Jodie Hill discusses still life, hyperreality, and the unchartered territory of fragrance and memory with photographer and amateur perfumer Anna Pogossova.
At what age were you first drawn to photography?
I wasn’t drawn to it whatsoever until I started university where I studied fine arts and photo media at COFA (College of Fine Arts). I was always working with images, and I just kind of fell into photography by accident. Photo media really opened up all these avenues that weren’t necessarily exploring 2D or images, and I thought that was really cool. So I guess I was first drawn that when I was around 19.
Did you ever engage with still life, perhaps in drawing or painting, before you started studying?
No. Not until much later. I did a little bit of commercial fashion work towards the end of my studies. These were mostly with models and I quickly discovered it wasn’t really me. I’m better in situations where I can control all the aspects because I don’t like anything to be comprised. I still believe that you can create really beautiful work in collaboration with models and stylists but in my experience, it was always sort of clumsy at the beginning and it really didn’t seem to suit my personality.
I guess you don’t have to warm up an inanimate object like you do with a person.
(Laughs). I think a better way to put it was that I could complete every aspect by myself, and I also felt that it was very inventive because it was often just myself in the studio with no time limitations. I was able to discover and create at my own pace. So I spent a lot of that time experimenting is a real luxury in photography, as you often need a team of stylists, make up artists etc. to execute an idea. Also it’s less self conscious, you find yourself taking more risks.
I was also working as a retouch artist as my first day job out of uni, so that was a skill I could take elements from and apply to processes within my own work. Just like with painting, I enjoy being very hands on. All of these things over time have combined to make my still life photography, and the retouching especially adds a lot to my hyperreal aesthetic.
In your work you create these surreal worlds which become extensions of the object’s identity. I’m wondering what your approach is, for example, with our Map of the Heart bottles.
A lot of my personal exhibition work has to do with mythologies of objects and so before it even gets to me, such as the perfume bottles, there are so many pre-existing associations and intentional references. It always comes with a story and a history. I also shoot a lot of luxury accessories, where everything is really considered, so it’s not an accident that an object ends up in a certain environment. There are cues in what the object is, such as its colour, or it might be referencing something from film or history, often in very subtle ways. I’m picking up on all these little things and then I take a few of them, to elaborate into that bigger story.
And do you find that there is an equal balance between physical sets and post production?
It would be hard to say as it varies a lot. I think I generally like things that are done in real life which might be a bit confusing and seem photoshopped, or vice versa. There’s a lot of that going on in my work. Honestly, I do love that hyperreal aesthetic and I love using technology, so every time theres a new program which I can use, I will try to work that in because it’s fun.
So yes, the aesthetic encourages a lot of post production work but to me, it’s just a means to an end. If I can create what I’m seeing in my head by a means then I will. I always imagine what the final work is going to look like straight away, and I use what I can in resources to achieve that. Sometimes its a 50/50, sometimes it’s very heavily in post, or it’s built completely on set.
"THE MOST VIVID MEMORIES I SEEM TO HAVE ARE ONES WHICH BRING SMELL AND TASTE TOGETHER. I WAS REALLY INTERESTED IN HOW THE BRAIN WORKS IN SUCH A WAY, SO I GUESS THAT'S HOW IT ALL BEGAN."
I was very curious, because some of the work you do makes it very hard to determine what’s fake and what’s real. The processes are so interesting.
I find that people are generally curious because it’s fun to try and discover. There’s a lot of projects I’ve done which are camera-less, so they might be drawn completely in photoshop or a different kind of program. It’s all still technically photo media. It’s not limited, it’s really just about the final image.
And how you came to assemble that final image is irrelevant.
It’s interesting because I’ve only recently noticed it more, especially in luxury products, that companies can sell a lot of products without showing a true photograph of the image. Like Apple, for example. Often people are just buying a virtual rendering of a product in the hopes that it will look the same.
Yeah. And all of these things, such as 3D programs and photoshop, they just aim to mimic the equivalency of something in the real world. Essentially, they’re trying to be real, but they always have this quality to them that’s a bit off. I am really drawn to this quality and not so concerned with what is real or not, or what has been taken away or added, but rather…does it convey the essence of what the object feels like, is it engaging" I think sometimes it’s a more appropriate representation of something than what it looks like in real life.
That reminds me of this filmmaker, Harun Farocki, who made this video installation called ‘Parallel’, which follows the evolution of computer animation and how elements of the real world have developed in these programs. One of them starts with the first animated rendering of a tree which was limited by linear composition, up to the latest technology whereby you can simulate a tree blowing in the wind. It looked at how our representations and understandings of the real world are being dominated by computer animation and photo-realism. I definitely feel that elements of your work play within this concept.
Are there any artists, such as early surrealist painters who didn’t have access to these technologies, who have influenced your work?
Most of my references come from painting. I know that there are a lot of visual similarities between my work and surrealist painting, and from a styling perspective and a point of interest, I think that they are really playful and have such beautiful tones. But I think majority of my influences come from old masters and the Dutch Golden Age of painting where still life was born.
The thing that has always been an interest of mine with surrealists was their approach in concept. I love that they thought any image, or any creative outcome in it’s nature, unlocks something unseen about the human psyche and a collective imagination. Their exploration and ideas are quite amazing. The actual content though, is very hard to execute because I feel that fantasy looking things are really hard to get away with in terms of the aesthetic. It definitely has a certain code to it.
I also love automatic drawings because their approach was to tap into something very immediate and intuitive. When I think of specific artists, Dorothea Tanning is one of my favourites and Magritte, of course. A few others are Paul Delvaux, Andrй Breton, Remedios Varo.
When I first approached you for a story with Map of the Heart, I was really surprised because you mentioned that you had a pre-existing interest in fragrance. What compelled you to start exploring perfumery at home?
Well, it was because of my experience with scent and memories, and how these not so tangible things are all cues for certain memories throughout my life and childhood. The most vivid ones I seem to have are ones which bring taste and smell together. I was really interested in how the brain works in such a way, so I guess that’s how it all began. I just thought to myself “I need to go and learn about this.”
And so you enrolled in a short course in Grasse, France, which is considered the world’s capital of perfume.
Yes. I went in not really expecting to know absolutely everything at the end of the course, and I didn’t put much pressure on that trip because it was only two weeks full time and perfumers can study for decades in French. I lowered my expectations so that it would be fun, and the goal was to take something from the experience which I could then continue to work on from home.
Surprisingly, creating fragrances was very intuitive and accessible. Once you have core ingredients, you can just go for it, and I find that it's similar to painting in that you keep adding little bit by bit and then “oh!” too far (laughs). There were several days of only smelling raw materials on test strips and writing down impressions. I hadn’t worked that part of my brain so hard before so it was very sore by the end. Sometimes, as soon as you pick up a scent it just teleports you to a place which smells exactly like a memory. It was really amazing and I think that’s the funnest part about it, which is why I am always experimenting at home.
At home, do you often find yourself trying to recreate previous scent memories or a fragrance for you to wear?
It’s difficult with memories because I don’t think they’re so easy to grab on to. There a lot of scent experiments of mine which are inspired by classical paintings, but I would describe them as strange smells. For example, I’ve been trying to create scents which smell like gunpowder.
I’m also obsessed with Hieronymus Bosch, so at the moment I’ve got some good fire smells going (laughs). Finding a place to start without an immediate direction is really difficult, especially with something as complicated as a fragrance, and so I imagine in my head what it’s going to smell like, then I go through all the raw components and materials to find something similar. Without that breakdown, it’s too aimless. In saying that, I don't think I’m necessarily making wearable scents but from these little experiments I have made some that could develop into wearable versions. There are some which are purely made with the consideration of a painting.
At the moment though, my room smells really bad! It’s funny how only the bad smells seem to stick. I had a terrible one which I couldn’t shake for nearly two and a half weeks because it was transferring to all my belongings every time I touched something. Funny how the beautiful smells never seem to do that.
The power of scent is incredible!
Well the first incredibly rude shock to the system at Grasse was learning about civet (laughs). I was like “Oh! That sounds interesting” whilst watching everybody’s reactions with this test strip. I did not know such a scent could exist!
"SURPRISINGLY, CREATING FRAGRANCES WAS VERY INTUITIVE AND ACCESSIBLE. ONCE YOU HAVE CORE INGREDIENTS, YOU CAN JUST GO FOR IT, AND I FIND THAT IT'S SIMILAR TO PAINTING IN THAT YOU KEEP ADDING LITTLE BIT BY BIT AND THEN “OH!” TOO FAR."
Would you say that civet your fondest scent memory? (Laughs).
It’s definitely an unforgettable memory. But even that experience in itself was quite amazing. Suddenly, I’m in a paddock with live stock and if you close your eyes it really feels like you’re on a farm.
Scent is very transporting because it has so many layers to digest over time. It is difficult to think in terms of scent, so when you have that kind of reaction you really have to slowly unpack it. We are so overstimulated with imagery everyday, so often you feel that you already have the entire representation immediately in front of you.
Totally. Scent travels and moves.
And it’s temporary. It will always dissipate. With images, you can reproduce them, but olfaction is still very unexplored in comparison.
In a previous interview, Marcos Lutyens discusses the development of scent in virtual reality with Saskia Wilson-Brown (Institute of Art & Olfaction), but developers have only taken it so far as to work within pre-simulated stories. So, there are cartridges on a collar which eject scent as you’re moving through the storyline.
That’s really cool! Although, I don’t know how I’d feel about playing a video game with smells.
Me too. Imagine if you were playing a war game and you could genuinely smell the environment you are in, or of a wounded body. It would change the realm of video gaming because certain people wouldn’t be able to cope with all these new sensory experiences and the additional element of hyperreality.
Maybe if you could only smell somebody approaching, then that would be very helpful. Or the smell of fire as a warning. That’s the other thing, my course at Grasse was in natural perfumery. Although I love synthetics, it was really important for us to start with the naturals to see how they unpack. It takes a long to time to remember them all in such a crammed course, so you have to keep returning to smell things and noting how long they last. They change so much to tell a story.
I do like synthetics though because they are more linear, and can be so abstract yet clear. For example, sometimes its the smell of a single rain drop or of dirt, which is all generated from a molecule. I really love that, and have been trying to educate myself about the chemistry. When we were learning about the time, resources, water and human labour which goes into collecting and growing certain strains for naturals, I realised that synthetics are much more sustainable in a lot of ways.
Yes they are. And there are certain naturals which are illegal now, such as musks. Almost every fragrance is partially synthetic.
Do you know what your earliest experience of scent is?
It was the smell of the Moscow Metro which I remember growing up. I’ve been trying desperately to create something similar. It was like hot welded metal, or a sparkler, gunpowder, sort of smell. Very elusive, very difficult to recreate, but also very special.
What is your favourite fragrance by Map of the Heart, and why?
Purple Heart. I love it. There’s certain types of perfumes which I generally go for because they react well on my skin, such as the ones which are warmer or milkier. I guess this would be the Gold Heart, but the purple has a similar affect when I wear it. I can’t quite process or unpack what it is. Every time I put it on I smell a different aspect of it, or notice a different part. I love all the ingredients and I just feel that it suits me.
Photography by Anna Pogossova
Styling by Charlotte Agnew
Interview by Jodie Hill