the day, which was fabulous, and he’s really into pandas. I went into his office, and there’s all these pictures of pandas everywhere. And I asked why, and he just said, “I really love pandas.” And I was like, I love this. I love that the dude that did the French Connection and The Exorcist has these pictures of pandas all over his office. And then all of his awards, and all of his stuff, and I’m like this is great. I’d love to set that up, and do a portrait of him that is more appropriate for his reputation, but you get these very different pieces of someone, and having the time to explore the different bits, I really love.
I definitely look at what other people are doing. It’s tricky, you know? Because there are some people I really admire, and I will check in on them from time to time to see what they are doing. But they tend to be so different from me that it’s like, oh god, that’s awesome, they did such a great job with that. There’s this one woman in England who does her own printing and her own hand-tinting of everything. She does exclusively fashion work, I believe it’s Ellen…
Yes. Ellen Rogers. I love her.
And she’s so fabulous, and I think that she’s so different. I look at her work and think, “man, that is the shit, that’s so awesome.” And you know, it’s so different that it’s not, “oh my god I don’t want to do something like that,” you’re not contextualizing it against your own stuff. It’s like, that’s amazing, that’s inspiring, that’s beautiful, cool, and just walk away. And the other people I bid against or who I’m in competition with a lot, I don’t look that often. If I know I’m bidding against someone, I’ll want to get a flavor of what they offer compared to what I offer, because I want to make it clear that with them you get this, and with me you get that.
So it has helped me see the different things that people are looking for? But otherwise, no, I look to other stuff like paintings and films to draw references from, and there are some people where I feel…I’ll see a couple shots and think that’s a strong execution that will go in my reference file, but I think…no. It’s dangerous because you want to feel that an idea is your own. And I think the only reason why I look at other people’s work is to make sure that I’m not doing something similar to what they’re doing. So it’s more this person already did it, and did it well, so no we’re not doing that shot. Or something else, like how can I do this differently and how can I have some sort of ownership over it. A lot of people do rip other people off, which is lame. For me, it’s only a context of ,“cool, they did this and did it very well, let’s find a different way to execute that idea.”