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Interview with French Fine Art Photographer Isabelle Féebrile

Isabelle Féebrile is a French fine art photographer and writer who creates uncanny worlds made up of phantasmagoric scenes, surreal Expressionistic settings, and cinematic tableaux intertwining the eerie with the erotic. In this interview we delve into her mind and her past, revealing more about her life, photographic approach, the beginning of her artistic journey, and her evolution.

DM: Stylised self-portraits represent a great part of your work. When have you started photographing yourself and what effect has this practice and ritual had on you – on your self-image and your life?

IF: My friend in high school had lent me her compact camera. I naturally started to take pictures of me, seeing what I looked like, as well as building characters, wearing make up that I wouldn’t have dared to otherwise. As a withdrawn teenager, very uncommunicative and hurt by the wickedness of others, photography simply helped me get out of it, to accept myself and gain confidence. Photography also allowed me to meet the people who are dear to my heart today.

DM: Your work embodies eroticism and sensuality, depicted in an unconventional, eerie, surreal way. Would you like to elaborate on this mix between the erotic and elements of horror, on the symbolism behind it?

IF: For me, eroticism would not be interesting without a hint of strange, and vice versa : no frightening without a bit of eroticism. It’s all the incongruity of the body. Both beautiful and desirable, hideous and sick. Just like Nature, in general.

L’érotisme, pour moi, ne serait pas intéressant sans un soupçon d’étrange, et inversement : pas d’effrayant sans un peu d’érotisme. C’est toute l’incongruité du corps. A la fois beau et désirable, hideux et malade. Tout comme l’est la Nature, plus généralement.

DM: Your photographs seem to depict scenes from dreams, particularly nightmares, as well as having the surreal structure of a dream. Is your visual narrative rooted in dreams or was one of your aims to create an artistic mirror of the unconscious mind?

IF: It has happened, a few times, reproducing a dream in my photography. In all cases, I like this question to be asked. What would be the use of faithfully reproducing reality? It’s well where it is ! I prefer to have fun with it. The subconscious is so rich, so interesting to try to peel.

Ca m’est déjà arrivée, quelques fois, de reproduire un rêve en photo. Dans tous les cas, j’aime qu’on se pose cette question. A quoi servirait de reproduire fidèlement la réalité ? Elle est bien là où elle est ! Je préfère m’amuser de celle-ci. L’inconscient est si riche, si interessant à tenter de décortiquer.

DM: The phantasmagorical world portrayed in your work sometimes verges on the macabre and the grotesque, incorporating eerie creatures, ghostly presences, distortions, and disjointed bodies. Do you have a fascination with death/mortality, and with occultism?

IF: Indeed, as a teenager, I went through this romantic/gothic stage : I wanted to be a witch. I was interested in fantasy, ghosts, myths, even UFOs stories ! Today, these tastes have taken a more philosophical dimension, even commitment (for example the feminist movement connected to the figure of the Witch or a way of being close to others and to nature). In fact, I’m much more interested by the living now ! : )

Adolescente, j’ai en effet eu cette période, romantique/gothique, je voulais être une sorcière. Je m’interessais au fantastique, aux fantômes, aux mythes, même aux histoires d’ovni ! Aujourd’hui, ces goûts ont pris une dimension plus philosophique, voir engagée (que ce soit le mouvement féministe relié à la figure de la sorcière ou une façon de vivre proche des autres et de la nature). En fait, je m’interesse beaucoup plus aux vivants maintenant ! : )

DM: Besides photography, you also express your creativity through written stories, videos, and music. Describe your creative process as a multimedia artist. How do you piece everything together and how do you crystallise your concepts into your multifaceted oeuvre?

IF: Today, I mainly focus on photography or creating accessories for them (masks in particular). My writing has evolved, I have written a lot of short stories with elements of fantasy, but I think I have less need to write stories because I stage them in photos. For video or music, my old equipment doesn’t allow me to do it -for the moment ! I don’t feel frustrated, I have less need to spread myself too thin; I found in the creation of masks the way to include all the facets of my art. Although, of course, when I can, I would love to come back to video. I have some ideas pending.

Aujourd’hui, je me concentre surtout sur la photographie ou la création d’accessoires pour celles-ci (les masques notamment). Mon écriture a évolué, j’ai beaucoup écrit des nouvelles un peu fantastiques mais je crois que j’ai moins besoin d’écrire des histoires car je les mets en scène en photo. Pour la vidéo ou la musique, mon vieux matériel ne me permet pas d’en faire, pour le moment. Je ne m’en sens pas frustrée, j’ai moins besoin de m’éparpiller, j’ai trouvé dans la création de masques dont je parle le moyen d’inclure toutes les facettes de mon art. Même si bien sûr, quand je le pourrai, j’aurais plaisir à revenir à la vidéo. J’ai quelques idées en attente.

DM: The aesthetic of some of your photographs incorporates unnatural shapes, distortions, stylised Expressionistic set designs, and an old horror style reminiscent of German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. Has old horror cinema been an influence on your work, or have there been any cinematic influences on your work?

IF: I’ve always thought that photography and character creation had everything to do with cinema. Except that you have to say everything in one still image. I cannot say that the old silent films influenced me but I feel close to this aesthetic. Just like any eerie film.

J’ai toujours pensé que la photo, la création de personnages avait tout à voir avec le cinéma. Juste qu’il faut tout dire en une image fixe. Je ne peux pas dire que les vieux films muets m’aient influencée mais je me sens proche de cette esthétique. Tout comme de n’importe quel film un peu étrange aux cadrages travaillés.

DM: What inspires you? Do you experience inspiration as spontaneous bouts of energy more often or do you also go to certain places, read, or do other things to seek it out and get into that mental state of inspiration and creation?

IF: Everything can inspire me, a book, a film, everyday life, an exciting conversation … Inspiration comes when it wants to ! : )

Tout peut m’inspirer, une lecture, un film, le quotidien, une conversation passionnante… L’inspiration vient quand elle veut bien ! : )

DM: What is a day in the life of Isabelle Feebrile like? Tell us a little bit more about yourself, your lifestyle, and your interests beyond your artistic identity.

IF: Sleeping and eating a lot ! I also spend a lot of time observing my apartment, which I have filled with many objects (masks, puppets, frames, etc.). I have the incredible luxury of working for myself, at home, and to be able to be bored -which is the first condition leading to creation. Creation reflects the wish to get out of boredom, to heal oneself from reality.

Dormir et manger beaucoup ! Je passe beaucoup de temps, également, à regarder mon appartement que j’ai rempli d’objets (masques, marionnettes, cadres..). J’ai le luxe incroyable de travailler chez moi et pour moi, de pouvoir m’ennuyer -ce qui est la condition number one pour amener à la création. Créer c’est vouloir sortir de l’ennui, se guérir de la réalité.

DM: Would you say there have been changes in your artistic practice, approach, and vision along the years?

IF: Of course ! Nothing worse than staying static, not questioning anything. The 20-year-old girl who took photos to discover herself, to repair herself, to escape the family weight is no longer the same 13 years later ! Today, it’s no longer (totally) a work on pain or loneliness, but a sweet game, a source of joy, a renewal ! I like to create characters sometimes very different from me, I speak less of the intimate although I think that my photos resemble me more today, even if that seems contradictory.

Of course ! Rien de pire que de rester statique, de ne rien remettre en question. La jeune fille de 20 ans qui faisait de la photo pour se découvrir, se réparer, s’échapper du poids familial n’est plus la même 13 ans après ! Aujourd’hui, ce n’est plus (totalement) un travail sur la douleur ou la solitude, mais bien un jeu, un bonheur, un renouvellement ! J’aime créer des personnages parfois très différents de moi, je parle moins de l’intime bien que je pense que mes photos me ressemblent plus aujourd’hui, même si ça semble contradictoire.

DM: Do you feel a sense of nostalgia for the past?

IF: Not so much but I like to tap into the past. I prefer something old, handmade, that lasts over time. It is true however, that I’m often nostalgic of my past (rather than the past in general) but I prefer, a thousand times, my life, today.

Pas vraiment mais j’aime puiser dans le passé. Je préfère une chose ancienne, faite à la main, qui dure. C’est vrai toutefois, que je suis souvent nostalgique de mon passé (plutôt que du passé en général) mais je préfère mille fois ma vie, aujourd’hui.

DM: Talk to us about the concept, story, and symbolism behind your series “Les Petites”. What were the thoughts that gave birth to this strange, grim, yet enchanting collection?

IF: In this series of my work, each miniature set is made from cardboard and / or modelling clay. When I was little, I loved to draw but I wasn’t very good. This series is a happy playground, which allows me to break the limits imposed by photography (by inventing a place, an object, a body), because here everything starts from scratch, everything is malleable, everything can be carved, painted, modelled, mixed… like a drawing. Besides, everything begins with a sketch. So, I create my own reality.

Dans cette série particulière de mon travail, chaque décors miniature est construit avec du carton et/ou de la pâte à modeler. Quand j’étais petite, j’adorais dessiner mais je n’étais pas très bonne. Cette série est un joyeux terrain de jeu, qui me permet de briser les limites qu’impose la photographie (on n’invente pas un lieu, un objet, un corps), car ici tout part de zéro, tout est malléable, tout peut être découpé, peint, modelé, mélangé, ce en quoi ma façon de travailler se rapproche du dessin. D’ailleurs, tout commence par un croquis. Ainsi, je crée ma propre réalité.

DM: What words would you use to best describe the stories you convey within your art?

IF: Dream – Persona – Feminine

DM: A lot of your photographs feature peculiar masks, made by yourself- what significance do masks have for you?

IF: I make my masks starting from the shape of my face. Resembling, yet different. By creating a double, we are protected by the very nature of it : a distance is created, a distance which is already there with the makeup or the costume, but which is exacerbated by the mask. On this double, we can transpose everything, we can talk about us but we will not be dispossessed of what we put in it. It’s just like acting. My masks are my different facets but also the companions of my daily life.

Je fabrique mes masques en partant de la forme de mon visage. Ressemblant mais autre. En créant un double, on est protégé par la nature même de celui-ci : une distance se crée, distance qui est déjà là avec le maquillage ou le costume mais qui  exacerbée par le masque. Sur ce double, on peut tout transposer, on peut parler de nous mais on ne sera pas dépossédé de ce qu’on y met. C’est exactement comme un travail d’acteur.  Mes masques sont mes différentes facettes mais aussi les compagnons de mon quotidien.

DM: What kind of reaction would you like or expect the viewer to have whilst experiencing your art?

IF: I really don’t know. Having a reaction is nice in itself ! : )

Je ne sais pas vraiment. Déjà une réaction c’est bien ! : )

DM: How do you select your models?

IF: It’s not all the same, working with a model or getting involved, it’s an exchange, it also brings a part of her (I put in feminine because I work mainly with women but it also includes men), even if I think that a successful photo will always, even in a distant way, be a form of self-portrait because we are always looking for a little of ourselves in the other. So, I imagine that I chose them because, one way or another, I find myself in them.

Ce n’est pas la même façon de travailler avec une modèle (je mets au féminin car je travaille surtout avec des femmes mais cela englobe aussi les hommes) ni de s’impliquer, c’est un échange, elle amène également une part d’elle, même si je pense qu’une photo réussie sera toujours, même d’une manière lointaine, une forme d’autoportrait car on recherche toujours un peu de nous dans l’autre. J’imagine donc que je les choisi parce que, d’une façon ou d’une autre, je me retrouve en elles.

DM: Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions? What are some concepts you would like to explore in the near future?

Exhibiting will be complicated in these times of pandemic … I’m in a great collective exhibition, in France, in the super gallery Arts Factory, made by Les Crocs Electriques (underground publishers) but I don’t know when it will be able to reopen. As for my next creation, it’s going to be a “girl-flower” mask!

Exposer va être compliqué en ces temps de pandémie… Je suis dans une super exposition collective, en France, dans la super galerie Arts Factory, made by Les Crocs Electriques (éditeurs underground) mais je ne sais pas quand elle pourra rouvrir. Qant à ma prochaine création, ça va être un masque de femme-fleur !


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