Anna-Alexia Basile is an extraordinary photographer and artist from San Francisco. In her #EnsemblExchange, she shares what inspires her work, how imperfection is crucial to achieving beauty, and why a human connection is essential to capturing the perfect shot.
Our Conversation With Anna-Alexia Basile.
What inspired you to become a photographer?
My foray into photography was something that evolved in a natural, somewhat unconscious way. I interned with Refinery29 while I was in grad school. During my interview, they asked whether I wanted to write or take photos, and I told them I didn’t care, that I just really wanted the opportunity to work with them. They said they thought I would make a good photographer, so that’s what I started doing. Because SF Refinery29 had a relatively small team, the intern version of the role was similar to what the real job was like, so as an intern I had the chance to be an “actual photographer.” And it just snowballed from there.
Can you tell me more about the work you do outside of photography as an artist?
In the last few years I’ve done a number of interactive installations that have allowed me to expand my work into something more physical. Compared to photography, which is very digital, building out spaces feels a bit more analog, and that has shaped my creativity and the way I approach projects in a new way.
One of my favorite spaces I’ve worked on was the PIA store in Jackson Square in San Francisco. For the opening, I was commissioned to create something that spoke to the cool, modern nature of the store, while incorporating artwork from the artist Tyler Spangler. The goal was to create something that could live on a stage. The installation included a new hand painted floor, interactive kaleidoscopes, brightly colored Plexiglas shapes and little optical illusion vignettes.
In the end, it was playing with space, with light, with color; it was designed to be disorienting and really push people to constantly question what’s real and what isn’t, with everything moving and everything out of place. I like that the audience needed to really pay attention to figure it out.
Another favorite piece that isn’t related to photography is one I did for a boob-themed group show curated by Western Editions to benefit Planned Parenthood. It’s a mirror with hand-painted clay breasts attached, so anyone that finds their reflection in the mirror has boobs for a minute!
Why do you love your job?
I love photography because every day is different. When it comes to creating, the beauty is that nothing is constant. You have to push yourself to be in different situations, to travel to new places, and experience a new environment in order to drive your work to the next level. I feel really lucky to collaborate with so many talented individuals in such dreamy places.
What inspires your artistic style and direction?
I’m very inspired by color, light, reflections and well-defined shadows. I like finding the ordinary elements most overlook that are actually really magical when we acknowledge them. Whether it’s the way the sun reflects off a window and casts a beautiful light across the street, or the way the trees fling soft shadows through the windows of your bedroom – it’s an awareness of the small moments that lead to the big moments.
Why do you think people are obsessed with the idea of beauty? Whether in their homes, in what they buy, or in how they dress? And how do you view your role as the person focused on capturing that beauty?
I think people are attracted to the idea of beauty because when they feel like they have achieved it, it gives them confidence and makes them feel good. And if something makes you feel really good and happy (and doesn’t harm others), then I think you should do it.
Within photography, I’m often creating another world that isn’t real. And this gives me the opportunity to make something beautiful that does not conform to traditional standards of beauty. Not everything needs to be perfect in order to be beautiful, and there is immense beauty in capturing imperfect moments.
What are the key elements to a good photograph? How do you balance each element?
My go-to’s are:
(1) A great team – my favorite shoots have been collaborations, so a fantastic team is essential.
(2) An open mind – it’s important not to be married to what you want the finished product to look like before the shoot has even started. But rather to follow the on-set magic that allows you to serendipitously make authentic work
(3) Awareness – I try to remind myself to pay attention to my surroundings. Otherwise I could miss the moment…
While these are important elements, the takeaway is to be intrinsic and organic - you don’t produce great work by having a checklist. Creativity isn’t a science-- it’s the secret ingredient you find along the way, not something you command.
What are your clients looking for? (Beyond the obvious that is - a beautiful photo)
When it comes to imagery, people are looking for you to establish an emotional connection between whatever is in the image – be it a person, a product, or a place - and the person viewing it. It’s all about creating the relationship that allows your work to be effective in affecting the viewer, no matter who they are.
Other than client work, which photograph are you particularly proud of and why? (could you please share pictures)?
The photos I take for myself are the ones I’m the most proud of! Those are the ones I always want to make more of and the ones that are the most fun to create! My favorite from this year was a collaboration with four other women – a stylist, a photo assistant and two friends who came to model – and by the end of the shoot everyone ended up in front of the camera. I had stumbled across a magical field of mustard, then the five of us went back there and just made really beautiful work. There was no one standing over us telling us how the images were supposed to look or how we should go about the shoot. We were just able to flow and do what felt right. And the finished product came out beautifully.
A modernist would see Duchamp’s The Fountain as a functional item, the value of which is related to its utility. A post-modernist would view Duchamp’s creation as having a more symbolic value and that the context in which we choose to see it changes the way we perceive and value it – turning the piece into an important work of art. Is postmodernism in art and photography a rebellion against artistic straightjackets of modernism, or is it something deeper and symbolic of our post-truth society where we are comfortable with relativistic interpretations of style and beauty?
I do my best to see things as they are, but also try to creatively unearth how something simple can be more complex. For example, we can take an image of a body in a basic pose and flip it. In doing so, that image can become something completely different. A simple perspective shift can be really powerful, both literally and metaphorically.
When we look at art, we don’t just want to see something. We can do that on our computers and phones. We want to try to figure it out by using more than one sense. We want to get inside it of it. We want to experience it. We want to see it, touch it, smell it, be a part of it and truly feel it. There are so many questions to be asked around art, and I personally enjoy art forces me to pay attention rather than allowing me to quickly brush past it.
Are there certain elements of a space - its construction, lighting, finishing etc. - that lend themselves to be the backdrop of a more a modern, contemporary, minimalist or a postmodern shoot?
Each of these styles is relative to how you interpret each term and expect a certain style to appear. As a photographer you can control the way something looks from behind the camera depending on how you shoot it. So, something traditionally conceived as minimalist could be viewed as modern, depending on how it’s shot.
Some feel that the modernist styles or objects - with cold, sharp lines and machined, metallic finishes - are not really suitable for a home that is meant to be a warm, welcoming place. Your thoughts?
I think the environment has more to do with that feeling than the object itself. When making photos, I often use external elements to bring a whole new life to the scene I’m trying to capture. Similar tactics can be used within this context as well.
Chuck Close’s self-portraits are made possible by the use of technology; he photographs his subject, transfers that image to canvas, then overlays a grid to the canvas, and reproduces the image block by block, and in turn reassembles the blocks to create a new version of the image. The Russian artist Maxim Ksuta does something similar to close (creates portraits by compiling a number of images), but instead of painting the images on the grid, he uses images of famous paintings, then assembles them to create the new portrait. I see this as a sort of evolution of the marriage of technology and in art - with greater use of technology being accepted in the creation of art. With this in mind, do you think AI could significantly disrupt the world of photography and art? What would that look like?
Technology is having a huge impact on art, but I don’t think it’ll take over. For example, the technology in our phones is allowing everyone to become a photographer and make beautiful photos. But does that mean everyone can pull the right images that evoke feelings and tell a story? Probably not.
The goal is for technology to improve to make things easier, but there are many things that will likely remain human. How do we communicate the feeling of raw emotion or inspire creativity? I don’t know if we could teach a robot the kind of intuition needed to authentically function within those spaces.
AI robots tend to work off a checklist – that’s how the algorithm develops and learns. But if you’re working from a list that isn’t responding in new ways to each dynamic setting, it’s hard to evolve. The checklist leaves out the feeling and awareness necessary to creating truly significant and meaningful works.
Artists are always trying to figure out better ways of doing things, and technology plays a huge role. However, it’s ultimately about us working *with* the tools to create art—not the tools creating art by themselves.
If you were not a photographer what would you likely be? Why?
I truly love being a photographer. It’s so special to interact and connect with people; especially those you wouldn’t have otherwise met. But if I had to do something else I’d want to make music. I really appreciate the impact music has had on my life and would love to contribute to such an important art.
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