Doesn’t it seem that some people are just more there than others—more colorful, more eye-catching, taking up more space and catching our attention more insistently? This effect is most noticeable in crowded public places: subway cars, parks, beaches. While everyone else kind of fades into the background hum, certain individuals stand out. In the US, we often call these people “characters,” as in, “Did you see that guy? What a character!”
These are the figures that photographers often zero in on as they roam the world looking for things to frame and capture in their pictures. Whether a photographer approaches the person and brings them back into their studio, or simply captures them in a moment in time out in the world, it is these distinctive individuals, these memorable characters, that make photographers’ hearts race and compel them to venture out and create their work.
Of course, the word “character” has another meaning—we use it to refer to the fictional persons who populate books, films, plays, even our imaginations. The ambiguity is not accidental. When a portrait-maker photographs a strikingly beautiful person in their studio, they are capturing something essential in the subject but also creating something fictional, projecting a fantasy which we can all draw from as viewers. A memorable portrait is both a fragment of reality and a complete construct.
It is within this space that the young French duo, Elsa Parra and Johanna Benaïnous, operate with their series “A Couple of Them.” While the two are conscious of fictional self-portraiture’s rich and varied history—stretching back to Claude Cahun and running through Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman, and Joan Fontcuberta (lest we think this genre is only the realm of women!)—their work carves out a singular niche in this narrative.
Most distinctively, the characters they work with are not cinematic, nor fantastical, nor deeply personal. Rather, they emerge from reality. They do not portray actual people, but these personas emerge, piece by piece, tic by tic, from the artists’ keen observation of the world around them: from street corners, subway platforms, bars, basketball courts…in short, from the bubbling, intoxicating creative ferment that constitutes New York City.
Now, on the one hand, the artists insist that they are working in a non-temporal, non-localized space—their images are not meant to show New York in 2016 (in fact, some of the photographs were shot in France). On the other, geography did play a decisive factor in the inception of the series: Elsa and Johanna met while students in New York City, and they created the bulk of this work there. In their words, there is something in the city’s “effervescent streets” that first propelled the project forward.
And perhaps there is another element involved as well—the artists’ ability to become other people was likely facilitated by living outside their home environment. As anyone who has traveled alone for extended periods knows, there is something easier about changing your identity when you are an outsider or just passing through. Elsa and Johanna confirmed that working in this way would feel faintly ridiculous in Paris, but in New York, they feel emboldened. Indeed, the pair has pushed that slightly magical—but usually temporary—exhilaration of being an outsider to a playful, artistic extreme in this work.
Still, although each character’s distinct visual qualities make these portraits work, anonymity is essential to the series as well. For Elsa and Johanna, the characters do have names, but these are never revealed. They also have biographies, but they aren’t necessarily written down or fully sketched out. When I pressed for more details about their creative process, Elsa described a “magic garden” from which they draw their inspiration—a space they want to protect and safeguard and not interrogate too deeply.
While this lack of clarity could create fissures in some artistic endeavors, here it is intentional. This indefiniteness allows each viewer to project his or her own stories onto the characters. For example, a few of the individuals felt perfectly American to me; when I mentioned this, Johanna laughed, saying that others had imagined them as French or Spanish. Part of the success in this body of work is its neat embodiment of artistic intention as it willingly yields to outside interpretation and intervention.
But at the very heart of this collaborative work is, of course, Elsa and Johanna’s intense partnership. Having met only a few years ago, the two have tumbled deep down this rabbit hole; the resulting work would have been impossible to make without their counterpart. This is particularly evident in the frames where only one character appears—the other is operating the camera, manipulating the ultimate perception of their contrived figures. Speaking about their process, the two described something akin to a dance: “When I’m in front of the camera, I know exactly where the frame is. Since we know each other so well, it doesn’t matter who’s in front and who’s behind—we are creating the image together.”