Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Photographer and visual artist Stephanie Galea
Traces, opening at Valletta Contemporary (VC) on the 24th May, is a series of fine art photographic images depicting female bodies set within a natural landscape. The series’ author, Stephanie Galea, represents her subjects in a similar way to the landscapes in which they stand, bend, mingle, and rest. No bodily feature is spared – hair, pores, skin imperfections all enter the territory of texture that makes up each image. The series’ unrepentant compositional character, its distinct framing, and its glorification of detail directs emphasis and attention straightforwardly to the female form, inevitably drawing out diverse sensory reactions from its viewers. Stephanie Galea is a Maltese fashion photographer and visual artist based in London. She is a regular contributor to prominent fashion publications including Vogue Italia, Vogue Portugal, Vogue Arabia, Harper's Bazaar and i-D amongst others. Her clients include Vivienne Westwood, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Dunhill, Ted Baker and Kate Spade, and she has exhibited her work on numerous occasions across London, Malta, Dubai and Washington DC. Here, she speaks with Ann Dingli about what compelled her to produce a fine art photography series, and why she’s focused so steadfastly on the female form.
Ann Dingli (AD): To begin with, can you talk a bit about the process of making Traces? When did the shoot or shoots take place? Did you shoot on film or digitally, and why? Where were these images taken?
Stephanie Galea (SG): I had been meaning to photograph the female form for quite a while and I finally started the project in Malta in between shooting my other commissioned work. I shot all the images with my Pentax 67 in black and white film over various sittings last year and earlier this year. Each image was then handprinted in the darkroom and after various tests with different paints, brushes and techniques, I created the strokes that make each artwork a unique piece that cannot really be replicated. There are some variations of a few pieces in the red and yellow series, however the prints are all exposed differently in the darkroom and the paint differs. My starting point was the blue series in Malta, which was shot last year; the inspiration came after developing the film and the sitting and looking at the scanned previews – the images were so detailed that I wanted to physically touch the pores of the skin and the lines on the bodies. That’s where the project began and eventually turned into a journey.
AD: The majority of your commissioned work lives very much within the realms of the fashion world. Has the fact that your models are nude in this series been a consequential move away from clothes and apparel and the meaning they inevitably and historically bring to femininity?
SG: I really do enjoy fashion and creating fashion imagery, however fashion shoots often tend to be a result of the input and output of many people who come together with different ideas and have different roles. In this series, it was all about what I wanted to create and – in the end – it was about myself and the women I was photographing. I shared my vision with them and they in turn interpreted it in their own way. I wanted to distil the photography, to focus on the female form, and to draw attention to bodies and frame them in a different way – literally and metaphorically. And finally, I wanted to make sure that the bodies were on show proudly and unapologetically, commanding total attention.
Stephanie Galea, Red Traces, 7, 2019
AD: The images illicit a diverse and particular set of reactions from the viewer. They oscillate between rudeness and mild hilarity, tenderness and defiance, and oddity and sensuality. Is there an overall reading you were aiming to provoke when you set up the shots?
SG: I think the works oscillate between these characteristics because this fluctuation is possibly somewhat a reflection of my personality, and it's what I put into the work. Beyond the obvious message, this is what I wanted the viewer to see, and I think every artist wants to leave a little bit of themselves in their work. The images were in fact created in defiance – because we all yearn to be seen as we are. I feel like we aren’t confronted by real women often enough in the art world. They are not meant to be rude or illicit though, I have photographed them just as they appear in reality. The images are as much about the women in the pictures as they are about anyone who stands in front of them. They are unapologetic, and that is the message I would like to send across to every woman, especially in Malta. It is a real viewpoint of women and their bodies and their feelings towards them.
AD: Transcending the entire set of images is an undeniable affinity to the female body. This in itself speaks of an artist who has examined her own relationship with femininity and how it manifests in a corporeal sense. Is the work personal to you? Does it express the way you might feel about your own body?
SG: From my experience photographing both men and women, I always enjoyed the latter more. It’s probably since I can relate to female bodies on a personal level, but I also find the form and curves of the female body more exciting and inspiring to work with. This series is deeply personal because it has allowed me to explore my own body by staying true to the women and their bodies and allowing any ‘imperfections' to remain visible – these images aren’t doctored in any way.
Stephanie Gaela, Blue Traces, 2, 2019
AD: Can you talk about the paint – how did you make the relevant decisions on colour, placement, form? What is the significance of these pigmented additions?
SG: The paint colours are all primary colours and have been chosen in order to reflect the rawness of the images themselves, as well as to illustrate respective themes. The blue series is about exploration, the images are highly detailed recognisable body crops where pores, scars, and stretch marks are proudly visible. The red series is sensual, with a more abstract and slightly alien viewpoint – a reflection of the lack of understanding of our own bodies as a result of the guilt we are made to feel about it. Finally, the yellow series is about freedom, with most of the paint drawn surrounding the bodies instead of directly on them, simultaneously elevating them.
AD: You describe the series as being created through the female gaze. as “the body [being] used as a canvas to create harmonious lines”. Can you elaborate on this point? Women’s bodies have been used for centuries as canvases for disparate, mainly male-driven, agendas. Is your authorial position different by nature of you yourself being a woman?
SG: The female gaze is emotional and intimate not ravenous and sexual. Through it people are people, women are women. None of the women in these images are sexualised – it’s an exploration of oneself with their own body and that’s what these lines represent. Unfortunately, the relationship of a woman with herself is unnecessarily complicated – this work is an attempt to simplify and uplift that relationship.