For as long as the Parisian native Elene Usdin can remember, she’s been an artist. But while such a proclamation might be expected of someone who resides in the city of love, creativity and inspiration, or at the very least, isn’t something that is deemed as uncommon as the troves of greats like Julio Cortazar or Pablo Picasso could concur with, the inspiration of the prior illustrator for various publications and books is anything but conventional. Usdin claims that she has a grand amount of memories from her earliest childhood days, despite the very young age she was at when most of them took place. And while many may be skeptical of this and say that her memories are really the memories of her parents as retold to her by them, she would deny this. In fact, one of her earliest recollections is of herself falling into a pot of paint when she was just 18 months old. “At the age of 18 months, I fell into a pot of paint while my parents were painting the house,” she says, recalling the moment as if it had happened yesterday. Ever since then, the mishap has proven eerily fateful, as Usdin explains that “drawing became the best way for me to communicate with others at school. I think I was quite shy, I blushed all the time. I offered drawings to the boys in the class that I liked.” In this way, it can be said that Usdin adopted the notion of “visual language” in a keenly literal sense.

As a teenager, Usdin developed an ambition to become an illustrator, and after high school she was accepted into L’ecole des arts Decoratif where she studied photography and animation. True to her artistic approach to life, she first began flirting with photography in 2002 through flirting with a boy, “I wanted him to pay attention to me, so I borrowed his camera to give him pictures of me.” Usdin’s images inspired her beau-cum-boyfriend to purchase her first camera, a Nikon FE. Since then, she has developed a distinct brand of whimsy that combines her background in illustration (Usdin’s illustrations and broadsheets have appeared across various publishing platforms including print media like The Boston Globe and The Washington Post) with surrealist imagery. As Usdin’s Web site explains, “By changing the realities that surround us, the artist (or anyone) becomes a kind of visionary of a comic and playful world.” And in Usdin’s case, she becomes the subject of her own imagined worlds, posing as a model for many of her series in inadvertent self-portraits, as it were. Unlike many of the purists that seem to dominate photography now more than ever, Usdin candidly and openly embraces her role as a manipulator of image, with some of her work more closely resembling collage than photographs.

Eclectic in both conception and aesthetic, much of Usdin’s work relates to fairy tale tropes – a journey into one’s dreams and desires as well as the hidden unknowns and nightmares — while other series carry a more critical commentary that involve historical references, such as Femmes d’interieur, which the artist explains as being “a piece of work that focuses on women, on how they are represented in classical art, indeed on the ‘codes’ that surround and determine their representation, from the Renaissance to today.” Described as “a walking tool-box,” referring to her apparent mixed-media methods, which rely on drawing and painting to enhance her photography, her works have been deemed as “odd, but beautiful.” Usdin’s style has steadily gained notice, winning the Picto Prize for Young Fashion Photography in 2006, hosting her own exhibition at London’s AOP gallery in 2007, and a subsequent show at the galerie Le Carree in Lille the following year. Whether it’s an advertisement, personal art project, or fashion photography, Usdin’s images always evoke an editorial sensibility — creatively composed, well-lit, vividly colored, and expressively stylized with just a hint of theatrical playfulness.

A photo from the “Self-Portrait with Mattress” series. Photo Courtesy of: Elene Usdin.

GALO: Considering the mixed-media basis of your entry into image making, what is your favorite aspect of photography?

Elene Usdin: Capturing reality while deforming it through manipulation. That is the difference from drawing where you have to build everything — perspective, proportions of the characters, etc. In photography, [what is] real is given to us; we do not change things, but arrange them a little differently. It is like storytelling for me.

GALO: Your work is very eclectic, perhaps without a single obvious commonality. What inspires your photography?

EU: My dreams and daydreams of the day; small incidents of everyday life, which spur an idea; memories of my childhood and especially my nightmares. Children’s drawings, Greek myths, clothing or objects found by chance [as well as] old family photographs or portraits of the unknown, [and] painting in general, from Giotto to David Hockney. [And let us not forget] contemporary dance and opera.

A photograph from “The Hotel” series. Photo Courtesy of: Elene Usdin.

GALO: What is the most difficult aspect of your photography?

EU: All the preparation of costumes and accessories is the most painful because I’m always afraid that [it] will not correspond to what I had in mind. Also, organizing throughout, orchestrating all the parameters, models, lights, accessories and locations.

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