Chloe Meynier’s staged self-portraits explore women’s roles in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. “Abandoned Dreams” shows women caught in relationships where love has fled and the meaning of life has become unclear. Meynier controls every aspect of her creative process, from propping to postproduction, and she draws from personal experience to use her image making as a form of therapy.
“Most of the time, I don’t know the character I want to portray,” she explains. “I’m just using myself as a character to tell a story, but the character’s story is not important to me. These women are just born to tell a story, they remain alive for a couple of hours and then they die.”
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
Chloe Meynier: I’d say that I’m not really in business, since I don’t consider myself a commercial photographer, but I’ve been doing photography since 2010. These past two years have been the most productive for me with a lot of shows and several awards.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
CM: I joined ASMP last year, so not too long ago!
ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP?
CM: At the time, I didn’t really know what to do with my photography and my skills. I wanted to network with photographers and to put myself out there in order to gain experience assisting. I was in touch with a photographer about assisting but our schedules never matched. Then my goals changed and I realized that photography was very personal for me. I enjoy working on my own projects more than working on commercial projects. I don’t get the same satisfaction or the same pleasure. The result is far more powerful when my work comes from my heart.
ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?
CM: It’s a way to network and to get out there. For example, I wouldn’t be able to talk about my work in this interview if I wasn’t a member!
ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?
CM: So far, I’ve stayed in my bubble, but I know that I have the resources available if I need or want them.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
CM: Currently, I shoot digitally with artificial lighting. I love mixing both available and artificial light to get exactly what I have in mind. But I also enjoy shooting film — 35 mm or 4-by-5. For my last series “Abandoned Dreams,” it was easier to use a digital camera in order to get immediate feedback on what I was doing, since I was using myself as the model. The facial expressions and poses were something that I needed to be able to modify if things weren’t working the way I wanted after seeing the image on the screen. I don’t think I would have been able to obtain the same result using my 4-by-5.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
CM: Everything. I take care of every piece of my equipment, since I invested a lot of money in it!
ASMP: What is unique about your style, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
CM: A lot of people compare my work to Cindy Sherman’s work. I don’t mind the comparison, but I think my work is different. It comes from personal experiences and issues that I had to deal with. I use my work as a sort of therapy. Every image I create represents a very specific emotion and story. When I shoot, I need to be by myself and to deal with every detail of the shoot myself. It wouldn’t be the same result and wouldn’t have the same therapeutic effect if I were working with someone else. Every step is thought out carefully from when I start to shop for props to postprocessing. At one point, my neighbors were observing me when I was shooting outside my building and they asked some questions. It was very disturbing because I do not like being observed when I work. But since this happened a few times, I’m now better at totally ignoring others and continuing to concentrate on my work. I am even thinking that I might collaborate with make up artists and stylists in the future. We’ll see; I’m not there yet, but I don’t exclude the idea like I used to.
ASMP: Before you started your photography career, you received a graduate degree in Cognitive Psychology, a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, and did postdoctoral research work in that field. Please talk about your decision to move into photography and how that major change has affected your life.
CM: I was in my third year of college when I didn’t know what to do next. I was a sports major, studying to become an athletics teacher. But I realized that I didn’t want to do that. During my fourth year, I met a teacher who was doing her PhD in Cognitive Psychology. I thought it was totally crazy and not interesting! But for some reasons, I was curious. We became close and she introduced me to the research world. It felt totally surreal to me but I decided to enroll in a Master of Cognitive Psychology since I didn’t know what to do with my life.
At the end of the first year, I got a grant from the French government to do my PhD. I already knew that I wasn’t too much into research, but it would pay the bills for three years, so I accepted to do it. It hasn’t been easy, I wanted to quit after a year but decided to finish what I had started. It is one of my proudest accomplishments. I always finish what I start!
It took me four-and-a-half years to finish my PhD, and I used to say that I would never do any postdoctoral work afterwards because I knew that research wasn’t my passion. I didn’t know how to stop; I didn’t want to disappoint the people who invested so much time and energy in my studies. But I had no idea of what to do next. It was also a difficult time for me; I had some unresolved issues that were affecting my life and health.
Therefore, while in a relationship for six years, I decided to leave the country and to go work at the University of California Berkeley, where I was offered a job for two years. It was probably the most difficult thing to do, but I felt it was necessary.
Sure enough, shortly after starting, I wasn’t happy with my job and I got very depressed. I started to use photography to express my feelings. The images were not as deep as my current work. After a year of working at UC Berkeley, I decided to quit my job and study photography. Again, it was a very hard thing to do, but after a few weeks, I felt I had made the right decision. I took advantage of school assignments to explore myself deeply and that’s when my work became stronger. I was finally dealing with some of my issues and I felt much better.
I do not regret my decision, and all the steps have taught me a lesson: Stay true to yourself and do what pleases you. I haven’t felt this good in a long time!
ASMP: You grew up in France and your academic studies were done there. How long have you lived in the United States? Would you say that your European roots and heritage have had any influence on your photography?
CM: Yes, I was born and grew up in France. I moved to California four-and-a-half years ago and will probably stay here for many more years, since I just got married to my beautiful American wife! I believe that my background shaped my way of thinking and probably influences my work. I’ve learned to be very meticulous in research, which carries over into my photography projects.
I developed a passion for the United States very early in my life. I used to have a big American flag in my room and it was my dream to live there one day. I was passionate about movies like “Thelma and Louise,” where the landscapes represented the immensity of the country. I was very attracted to the idea of living in the desert, where I could be by myself and be free. The colors and space were already inspirational to me. When I moved to California, I immediately searched for ways to surround myself with immensity. I did a few road trips on my own to have time to think and to explore myself in a way that I had never done before. It felt right and so inspiring. I believe I felt, and still feel, this way because it is very different than France. I feel at home in California and comfortable to continue to discover and explore myself.
ASMP: Did you return to school to study photography? Did you have any mentors guiding you or offering advice?
CM: I went to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Every instructor had a beneficial impact on my work. I worked on several projects during school and every instructor pushed my thinking further. It wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t go to school. I wish I could be an eternal student! Even though I am a very independent person and work on my own most of the time, I am always seeking feedback in order to evolve in my projects.
ASMP: Your Abandoned Dreams series explores woman’s roles in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, while other series deal with gender issues and female and child victims of violence. What are your primary inspirations and influences for your work?
CM: My primary influences are my own issues. All these series are related to my history. But of course, other artists also influence my work. I would say that I was able to identify my influences when I started my last series Abandoned Dreams.
I especially love the work of Alex Prager, who uses colors in a very particular way. For her, the colors are not just circumstantial; rather they tell a story unto themselves, which I fully agree with. Her cinematic style, along with her use of strong colors and the way she frames her images and gives them depth, is what inspires me.
I also admire the work of William Eggleston and Philip Lorca DiCorcia. What fascinates about Eggleston’s work is the gap between what we expect from subject matter such as small-town streets, dogs drinking from mud puddles and the insides of ovens to look like, and the gorgeous results he extracts from such subjects. He brings an ethically neutral, incurably curious aesthetic to everything he sees. Lorca DiCorcia, on the other hand, was always determined to be in absolute control of every detail and nuance, from the scripting of the scene, to the precise lighting. Indeed, the play of light, often both natural and artificial, is always present as it is in my work.
I am also inspired by Pedro Almodovar’s movies and by the recent show Mad Men that depicts the life of characters in the ’50s and ’60s. The colors are very important to me. That’s why, for now, I stopped working in black and white and moved on to more colorful projects.
ASMP: Do you see your photography as an extension of your work in psychology?
CM: My photographic journey started when I first walked through the doors of a bar where a drag show played every other Wednesday night. My perspective of life and human rights immediately changed and I started to explore the notions of diversity, human rights and acceptance in depth.
Halfway through my MFA, it felt right to dive deeper into gender identity issues and challenge the assumption in our society that there are only two genders. At that time, I was also enrolled in a Self as Subject class. Self-portraiture was not new to me, since I had started to explore gender identity issues using myself as my own model. But for certain reasons, I decided to focus on another subject matter: violence against women. I started to push the limits of self-portraiture and use myself to portray different characters — women, children and men.
This project reopened some wounds. As a child and a teenager, I had been a victim of sexual abuse for six years. In addition to therapy, photographing myself, covered in blood, mistreated or dead, played an important role in my recovery process.
My personal background has affected me deeply and has had a lot of consequences in some of my beliefs and behaviors. My idea of women’s roles and identity has been and is still affected. To me, being a woman is recognition of some of the weaknesses that you may be ascribed from birth and the uphill battle you might face. After working on the violence against women series, I started to explore the role of women in society.
At the time, my concept was not clear and my images were confusing. I was starting to express my ideas of women’s roles, but the direction of my work was unclear. A few months later, the blurry lines started to disappear when I decided to dress up and play the role of different women from the ’50s.
I don’t really see any link with my work in psychology, since I was working on the decision-making processes of both healthy individuals and Parkinson patients. But I do believe that my work is very psychologically oriented.
ASMP: You were born in the ’80s, which postdates the time frame of Abandoned Dreams. Where does your interest and inspiration in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s stem from?
CM: Photos from that time period, colors and the way people dressed up, have always fascinated me. I also love old cars from that time period and I used to think that I wished I had known the ’50s. But, on the other hand, I don’t think I would have been happy living during that time period’s mentality. For me, those decades represent the United States and I have been passionate about this country from a very early age.
ASMP: You are your own model in many of your series, including the Abandoned Dreams images. What kinds of research and preparation do you do in conceptualizing these characterizations? Do you have a process for getting into character before you start shooting?
CM: I always have an idea of what I want to portray. Most of the time the image is already formed in my mind. Then I start to shop for props I need, outfits, wigs. Sometimes I can’t find exactly what I want or envisioned, or it’s way out of budget! But I always try to find things that match my idea.
It also happens that I find props that give me an idea for an image. It works both ways, but most of the time I start with the idea and then I shop for what I need.
When I have all I need, including the outfit, I set everything up. I add the lighting and include myself in the frame. I only start the make-up when I’m happy with the arrangement of the props, my position in the frame and the lighting. I have no experience with make-up; I do my best with it, but I have no doubt that if I was working with a make-up artist, it could be beneficial to translate the emotion I want to capture.
Most of the time I don’t know the character I want to portray. I am just using myself as a character to tell a story, but the story of the character is not important to me. These women are just born to tell a story, remain alive for a couple of hours and then die.
ASMP: Why did you choose to take on these characters yourself? How does being your own model inform and strengthen your work?
CM: To me, using myself leads to a very unique and personal approach that I would probably not be able to achieve by using a model, simply because the model is not me. Also, this approach allows me to work on myself from a psychological point of view; it would not be as rewarding if I was using a model. I can’t imagine working with models on this project and having to explain to them what they need to do. It feels very natural to do it myself, since it’s very clear in my head. I think I can better convey what I want using myself rather than a model.
ASMP: The Abandoned Dreams series is quite elaborate in terms of sets, locations, wardrobe, etc. Do you do all the location scouting, styling, set dressing and propping yourself?
CM: Yes, I do everything by myself and I enjoy it. I have no desire to share the steps with people or to have people help me find what I want. Although I’ve gone shopping with my wife a few times. She is the same way as me, so she knows that I need space to look at things. She’s very respectful of my process and, even if she’s around, she’s not disturbing me. When she comes with me, I like asking her if she thinks that this prop would work or not. But overall, my creative process is very personal. I have a hard time collaborating with others. I believe this is due to my trauma. When something doesn’t suit me, I have a hard time saying it. I don’t encounter this problem working by myself. If I don’t like it, I just move on and start again. I don’t have to justify myself or confront others.
ASMP: Do you work with any assistants or other team members during the production of the work, or in postproduction?
CM: No, I don’t; I do everything myself.
ASMP: Once you have hair, make up, wardrobe and styling ready, about how long do you spend lighting and shooting your pictures?
CM: I do the hair, make up and styling only when the lighting and the set is ready. If my image is very clear and I have the perfect location, setting up the props and the lighting can be pretty fast. But sometimes it doesn’t work the way I want and it can take a while. In this case, I start positioning the lighting and place myself to start shooting to have a better idea of what the image would look like. I can usually tell right away if I’ll be happy with the image by changing the set or not. Overall, it takes me at least three hours to do everything. Then, there is the postproduction, which I do myself as well. The time I spend on the computer depends on the image. If it’s a composited image, it takes more time.
ASMP: How does the process of using yourself as your model work in terms of previewing the shot, getting your expressions right, and so on? About how many frames and/or variations do you shoot per set up?
CM: Unfortunately I don’t use Capture One or any other software that allows me to preview the image on a computer monitor. So I usually shoot a few images by slightly moving or changing my expressions, then I go to the camera and look at the screen. The next few images will depend on what I’ve already done. Sometimes I put some tape on the floor to make sure that I stand in the right location. I don’t shoot a lot of volume; since I start shooting what will be the final image only after the set and lighting are correct. I just make sure to have enough variations and images to choose from before breaking down the set.
ASMP: How long do the images take you from start to finish, including pre and postproduction work?
CM: It depends on the image. Sometimes shopping for props and outfits can take a few weeks! But the process itself — meaning shooting — doesn’t take that long, mostly between two and three hours. The postproduction process also depends on the image. It can go from one hour to several.
ASMP: In general how much time do you spend in postproduction for each image? What software do you work with?
CM: I use Photoshop for postproduction and the time depends on the image. For example, the simplest image (the one of a woman pushing a cart on a parking lot) hasn’t been transformed at all. Everything you see in the image was captured in camera. In this case, the postproduction work takes about an hour. Compositing an image takes more time. For example, the image of the woman in the movie theatre is composited. I first shot the theatre room with people sitting and moving. I removed them all except one man and then I shot myself separately in my studio and combined both images. Depending on the complexity of the image, it can take me three hours to six hours. The image of the woman standing next to the Motel Capri sign took me a while since it is four separate images combined. I only stop editing when I’m satisfied with the result. Although, it happens that a few days/months later I reopen an image and I work again on it for another hour or two. It’s an endless process.
ASMP: The colors in your images are quite saturated. Do you do a lot of postproduction work on your images in terms of color correction? What is the inspiration for your color palette?
CM: I choose very colorful outfits and props to start with, but I also retouch in post if I’m not entirely satisfied with the color match. But most of the time the colors are already there. Like Almodovar and Prager, the colors are very important to me and it’s absolutely necessary that they match and go together.
ASMP: You work in both studio and on location. Do you have a preference? What type of equipment do you use, and do you have any go-to lenses or standard gear that you find indispensible?
CM: I prefer to work on location. I’ve done a few images in my own studio, a big loft that I can arrange as I want, but I love shooting on location, to give a sense of place. I used to use the school’s equipment since we could check out whatever we wanted for weekends. Then I was able to shoot with top gear like Profoto lighting kits. Now, I have my own lights, but unfortunately they’re not for exterior locations, so I haven’t shot outside for a while! I always have at least two strobes and C stands, plus another stand in case I need it to hold a white card or a reflector. In terms of lenses, I use either my Canon 28-70 f/2.8 or my 70-200 f/2.8 lens.
ASMP: Please describe how your series Abandoned Dreams has affected your career to date. Has the project generated new contacts, clients or markets for your work?
CM: Thanks to this series, I’ve been accepted in a few shows over the past two years. I also had the chance to meet some industry professionals this May during Academy of Art’s annual Spring Show. But I believe it takes time to build a portfolio and to break through. I don’t expect anything from what I do. If it leads to something that’s great, but if it doesn’t, that doesn’t matter. This way I am never disappointed. But I’ll certainly be happy the day when my career takes off to the next level!
ASMP: In your series’ Gendernormality and Embrace Yourself 2, you make portraits of others, exploring gender identities. Since so much of your work in based in self-portraiture, please talk about the challenge, and the experience of, making a portrait of another subject. How did you find your subjects for this series? What kinds of advance preparation was involved between you and your subjects prior to making pictures?
CM: This project was very challenging. It was actually supposed to be my final MFA project, but I realized that I had more fun and felt far more creative working with myself. I started to explore gender-identity issues by using myself, but I soon ran out of ideas since I have no problem with my female identity. I am comfortable in my body and with my gender, so I’ve never experienced the difficulties that individuals do who fall outside of the male-female binary experience.
So, I decided to challenge myself and to portray other people. It was the first time for me. I put an ad on Craigslist and got plenty of responses. After a few e-mail exchanges, I met with my subjects in order to talk about the project and to get to know them a little bit before putting them in front of the camera. It was enriching and taught me how to interact with the people I photograph, but it’s a real challenge! Working with others is a whole other game for me!
ASMP: What are your goals in terms of making an impact with Abandoned Dreams, as well as your other series’? Do you feel you are achieving these goals?
CM: My Gendernormality series has been exhibited in Amsterdam for the Pride Photo Award. I didn’t get a chance to attend the show, but apparently it was very well received. Though, my goal wasn’t to educate people from this community, but rather others who are not familiar with gender-identity issues. When I started the Abandoned Dreams series, I had to stop putting as much effort into Gendernormality. Therefore, I didn’t try to exhibit the project anymore. And, because I feel like it’s not the type of photography I’m comfortable doing, I probably won’t try.
Winning an award for this series was a huge accomplishment; it gave me the strength to move forward and to find a way to express my voice. Abandoned Dreams was also a big success, but I didn’t really have a goal in mind. My only goal was for me to be satisfied with my images and to be able to look at them for more than one day without being sick of them!
Sometimes I feel like I’m not able to do better and this petrifies me. I haven’t gotten a chance to work on this project for a few months, due to my work schedule. I’m looking forward to being able to spend some time with my images and to finish the project. I don’t feel accomplished yet, and my ultimate goal is to be recognized as a successful contemporary photographer. I am happy with what I’ve accomplished so far and I’m looking forward to the next steps of my career.
ASMP: Please talk about the audiences for your different bodies of work. Have the success of your work and the issues you address varied much based on audience?
CM: My audience is broad and I don’t have a specific type of audience in mind when I work on a project. My work is for everybody to appreciate. I don’t base my work on my audience, but on what I need to express. Photography for me is a way to express how I feel and this is only what motivates me to do it. I’m aware that my work is not commercial and if I wanted to make a living as a photographer I should stop photographing myself, but this is what I need to do for now.
ASMP: Do you promote your personal projects on social media?
CM: I’ve posted images as I create them and have received feedback, and I’ve also promoted my own exhibitions and those that I participate in through Facebook. I have not used other social media sites, but many of my friends use Instagram and have encouraged me to use this too.
ASMP: You’ve won many awards, have had numerous exhibitions and have work in the permanent collections of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. What are your goals for the future in terms of exhibitions and collections?
CM: I’m definitely looking for more exhibitions and more exposure. I believe it’s a constant thing to do. Nothing happens when one is not working hard for the recognition of their name. Eventually I would love to be able to work full time on my projects.
ASMP: Approximately how many grants or award competitions do you enter annually? How much time do you spend researching these opportunities and preparing submissions?
CM: I don’t have a specific number in mind. I started small, just to see if I could get accepted in a competition and I did. So I tried more competitions and I got accepted again. All the competitions I entered were listed on the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) website. It’s great to be able to see most of the competitions happening in the United States on one page. The longer process is to format the images, but since I already had the metadata entered in all of them, I just have to resize the images as specified by the competition rules. I’d say that, in general, it doesn’t take too long.
ASMP: What kinds of criteria do you use in identifying which grants, competitions or calls to submit your projects? Are there specific competitions or awards on your radar as future goals for furthering your career?
CM: Entering competitions is costly, so I only enter competitions that have a category for my work. For example, if there are no “portrait” or “self-portrait” categories, I don’t submit my work. I haven’t really had time lately to look at competitions or grants, but I’m intending to search for some in the very near future. I’d also like to enter competitions outside of the United States to reach a broader audience, but I’m not familiar with any yet.
ASMP: Is the Abandoned Dreams series complete or is it ongoing?
CM: This series is not finished. Usually I feel a series is finished when I want to work on something else. This is not yet the case with Abandoned Dreams. I still have some ideas and want to put them into images. Hopefully this will happen within the next few months.
ASMP: Are you currently working on any new projects, either in terms of concept development or shooting?
CM: I’m not working on any other project for now. Although, a few months ago, I started to work on Gendernormality again. I only shot one image, but I think it’s the most powerful of the whole series. It has a different feel, so I am not quite sure yet whether it will be part of this series in the end or if I’ll start something new.
I find it hard to work on several projects at once. I think my priority for now it to complete Abandoned Dreams and then to do something else, either completing another project or starting a new one. I also thought of starting a new series on violence against woman, this time using victims of violence as models. But I know it will be hard to connect with these individuals because of what they’ve endured or continue to endure, and I’m not ready for that.
You need to be strong and comfortable in your skin to work on projects about societal issues. I need more time, but I’ve already envisioned the project. Working with children who are diagnosed with gender identity issues is also a project that I’ve had in mind for a long time.
ASMP: In addition to your personal work, do you also pursue commissioned photography or assignment work?
CM: I’ve never done any commissioned photography and it is not my main goal. Although… my interests in photography have changed, and may change again, so I wouldn’t be surprised if one day I was doing commissioned work.
ASMP: Are there particular photographers, artists, writers, philosophers, etc. whose works inspire and influence you?
CM: I’m mostly influenced by photographers and movies. Alex Prager, William Eggleston, Philip Lorca DiCorcia, Erwin Olaf, Formento and Formento, Stephen Shore and Andreas Gursky are a fraction of the photographers I admire. For movies, I love watching them over and over again — Thelma and Louise, Bagdad Café, Into the Wild, Pédro Almodovar movies and many others.
ASMP: What are your career goals for the future? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
CM: Up until now, my future has always been uncertain. I never knew where I would be and what I would do. Three years ago, I was still new to photography. Currently, I feel like I’m starting to move forward in my career and starting to build a solid foundation. My ultimate goal is to be a full time fine art photographer and I can’t think of any better example than Alex Prager’s career. She is a very successful self-taught photographer and it took her more than seven years to get to where she is now. I really admire her work and career and I am secretly wishing the same success for myself.