Ouka Leele’s fantastic fashion photos
In one photo, a ruffled white leather glove jumps over its companion against a blue and green background. In another, a tidy, woven pillbox hat trails long strands of blonde hair towards a false eyelash, a faded rose, and a stray butterfly wing. In a third photo, curved pastel hats sit like frozen candy among crushed berries and torn black ribbon bands. These are the whimsical and wacky concoctions of Spanish artist Ouka Leele, who transformed a commission to photograph French fashion designer Philippe Model’s line of accessories in 1988 into an original exploration of his own art.
Thirty-three years later, Leele’s images still vibrate with playful and inventive energy. The luz that reflejan los cuerpos danza dentro de mis ojos (The light that the bodies reflect dances in my eyes) at Intersticio in Madrid is the first public exhibition of the photos since the year they were taken.
Born Bárbara Allende Gil de Biedma in Madrid in 1957, Leele began her career as a painter. But her vocation changed on her first trip to a darkroom in the 1970s. “The first time I saw an image appear on a piece of paper submerged in the developer, I was mesmerized,” Leele writes in a recent email to Hyperallergic. “I decided to learn photography, convinced that all contemporary artists should use this tool. It was like a language of our time. Leele spent his savings to study at the Photocentro school in Madrid, and soon his work began to appear in books, magazines and exhibitions.
Freed from decades of dictatorship after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, young people like Leele in the largest cities of Spain fomented the new visual arts, music and writing of the “Movida”, a cultural movement that gave birth to creators like director Pedro Almodóvar, cartoonist Ceesepe and singer Alaska. In Madrid and later in Barcelona, Leele is at the forefront of these new artistic trends. “They saw me as the young star of photography,” she says.
In 1988, Leele was invited to create a new work at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. The artist describes her tiny chalet in the lush Foundation gardens – with songbirds and flocks of fireflies – as something out of a fairy tale and a key source of inspiration for the magical quality of her photographic series. When the Foundation introduced Leele to Philippe Model, her scenic environment presented a path.
“The truth is, I was never a fashion photographer,” notes Leele. Previously, she had photographed mainly people in black and white, then painted her images in bright, tangy colors. But this time, she would use “Big Bertha,” a large-format Polaroid camera – the only one of its kind in Europe at the time – to produce large color prints. She created backdrops with paint, pigments and sand and searched the Foundation’s storage rooms and trash cans for unique props. “I was using materials that looked like disposables, but in front of the camera they were spectacular,” she recalls. Combined with hats, gloves, shoes and bags, Leele’s arrangements form curious paintings with surreal flavors. Model’s floral and feminine designs look more like theater figures than commercial products.
What does the artist think of the images now? “I love them!” she asserts. “It’s a series created in the midst of an uninterrupted creative process. It was something very pure, different, [and] free. Where I didn’t try to do an Ouka Leele, but instead let myself go, completely immersing myself in creation in a very free way.
La luz que reflejan los cuerpos danza dentro de mis ojos (The light that the bodies reflect dances in my eyes) continue to Intersticio (Calle de Alcántara, 31, Madrid) until September 4.
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