Q&A with Photo-Sinning Connoisseur, Remy Lagrange
Remy Lagrange is the Chicago-born New York-based photographer glamorizing unconventional “beauty.” An aficionado of all things sin, Lagrange highlights the nitty-gritty nightlife juxtaposed with portraits and landscapes. His signature theme of layered media comes from a frustrated state concerning today’s market of oversaturated content. This month, Remy debuted his recent body of work, “The Wages Of Sin,” at Russian Samovar. With baroque-style furniture and dazed partygoers, Lagrange displayed his work of sin with a cocktail… or five. After a week of recovery, I sat down with the Annie Leibovitz approved photo genius to crack the man behind the lens.
Tell us about “The Wages Of Sin” exhibition at Russian Samovar.
That happened very much by chance and by accident. My friend went to a Sofar Sounds show at Russian Samovar and met Daniel and Misha [family of the owners]. One night we had a boy's dinner, and we went to Russian Samovar. They took me upstairs through those deep heavy fur curtains, and I said, “Oh yeah, I’m doing my show here.” Misha told me all of the stories and history behind the place with Sinatra going there. That was November first; 30 days later we're doing a show there- we wanted Misha and Daniel to share as much as they could about the restaurant, and the history. It kind of all fell together really quick and by chance, which I feel like the best things happen that way. I went to Misha’s birthday party a week later, and it was super fun; it’s the best spot. I had never been to a Russian restaurant before, and I didn't know you drink shots throughout the whole meal, but that's what you do, and you have to cheers to something and drink together. I love that tradition. Anyways, I wouldn’t have been able to find that spot myself, but it all worked out so well. It made complete sense with a lot of the work I do- people partying at late night spots, after hour joints, pregames , or during a fancy dinner in an opulent space. That space is opulent when the lights are down, but turn the lights on and oh man, the furniture is scary. It reflected my work very well.
“The Wages Of Sin” playfully glamorizes the nitty gritty night scene. What were your inspirations in exposing the nightlife?
It’s something I've been trying to figure out for a long time. It's a line I constantly walk and it changes as I get older. I was a student at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] in Providence. We didn't have great parties; It was very cliquey as art schools tend to be, and we were all separated by the departments. Everyone thinks they're the greatest artist. They all go there as the greatest artists of their high school from bumfuck nowhere. Then all of a sudden they're thrown into a school with other creatives, and now they might be the worst! Anyways, I started going up the hill to Brown [University] for their parties. They had their frats; it got wild, and I would document all of it. I’d go there with a camera and when I filled up 64 gigabytes of high resolution, which is about 4,000 photos I'd be done with the night around 7 AM. I tried to capture the grittiness of all that because I didn't know what to take pictures of. When I went into photography, my teacher said, “what do you love to do?” I said, “I’m 18/ 19 years old. I like to go out and get drunk on the weekends. That's my favorite thing.” So I started doing that and saw these students trying to release the energy that they had built up all week to get inebriated beyond belief so that the world would disappear. But I also found that they became who they truly were, which I loved. Getting to talk to people and hear their fears, what brings them happiness, and so on. I kept doing that, just not in black and white with a flash on digital cameras. I started to slow the process down by working with a film camera so that I wouldn't take as many photos. Focus more on the quieter moments when someone is looking off into the distance, or someone that’s lost their friends thinking, “what do I do now?” I'm trying to capture those truly honest moments, and it's gotten more and more in depth. Now I’m focusing on family and those moments, not just at parties or drinking at night, but those moments at dinner, those moments at lunch, those moments waking up, or getting home after a long night, or long day at work. I want to try and find the person to expose who they truly are when they don't think they're getting their photo taken. I think my style's a little all over the place. It goes from landscapes to shots of someone eating with just their hands, to a portrait, to landscape with someone in it, but it all comes from the same voice and style.
How did you decide to name this series?
I used to summer with my family in Saugatuck, Michigan, more specifically, Douglas, Michigan. I would drive up and I'd pass this sign every day that read a quote from the Bible, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” I’m not religious and I never read the Bible, but I think I made it to communion and that was that. My brother and I would drive past that sign and compete on who can say it the quickest. Some random person repainted it every year and he recently died I think about three years ago. It's been fading and I just found out right before the show that the site is no longer there, which is a big bummer. That’s a memory from my childhood that stuck with me, the phrase “the wages of sin is death.” I don't really care too much about the other part with Jesus being involved, but it kinda sucks and it's heavy. It stuck with me for a long time and I was going through my archives and I found that photo of the sign on some shitty old camera. What is sinning? I find it to be the most fun, but I also know that sinning takes a huge toll on you. Which, according to that sign, is death. And yes, if you drink too much, if you smoke too much, if you don't sleep enough, do too many drugs, you'll die; that’s definitely going to happen. Everyone dies, but at what time do you want to die? I find sin to be the fun part of life. If you don't sin, then life is just always happy and boring? I don’t know. You need the yin and the yang, the white and the black, from sinning and not sinning. The title basically just came from that sign. A lot my titles come from childhood memories, from quotes, from movies that I watched as a kid. My last body of work, “Wild Thing”, was from the GI Jane movie that my brother and I used to love.
You often mix media by writing or layering over different photographs. How does that style best reflect your work?
That's something I've been working for a while and even since the show a week ago; it's been changing a lot. I started as a painter and drawer when I was a kid. I love doing it. I love the physicality of it, and I always romanticize about these painters in studios getting paint all over themselves, like Jackson Pollock. I always loved the image and the motion of that. It's physically exhausting doing all that. I mean it's physically exhausting to sit with a computer in a dark room as well. But I got sick and tired of photographers having this outlook of “I can make ten great photos in my life and just addition them 250 each and live on that for my whole life.” They keep reselling the same photos. If I were to buy one of those pieces, I've got this as well as 249 people. That sucks. A year or two ago, I was at a Danny Fox exhibit, and I had only seen pictures of his work online. I didn't get it before; I thought it was kind of childish. A friend of mine had told me to go check it out because Wes Lang was loving it and had given a book to Kanye. So I said alright, I'll go to this Sotheby’s thing. I cried in front of one of the canvases; for the first time, I cried in front of art, and I didn't know why, but you could feel him. You could see the layers of him trying to figure it out. Why can't that be with photography? Why can't I print a photo on canvas and start writing on it or painting on it or add layers so you can see the hand of the artist, and call it that? That's it. That's the one photo, but it’s not a photo anymore, It’s a piece of art. You get to have this piece of art, and it's your piece of art so that you can see it every day. Not so you and 249 people can see the same one at the same size in their own home. The texts started getting on there because I wanted to make my work stand out and I wanted people to spend two more minutes with it. Like I was saying earlier, the texts come from my memories. They come from movies, quotes from songs, from old blues records that my dad gave me. I often will sit in dark corners of bars by myself with this journal and think of little phrases to write. I'm not a good reader, and I can never read for long. I get bored, or I lose my mind after the second line. So just short things that are to the point and make you think.
What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done to get a photograph?
My friend Oliver was on the swim team at Brown, and they had their own swimming house, basically their “frat” and it was a three-story building with a pitched roof. They had a “dress like a bear or barley dress” party. I somehow climbed out a window, up a drain pipe onto a landing, then up a slanted roof onto the edge of the peak to take a photo of their backyard, which was full of, well over a thousand people. The picture is great; It looks like a mess of people. One cop car showed up, and they didn't even attempt it; They had to call ten cop cars as backup. It was incredibly unsafe, and I was wearing a full bear suit so no grip on my shoes. I've done a lot of stupid shit to get photos. I’ve been punched, I’ve been kicked to the ground, and I've been circled kicked, trying to get people's photos. Usually, if someone gets angry, I have to apologize, but sometimes it still goes south.
The Upskirt photo must have gone south…
No, not going to lie I didn't even take that photo. I like to leave my cameras around, which is very stupid because they're expensive and they're my babies, and I've lost a bunch. A friend picked up that camera and took that photo. I had no idea, and I got the contact sheet back, and I thought it was great. He knew the girl, so I asked the two of them if I could use it and they were okay with it. The upskirt photo might be seen as kind of a pervy thing, but she’s got underwear on so nothing's really visible. She’s got this dress on that matches the colors of her thighs, and there's a little green hint going on; I think there's something beautiful yet raunchy about it. I look at that, and I find nothing sexual happening as much the interesting foreshortening and weird angle.
How do you find beauty in the ugliness both in life and your work?
I'm the best at making people look ugly, and the reason being is that people pay too much attention to how they look. They’re constantly taking poised photos of themselves, and I find the most beautiful photo to be when you're not posing when you don't know your picture’s been taken because it’s authentic. People usually find that incredibly ugly. I find it so sincere, honest and beautiful, so I do that often. The minute someone knows I'm taking a photo of them, I put my camera down because the moment is gone. I'm no longer interested in it. For example, my sister in law, eating a mess of shellfish, it's incredibly grotesque. So many dead heads and greasy fingers, but I find it so beautiful in the same sense. With her diamond ring and Rolex, it’s so glamorous. Lobster was a peasant food back in the day; they used to just wash up on shore, and now it's incredibly expensive. I love that dichotomy that happens there. There is a day that I went to my first crawfish boil, and I took so many great photos. I then found out I had no film in the camera the whole time. Now I gotta wait until next year. I thought it was so freaky; people were sucking the heads of these disgusting looking creatures, but they're so happy doing it.
How did growing up in Chicago shape you as an individual?
I think Chicago is one of the best cities to grow up in. If I ever had a kid, I would raise them in Chicago because it’s such a humble town. We don't toot our own horns. I feel like in New York and LA there's a hierarchy of “who do you know?” or “who are your parents?” In Chicago, no one gives a shit. We’re the second city, and we don't even care. Growing up there was a blessing beyond belief. You get all the things of a New York or an LA or any major city. We got some of the best food, some of the best bars, and I think, the best people. My friends and I always went to these weird bars around Chicago; 5 AM bars where you sit at and talk to the person next to you and have a great time. You’ve never met; they could be 50 or 60 years old or younger than you, but by the end of the night you’re friends and it's fine if you don't stay friends. What I love is that the first question is not, “what do you do for a living?” You sit there, and you shoot the shit, “Oh you come here often? You know the bartender, Jack? He comes in on Tuesdays,” and I love that. You could have a lawyer, an art student, and a subway construction worker and all everyone will be on the same level. I think a lot of my work comes from that and trying to capture those types of people and document that lifestyle. A lot of my friends still live out there, and we frequent at the same places; you can get drunk on $15 somehow, but we’re always at the same places and know the same doormen. My high school friends and I are such a family. Whenever they come to New York, it’s bad. A couple of them went to this show at Russian Samovar, and they had landed at 11 PM and stayed until 5 AM. I got home at 7 AM. I mean, we said until sunrise, and we definitely did it. I didn't fully recover until a week after. I'm rough on myself with my work where I will constantly push to the last minute. I mean, I didn't sleep a drop the night before; I finally did the math, and I got 15 hours of sleep from that Sunday until that Friday. I used to be a varsity athlete, I used to run track and cross country and if I got to the end of the 5-k race and I wasn't about to vomit, then shit, I could've gotten a better time if I ran a little faster because I'm not dead. I treat my art and everything the same way. If I haven't given my all, then how could it possibly be as good as I want it to be. It’s not a healthy way to do it. I don't know. It's life, I guess, right?
Do you have a favorite photo from this collection?
It's probably the driving shot. I don't remember taking it, and I usually remember everything that happens before and after a photo from the past 15 years. I mean technically, it’s not a great photo, and it's not a focus, but everyone's been in that position. Everyone has driven during sunset by themselves and felt that peace of mind. Especially on a highway, you just put on autopilot, you blast the music, put the window down to chain smoke, you've got some red bull or coffee, and you finally get to think truthfully to yourself. You've got no real distractions happening. I love doing long drives in that way; some people work out to find that peace of mind, but Jesus, I haven’t been to the gym in two years. I love looking at that photo because I get lost in it and I find it incredibly relaxing.
My other favorite one would be of my brother at Bemelmans at the Carlyle Hotel. It says “intoxication we trust.” It's a place me and my family always go and drink a lot. Like I said earlier, I find that through drinking comes true honesty. I was thinking about dollar bills and “In God, We Trust,” and “Intoxication we trust,” came to be. We trust each other when we’re drunk and intoxicated, especially with family because it all comes down to love.
This was the last one I added to the show. My grandma is a sweetheart. I've run away from home at times, and she’d always take me in. She used to sell cigarettes at Sears. She is a sweetheart, and she's still full of life. We were at my sister in law's birthday party at Chicago Cut on December 24th. The whole family was there with party hats on, eating steak, and drinking martinis and red wine. I caught my grandma looking over it and tired. I found her genuinely expressing what everyone at the table was feeling like: full, drunk, and tired. Her facial expression reads,” let's go home; we don't need to order another bottle of wine.” She expressed what the moment was. She's in her eighties so she should be tired at that point.
I mean, I've never fucked with heroin. I know some friends in college that used to snort it, which I never understood. There are tons of artists that I've always admired that shoot heroin and a lot of them are dead now. Anyways, I was at a bar in Brooklyn, but I won't say which one. It was a big music venue and outdoor space. I go into the last bathroom stall, and there's a needle sitting right on the top of the toilet. I had just shot the final frame on my camera, so I ran right back to the concert room where my friend was playing, grabbed another role, ran straight back to the bathroom, shot three frames, pissed, and left. I was nervous to use the photo because it's heavy. To have a needle on a toilet and what that means, especially with the opioid crisis, it's a heavy photo, but it almost disappears into the toilet. It barely stands out because the chrome distracts you from it. I'm not saying I support it, but it's there, and that's something that you may come across in a bar’s bathroom in Brooklyn- which is crazy! There's a bouncer at the door that ID’s and looks through your bag. They don’t even have Bud Light; it's all fancy craft beers, so who the hell is in here doing this? I didn't understand it.
This was me in college, and I had just switched majors. I started studying apparel but failed every class. I got kicked out of RISD, read the handbook, found a loophole in it, and slid my way back in without missing a single day. I was pissed; I was so pissed. I was always a big fan of Francis Bacon. There's so much emotion in his paintings because you can see this figure and you can feel their insides almost. I got access to the school studio, and I thought, I'm going to make my own Francis Bacon. I'm going to try to express how angry I am because I had to walk around like everything's fine. I switched from apparel design to photography like it was my choice, but it was not. I just went in there and took a handful of frames of me screaming at the top of my lungs, shaking my head around in anger with long exposures to try and play with the camera. It was an attempt at displaying my emotion behind a self-portrait.
When you switched majors, were you interested in doing photography?
My dad is an architect and would always carry around a camera to document corners of buildings or little designs for inspiration. So he taught me how to use it at a young age. I'm still using the same camera that he gave me when I was a kid. I have switched a bunch since then, but now I'm back to this one. I took photography classes since fifth grade. They had us in a dark room doing pinhole cameras from oatmeal boxes. I always loved it. I didn't know you could make a career out of it, and I always loved fashion. So I went into apparel, and that did not work out well. I was one of three guys with 45 other girls, and it was terrible. I hid in the corner, and I could barely sit in the studio. All I wanted to make was men's clothing circa Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme, but no, they wanted us to make A-line skirts and Peter Pan collars, and I couldn't stand it. I often would skip class or not do the assignment, but an assignment of my own and it did not go over well. I switched to photography, and it was a blessing in disguise. I was let down and hurt by the school, but I then found a family in the photography group. Henry Hornstein and Steve Smith took me on, and Jo Sittenfeld backed me up to the dean saying, “let us have this kid.” The dean said, “you're an idiot, and you're going to regret this,” and the rest is history! The teachers were just fantastic. They were so great, so supportive, unlike my apparel teachers who hated my guts. I took every course load every semester and lived in the studio, literally, I brought in a mini fridge and a bed to sleep in. I felt free beyond belief to do whatever I wanted and find a voice. Since then, I graduated, went to work for Annie Leibovitz, and I’m still there and learning more every day.
Tell us about your experience working for Annie Leibovitz.
Senior year my first semester, my brother’s roommate knew a girl that was a producer for Annie and put me in touch. I stayed in touch with her and got an internship right when I moved out here [New York City]. It's been four years now and the internship transformed from production to lighting. Then, they found out I knew design work and photography very well and put me upstairs. Now I'm stuck up there working on our shows and our books, which is fun. It’s great, and I can't complain. Plus, at night I still get to work on my stuff.
What can we expect from you in 2019?
Currently, I'm working on a second book for all of this work, which is basically a part two. I hadn’t finished the image selection until the day of the show, and there's so much more I'd like to add. I could only put up about 40 photos in the space. I wish I could have made it 100 or more to tell a complete story. With this book, you feel like you're reading a novel in pictures, especially since I put texts in there and write it in. So I’m in the process of making these books, and then I’ll do another show in May.
The introduction and conclusion of this exhibition cite poems that discusses family, friendship, and the afterlife. What do you hope people will take away from it?
The poem in the start and at the end are the same side of one coin. I think it’s a struggle that I currently have and a lot of us have… a fear of growing up. I want to stay young; I want to go out until 4 am every night and drink and have fun and never say no to any invite to chase every opportunity. But at the same time, it takes a toll and being hungover on a Saturday sucks. Being too tired to see your niece and take her to see Santa is not a fun thing; I would like to do that, but it's tough to do both. We all get older and have to get our priorities straight. We have to tell people that we love, that we love them, and be there for them in those important moments. My hope with my work is that people will see it, read these words, look at these photos and feel safe to communicate their emotions. My girlfriend put up one of my pieces at the end of the hallway before we leave the door and it's a swimming pool that says at the bottom, “the trouble is you think you have time.” I get to see that every day before I leave and read that phrase thinking about what I should do with the day now. The trouble is that I think I have time, but who knows?