In Conversation with Max Houghton starring ANJA NIEMI

Max Houghton: The work you exhibited last year at TLBG was called ‘Do Not Disturb’ … the work was in fact wonderfully disquieting. Your new series ‘Starlets’ shows a similar sense of lurking threat … is this the world of the starlet, walking a line between fantasy and reality, beauty and violence?
Anja Niemi: I do have a fascination with all the things that crawl underneath our surfaces. I called my characters “Starlets” to blur the line between fiction and personal. I think it is helpful to use private experience to create universal images, but prefer for it to be unclear what is me playing out a narrative and what is a more intimate moment.
MH: The most immediate reference for me in this series was to Tippi Hedren in The Birds. The film The Girl starring Sienna Miller showed Hitchcock’s twin obsessions with blondes and control. Does it feel powerful to you to be so perfectly in control of your images as the creator and subject?
AN: I do like to be in control, and even more I am a perfectionist! I do not think I would have the heart to make a model throw herself face down into a sofa as many times as I would need to get it right! I get this endless will power when photographing that ables me to keep going for as long as it takes. It´s only when I have the image that I realise, I am exhausted. I suppose in that way I have a little of Tippi’s will power and some of Hitchcock’s control needs, but If anyone is going to be attacked by birds, at least it is going to be me!
MH: Your use of colour is highly distinctive. In the bathtub image, which came first, the red pillbox hat or the choice of paint for the bath and walls (or was it the lipstick?!)?
AN: “The Socialite” was photographed in a hotel bathroom in Amsterdam, and the hat was by some miracle found in a vintage shop the same day. Normally the wardrobe is very carefully planned according to the room, but this day my plan did not work out. I had a few hours to go searching, and got very lucky!
MH: You obviously love dressing up. Does this stem from childhood, and do your own children play in this way?
AN: I remember as a kid dressing up in my grandmothers cocktail dresses, how amazing it made me feel. I still get the same rush today, there is something incredibly freeing about transforming yourself into something else. It´s as if you are no longer responsible for your own actions, and get to do whatever you like. I think most kids love to dress up, and it´s pretty handy to have a large hat and wig collection when you have two girls in the house. I do not think they realise yet that not all moms have a room full of costumes…
MH: Why did you decide to use photography to tell stories and play with fictional narratives in the way you do?
AN: Photography is the one medium where I can get things to look exactly the way I want them to. I have always had a vivid imagination, but was never good with words, so I have to tell my stories with images!
MH: Could you tell me the story behind a couple of the images, please? Perhaps The Receptionist, a somewhat Soviet image, and The Showgirl? Or do you prefer to let the viewer bring in their own frames of reference/tell their own stories?
AN: I do think it is more fun for the viewer to make their own story, but I can share a little! ” The Showgirl” was photographed in a banquet hall that had windows draped in what resembled old velvet stage curtains. I was dressed as a cross between a showgirl and a bride. I have never been either, but in that room the combination felt natural. Throughout the day I tried to get into what both characters would feel like, but at some point I think I forgot who was who, and they became the same thing. I was like a Peacock showing of my feathers.
For most of the series it was only me in the room, but when photographing “The Wife” the cleaning personnel showed up. He started vacuuming around me as I was pretending to smash a porcelain Pelican in my head, it was awkward!
For “The Receptionist”, I have always admired people who hold the same job their whole life, doing the same thing all day. That takes a lot of dedication and endurance. I know I would not last.
MH: The vase image has a debt to surrealism, I think? And there are other fragmented body parts … I wonder which artists inspire you?
AN: Maybe it´s that severed ear found in the grass in “Blue Velvet”…. It´s an image that just never left me. I love the way David Lynch blends the surreal into mundane everyday life.
The idea for the The Vase image came slightly after I did the photograph resembling an old style bridal portrait ( “The Bride” ). I started comparing myself as a bride to the main floral arrangement on a formal dinner table, and ended up making “The Centerpiece” to go with my portrait.
MH: There are often two of you in the images – tell me about this doubling? Is it connected to the essence of you that appears in all these fictional scenes? Is it to question reality?
AN: I do often multiply myself, sometimes to look at inner conflicts or to show the contrast between what we show and who we are. We have a tendency to cover up our flaws and decay, hiding all the ugliness of life and I try to have a bit of humor about it.
MH: Do you have titles for your pictures, even if not for publication, as a way of referring to them to yourself?
AN: I do yes, they are always very simple. This time giving a tiny hint as to what role I see the characters playing.
MH: Does exhibiting at LBG give you a focus in terms of deadlines and completing a body of work, or are you naturally very disciplined?
AN: I am pretty disciplined, but when working with a deadline I know when I have to stop. I think I would have a hard time ending a project if no one told me time was up!
Max Houghton, Senior Lecturer in Photography at Westminster University, is the Editorial Consultant for The Little Black Gallery. A former co-editor of Foto8 Magazine, she now writes regularly about photographs for the international press including FOAM, Black & White Magazine and The New Humanist. She has conducted public talks and lectures on photography at Sotheby’s Institute, The Frontline Club, LSE and the Royal Institution and curated exhibitions in Brighton and New York.

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