Pierre Dalpé’s Duplicitous Heart – Dayna McLeod

Pierre Dalpé

Pierre Dalpé

Pierre Dalpé

Capitalizing on the multiplicity of an individual’s personality and the many selves housed within all of us, Pierre Dalpé approaches each of his subjects with a duplicitous heart: he twins his subjects within the frame to expose the construction of identity while questioning the authenticity of the photographic image. Interested in the process of transformation, Dalpé collaborates with his subjects to express different facets of their personalities. Through this partnership, he is able to coax out identities that lay just below the surface, blurring the boundaries of who is real and who is not, producing family portraits derived from a single subject. Capturing two and sometimes three personas, Dalpé manipulates these portraits in a digital environment, placing them side-by-side within his frame to expose the construct of “truth” in documentary photography. By playing with era, gender, costuming, setting, subtle theatrics, poses, and appearance, Dalpé constructs images that both take advantage of these superficial elements for their formal qualities, and question their authenticity for the viewer, ultimately challenging his audience with the very elements that make up his photographs. The simultaneously historic and timeless quality of his images further adds an aura of nostalgia to the viewer’s experience, authenticating the image through its masquerading historical context.[1]

With a career over a decade old, Dalpé answers questions about his history, practice and approach via email.

Dayna McLeod: What is your personal history in relationship to photography? How did you get started? What first inspired you to pick up a camera?

Pierre Dalpé: As a kid I lived that cliché of, “does that book have any pictures in it? No? Then I don’t want to read it”. Imagery was the first language I related to, words came later. My background and upbringing was very French-Canadian, but my schooling was in English, and I grew up watching American television; game shows, comedies, news, talk shows and documentaries. Whether it was moving images, stills, or the world around me, I spent a lot of time observing, watching and ingesting. I’m a pop-culture junky, and I’m still constantly pouring over images in magazines, books, and now the Internet. In terms of choosing photography as a creative outlet, I was probably influenced by my father who always had either a movie-camera or still-camera pointed at me and my siblings, documenting all the key Kodak Moments of our lives.

I’ve always loved portraits. The first type of photography which really spoke to me was photojournalistic imagery and discovering the “decisive moment”. I started studying this type of work at the Dawson Institute of Photography. It was also at Dawson that I started realizing that I didn’t want to become a commercial photographer, and so that’s why I eventually went to Concordia. I knew I wanted to be influenced more by the arts.

DMC: What does your practice look like? How do you approach a project? What are you interested in, what do you look for, where does the work come from?

PD: My work is heavily influenced by a documentary aesthetic. My entire body of work revolves around this aesthetic, paralleled with photographing subjects in their own environments. I’ve always been captivated by documentary imagery. Whether it is in films or photography, I’m attracted to real stories, real people. I guess the twist to that statement is that the people I photograph are often performers; people who like playing with/in make-believe or fantasy worlds. I’m interested in what I refer to as, “performance culture” and what is referred to in academia as performance studies or theatre anthropology. I’ve always been fascinated by actors and performers. People who use clothing, disguise, costume, masquerade and their bodies as not only the tools of their craft, but their mode of expression. In my practice, I feel like I’m either participating in people’s fantasy worlds vicariously with photo projects like Wigstock, Backstage, or Clothes Minded, or that I’m creating or staging a type of make-believe world with the collaboration of my subjects in projects like Personae. This creates an interesting dichotomy; some of my work adheres to a traditional documentary aesthetic, yet with Personae I’m actually playing and subverting the traditional rules and notions of documentary.

In terms of my approach to projects, the projects that came about at Concordia all evolved in a somewhat organic way- a chain reaction of one series leading to another. From Personae onwards, the process has usually involved more research and experimentation. My process in general tends to be a bit slow. I think about and research things a lot before embarking on the production of any project. I always have a good number of project ideas floating around in my head at any given moment.

On a technical note, I try to work with available light as much as possible. I’ve never been a big fan of using a flash. With the Nightclub series for example, I photographed with available light to capture the portrait-instance in such a way as to imbue the image with the atmosphere that permeated the actual scene, something which flash photography can never render possible.

DMC: Can you talk specifically about your different projects? What you were interested in when you started, and how that approach has perhaps changed?

PD: While doing my BFA at Concordia, I started a before and after series called, Clothes Minded. At the time, I was still going out to clubs quite regularly and a lot of my friends and I were experimenting and playing with drag. In 1990 I started photographing my friends (and friends of friends) in and out of drag; before and after shots which I presented as diptychs. In the years leading up to this body of work I had been looking at a lot of classic portraiture and I wanted my portraits to have some of this sense of grandeur. Until then, I had never really come across images of drag queens or kings posing with a strong, confident stance. Images of drag up to this point too often showed the subject as some kind of freak to be studied like a scientific specimen, so my intention was to show my subjects as strong people. It was interesting to hear the comments from some of my supposedly free-thinking peers (and some professors) at Concordia. Most people were cool with the subject matter, but with others, I had to defend my work a lot. I was accused of treating my subjects as freaks when in fact I had the complete opposite intentions. I soon realized that their comments had nothing to do with me and everything to do with their own issues concerning drag and everything that represents. My perspective was that firstly, I knew my subjects as friends, and secondly, I was photographing them because I admired them, not because I wanted to study them.

I was also starting to read a lot of queer theory, and my film studies and photography professors were opening my eyes to photographers like Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Brassaï, André Kertész, Robert Frank, and others. My before and after shots were influenced by the aesthetics of Lisette Model and Diane Arbus (especially their approach to environmental portrait and documentary), while my Backstage/Nightclub images were influenced by Brassaï, who documented the burgeoning gay and lesbian nightlife scene of Paris in the 1920’s and 30’s.

After graduating from Concordia I continued my Clothes Minded and Backstage series and in 1992, I began documenting Wigstock; a once-a-year, all-day drag festival in New York City. I made a pilgrimage to this festival annually until 1995. It was great! There was real eye candy, or camera-candy, if you will. Photographing at Wigstock gave me the same kind of excitement I was getting from doing my Backstage images. I really love being in such a charged atmosphere, where photographic possibilities are unfolding all around me in every second.

DMC: How did the Personae series start? What is this project about?

PD: Clothes Minded laid the groundwork for the identity play I ended up taking to another level with Personae. When I was working on Clothes Minded, I kept thinking about how interesting it would be to show more than one of my subjects’ before and after alter egos within the same image. So while at Concordia, I started doing rudimentary tests using image collages and trying to blend them together by retouching them the old fashioned way (with a fine brush and ink), then re-photographing the final collage to produce a final image. But this looked like crap. I knew that the only way I could create these images and make them look realistic would be to use a relatively new software (in 1991), Photoshop. So I taught myself Photoshop and in 1997, I started producing Personae. My first images from this series were inspired by and referenced imagery made by photographers whose work I admired and acted as homages to these photographers. Initial photographs in the Personae series continued and expanded my interest in gender-bending, disguise and a pronounced theatricality that I explored in Clothes Minded. As the work evolved, the images started to reflect my own vision, and identity play became more subtle. For example, I simply started twinning people, stripping away disguise paraphernalia. I find this subtlety lends a more intriguing and unsettling sense to some of the images. In recent years I’ve added real twins to the series, leaving the viewer to question everything that they’re looking at in the image. I have also recently started working in colour within the series after years of working in B&W. I’m finding that working in colour, thinking in colour, is an interesting challenge, and I like the results. Personae is an on-going project that I plan to keep adding to it as I work on other projects.

DMC: What is your interest in multiple aspects of identity?

PD: After graduating from Concordia I continued my Clothes Minded series and I also continued reading about gender and identity, with a particular interest in their relationship to disguise and costuming. I started noticing in myself and others that depending on what one is wearing, one projects and acts completely differently. I started observing how clothing like uniforms, costumes, make-up and accessories have the ability to bring out such different sides to people. Depending on your apparel, you can find yourself channeling archetypes or modes of expression that you yourself might not even realize were inside of you. I came to the conclusion that identity isn’t this one-sided façade that sums us up, but instead is fluid and malleable and can encompass an enumerable amount of potential expressions that we may chose, or chose not to project. It was interesting because not only was I filling my brain up with all of this theory, but it was being acted out for me and my camera every time I did a portrait session with my subject(s). When Clothes Minded was exhibited as part of the gallery installation, I incorporated quotes from the literature I was reading. For example, a quote by Esther Newton: “ Masculinity and femininity are like two dialects of the same language. Though we all understand both, most of us ‘speak’ only one”.

When I started producing Personae, everything I had been thinking about, reading about and experiencing while making Clothes Minded came together like pieces of a puzzle.

DMC: How do gender and sexuality factor in your work?

PD: The first images I started producing had to do with gender-bending. When I started making this work, I really got a charge (and still do) out of seeing men and women taking the piss out of what was considered to be traditional gender roles. Androgyny was a major concept in the 80’s, but I find it really only exploded into the mainstream media in the early 90’s. I was attracted to the whole idea of androgyny; the ambiguity and blending of the sexes, but I was also attracted to the polar opposite ends of the gender spectrum as well: what is it that makes us male and/or female, or neither? I think my attraction to this subject matter, and my attraction to role models who were pushing these boundaries also had to do with my need to explore and push the boundaries of my own sexual identity. I’ve always been quite shy by nature, and there’s this repressed alter ego in me who always wanted to be a performer. I was in a milieu of performers, I was interested in documenting the people around me, so photographing these strong, sexually aware, expressive, extroverts I was hanging out with helped me come out of my own sexual shell. A lot of my drive to produce my work comes from my desire and pleasure of living vicariously through the subjects I photograph. This aspect is especially true with my Backstage or Wigstock images, but also just as true with Personae. I really appreciate the strength of the women and men who are looking directly into my lens; their empowerment and confidence inspires me.

DMC: How do you collaborate with your subjects? What is this relationship like?

PD: I’ve always been interested in working with people. I’m usually approaching people in whom I see an ability to give me what I’m looking for, photographically speaking. I like to draw things out of people as much as I like them to bring their own energy and ideas to the over-all mise-en-scene of the image. One important thing I’m looking to pull off with Personae is to collaborate with my subject(s) and construct a mise-en-scene which, in the end, will hopefully appear to be a spontaneous moment. Most of the time I’m working with subjects who I know, and who I’ve seen perform; people who have revealed their alter egos to me in some way or another. Sometimes I’ll post an ad and end up working with a complete stranger. This process can be interesting in that it has the ability to take my image/idea in a completely different and unexpected direction. As a photographer, I’m looking to capture an important or decisive instant in a person’s life.

DMC: How do you take a photograph? What is the process? What do you shoot with, how much time is spent in post-production? How do you know when the work is done? What do you look for?

PD: With Personae, for example, I approach the creation of my image the same way a director might approach creating a scene for a film. Once I’ve scouted and chosen my location, I usually like to meet with my subject(s) and go over what the different looks will be, with both of us deciding on elements such as clothing, make-up, etc. This is where most of the collaboration happens; with us discussing more specifically what the mise-en-scene will be, and what the character motivation will be. I flag a lot of image samples in magazines and keep photo samples I find on the Internet. I find it helps to show the subject a sample image to describe the mood I’m looking for, the facial expression, potential poses, composition, etc. Once on location, I select the vantage point from where I want to take the image and then I don’t move the camera from that place. I have the subject move from one side of the frame to the other, disguised as their different alter egos. When the image relies on sunlight, I try to move things along as quickly as possible so that the light changes as little as possible. Otherwise, if it’s an indoor set-up, I’m setting up tungsten lights, and using more of a film-set type of lighting set-up.

The Personae series is all shot with a medium format camera, which produces a square 6x6cm negative. I’m still a big fan of film. I find film gives much better colour, resolution and tonal range. Digital isn’t there yet, but it’s getting close. So I shoot on film, then I scan the negative, then I create my composite from my digital files. At this point I’m only half-way there! Now comes the post-production, Photoshop retouching stage which, depending on many different factors, can take anywhere from about 6 hours to 12 hours (not usually in one sitting). Ideally, I like to re-visit the composite over a period of a few days. Some of the retouching can be very labor intensive, requiring precision and patience. In terms of knowing when an image is finished, I want the images to look realistic and believable, but there’s only so much you can do to the image in terms of retouching. At a certain point, you just know that the work is done. Then, for exhibition, the digital image file is printed (using Lambda laser technology) onto photographic paper lending the final output a traditional photographic look.

DMC: How have your interests evolved over your career as an artist? What are you working on now?

PD: When I first left Concordia my mind was full of politics and theory, and that was the driving force behind my work at that time. I slowly moved away from this way of working to a more intuitive process, being influenced more by pure imagery as opposed to theory and concepts. I find lately that I’m back to scouring the pop culture world for inspiration and ideas. I’m also at a point in my career where I’m ready to explore all of these ideas that I’ve been pushing aside over the years. I feel like I got a little too caught up in recent years, with the idea of producing work which will be fundable with grants. That’s fine, and I’m definitely going to pursue grant funding, but there are a lot of different types of projects which I now feel ready to explore and I’ve decided not to hold myself back any more. For example, I’ve always been attracted to charged, homoerotic imagery in relation to portraiture, so I will be experimenting with ideas related to this over the summer. A lot of my ideas revolve around pushing the boundaries of portraiture while still involving elements of disguise and costuming. I also want to get back to a mind-set of experimentation. I find with photography, because it’s so technical, you can get caught up with wanting to master certain techniques and control things too much. This can have a stagnating effect and I’m looking to throw a little more caution into the wind in the coming months. I also have some studio set-up images I’d like to experiment with in the fall. I feel like I’m in full-on production mode right now, exploring new ideas, and it’s feeling good.


[1] McLeod, Dayna, 2005. “Pierre Dalpé: Personae”, exhibition essay, Galerie Observatoire 4, Montréal, PQ.

Pierre Dalpé is a Montreal-based artist whose work is a fusion of traditional and digital photography. Dalpé received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Studies and Photography from Concordia University in 1993, and his photographs have been published and exhibited in Canada, the United States and Russia. Dalpé has participated in Artist in Residence programs at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Alberta and at the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture in Dawson City, Yukon. He has received grants from both the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec and the Canada Council for the Arts for his series Personae. http://pierredalpe.com/