NYC-based husband and wife team BJ and Richeille Formento, a.k.a. formento + formento (plus three Siamese cats), spent five months in a 27 foot silver air stream, photographing 50 women across 25 states. Imagine that! The series that came out of it, aptly called “Circumstance : American Beauty Swept Down to Bruised Knees” reveals a tender, telling story of America during trying times, through a poignant cinematic portrayal (shared between f+f as creative equals) of found women throughout our great states.
It was quite a bare-bones production, with f+f producing, styling and shooting – not to mention location scouting for the perfect empty house, abandoned barn or desolate prairie. And they make a fabulous team – you can see the ‘love’ put forth in this series for sure, despite the haunting feeling of the images. We had a chance to chat with the visionary couple about their epic journey, and this is what they had to say:
LF: First of all, we want to know what it’s like to be married and work together in such close quarters. Positives and negatives, please?
BJ:I think Richeille and I met in a previous life and made a pact to hook up in this life! I love every minute of it, we have been together now for 6 years, started our company Eyecandy Images in 2005, a photo library that ”pays the bills”. And now moving on with more personal work that “feeds the soul”. To me it is all positives!
R: We find that everything we do is like second Nature, We often laugh at having ‘Brain sucks’ when BJ is thinking something I will voice it, and vice versa. We knew the moment we met it was a connection like a magnetic force that eventually brings you together, the rest is like intuition. It obviously has its pros and cons, we are both Cancerians so the moon governs our emotions!
LF: ‘Circumstance: American Beauty swept down to Bruised Knees’ arose from depression-like circumstances. When did you see the light at the end of the tunnel, or in better words, what was the defining moment in your lives that triggered this fantastic series?
BJ: In lieu of the success of Eyecandy, Richeille and I wanted to get back to the reason we got into photography in the first place. Sophisticated images, exaggerated staging suffused with irony, cinematic narratives, clips from a James bond films, soft porno, nod to Hitchcock, delicious lighting all with a vintage allure. We always wanted to travel in an airstream and just needed an excuse to leave the NY bleeding winters behind.
R: It was a eureka moment, when we were at a conference for our company. We suddenly wanted to take our work in a complete opposite direction, we realized people were suddenly copying our imagery, after telling us it was way too edgy! We wanted to leave them behind in a way that they would want to start stealing more of our ideas, and talk about how we were leaving the commercial world with abandonment to go on a creative quest again. I think doing the road trips really had us question who we were, and all the ‘happy’ images suddenly got left on the curbside. You start creating without worrying what is right, what is sellable, and do it for yourself, the emotion becomes real, instead of forced. The people who have all taken part in ‘circumstance’ so far have all commented that they have pulled the emotion from a place they have never had to show before, it leaves lasting impressions on them I think.
LF: You talk about documenting ‘in-between’ moments. What is it about these moments that you feel your audience will connect with?
BJ: Ah! the celebrated fraction of a second. Photography has become so diluted since the advent of digital that the viewer has become numb. We are constantly bombarded with mediocre cliche’ imagery. I think the quieter the image, the ‘in-between” moments has a timeless quality, I hope to catch this chance instance that will resonate our message and entice the viewer to look a little bit longer, to ‘like’ it, to ‘tweet’ it, to feel it.
R: The ‘in-between’ moments again came as an accident, asking people to share raw emotion, or sadness with you is hard to ring true, so sometimes capturing them in between shots when they are having a quiet moment trying to find that angst to portray is the most real you can find. Watching them struggle with their inner self to conjure that up before you click the button is the magic moment.
LF: It seems that you both hold equal creative freedom in your project. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of that?
BJ: We brand ourselves formento+formento, photography and creative direction but I really feel we are just one entitiy on set. Kind of like twins, we often communicate telepathically! How blessed are we to have each other. We have so much fun on set that the crew, the models feed off of that and really give it their all to create something worthwhile.
R: I think that we discuss a shoot prior and have each other psyched to produce. Knowing that we both want it to succeed in such a way, we appreciate each other to our full potential and know each other with such detail that our positions on shoots become second nature. We wear the necessary hats accordingly, and never see it as stepping on each others toes, more as helping one another achieve the end goal. We respect our visions, and luckily love the same things, we know we will never let the other down in what we do, and encourage drive and learning all the time, if it means feeding off each others creative energy then so be it!
LF: Tell us a little bit about the styling…did you pick up any cool items as you traveled through Americana?
BJ: Constant U-turns! Recently we found a tattered American flag, burned and bruised, a steamer case covered with original travel stickers!
R: The beauty of cross country is the thrift stores in all the small towns no one ever really gets to. Its a goldmine out there for props if you can dedicate the travel to them. We have a fabulous collection of vintage cases, handkerchiefs, and dresses! We figured it would be fab to display the cases and handkerchiefs at a showing of the work, because these really represent the journey to build the work.
LF: Can you relate some of the obstacles that you ran into while being on the road?
BJ: Ever inflating cost of gas! Doesn’t Halliburton buy it for .40 cents a gallon?! Why do we uninsured record keepers have to pay close to $4.00!?
R: The abundance of amazing landscapes can actually become a blur, the obstacle of not letting it pass you buy so easily is a hard one when it is all around you at all times!
LF: Can you relate some of the beautiful spontaneous moments that happened while on the road?
BJ: Getting off the main highway and meeting lovely models, new hair and make up artists, the old lady behind the counter of the local salvation army. Driving into Gary Indiana and catching a glimpse of the abandoned First Methodist Church. The grandeur. Pulling into somewhere in the dark and waking up to the sound of the ocean with matching dolphins!
R: Again, the pure beauty in a country that is taken for granted. Hoping that people pause long enough when looking at our pictures, to appreciate the moment in time that we captured in both the inner landscape of emotion, and outer landscape of location.
LF: Has your outlook on this country changed since doing this trip?
BJ: Belief in humanity. That we will survive this downward spiral. Conspiracy theories (our next project!). It is scary, you see so much depression and poverty. People living out of extended stay hotels because they lost their homes or because it is easier to chase the jobs. Richeille and I always talk about leaving America in the near future. It is a love/hate thing.
R: We always wonder if we made any impact on the people we touch when shooting in the towns we visit, like do they question the inner emotion they are forced to find when being photographed? It leaves a question always, ‘What will become of them when we leave?’ We remember their names and faces even months after shooting. It is a very personal project all around, more so when you make such a personal connection with people you have never met and probably never will again. I think because of this I see America as a lot of single individuals now, rather than a giant mass of a country.
LF: You blend ‘Cindy Sherman’s scandalous approach to photographic narrative with Old Hollywood thriller romance.’ What is your fascination with the cinematic, almost film noir look in your work?
BJ: Ms. Sherman kind of fucked it up for everyone. I mean it is impossible to not be compared to her. We love good lighting, we love storytelling, we love the drama as opposed to the happy shiny people. The power of portraits, compositional devices to look behind the cliche’, the capacity to excite and to disturb. I think cinematic, film noir look naturally lends itself to the narrative. We grew up with television and movies but it is the challenge of telling a story with one image that excites us the most.
R: I don’t think being pigeon holed is the right approach. Just because someone has ‘made it’ in a style does not mean they own it. An emotion, lighting, sequence can never be owned, its a state of mind, and unique to every image you create. No one can recreate an image another has done, especially knowing how the model is reaching for that emotional place on their own to create the image, its personal and unique, as is the moment it was shot and location, we are all a footprint on this planet, and will cross a place in time that many have gone before, but, as individuals we all give our own interpretation. It is the cinematic approach that I think the audience connects too, like being the heroine in a film and questioning their own position if it could be them. The emotional connection we have with nostalgia is a big pull when creating our images, the location, styling and end image all reflect this. I think it is a romantic notion to how sadness and drama are hoped to be portrayed in ones mind.
LF: How did you make the decision to photograph only women?
BJ: I love women! It is all about getting in touch with your feminine side.
R: Its funny, look at advertising, they are the ones who sell emotion, depression, drugs, pharmaceutical, healthy life style, and inner being/spa. It is a subconscious decision in us that lead us to photograph women. Maybe we connect with them more on an emotional level?
LF: BJ, you have assisted Mary Ellen Mark, Annie Leibovitz and studied under Eugene Richards and Arnold Newman. This is a prestigious list of mentors. Can you tell us what it was like to work with some of the greatest photographers who have ever lived?
BJ: I was once on hold to assist for the great Dick Avedon, still one of my top “damn!” For me working with the greats really burst the bubble of fantasy. These were hard working artist that shot with the same camera, same film, same lighting as I was. Such a grounding experience what I learned in the 2 years of assisting I would never have in 10 years of schooling. Up to this day I take with me all the positives that I learned during those early years in New York. The importance of preparation, the dance with the client, keeping true to your vision: shoot what they are requesting, cover that and then add your own twist. What I really took away from it was that if I worked hard and stayed true to myself that I too can make a living at what I love to do.
LF: You started a boutique photo library called Eyecandy Images. Stock photography is a massive industry these days. How do your images stand out from the rest?
BJ: We were lucky to have caught the tail end of the glory days of stock, just before everything went digital. Nowadays there are billions of images uploaded daily! We try to shoot work that has a timeless quality when it comes to styling, I think that is important, we still sell images from 2006! We started eyecandy to fill the void of “sexy” images that was lacking during that time in the industry. Today, we just try and shoot stories that we like, travel, commerce, love, happy images, trending advertising imagery.
R: Again as I mentioned at the beginning, we appeared in the stock industry with an edgy approach when the main standard was to ‘play it safe’ with images. It is now paying off, as we noticed other libraries copying our ‘edge’ we already had those images out there long before. Then we were reccommended to clients by other libraries when they had nothing to offer. And so we became known to the client base as the libary to look at first.
LF: How fast do you live?
BJ: Instant Karma! Constantly putting out positive and raking in the positive. Making love, eating and drinking well. Singing and playing guitar furiously as if no one is watching.
R: Since doing roadtrips I try not to live fast! Life passes you by, blink and you miss it, take it all in, in all its glory and let it settle like a good meal to appreciate.
LF: Art Talk: What inspires you? Favorite art or work?
BJ: Travel always brings new blank canvas to work with. Movies and music. Avedon, Penn, Newton, the great portraitists!
R: Depends on my mood and place at the time. But I always go back to the glory days of the golden age of cinema when ideas were so new and technology was not the driving force ideas were. As for art I am a purist and love the romantisism of pre raphelite beauty, the female in its most admired and enchanting form. Its also a lasting connection with my English roots.
LF: Sex Talk: What gets you off? Literally or figuratively?
BJ: My wife!
R: Real emotion in all its raw form.
LF: Travel Talk: Favorite destination or travel stories (besides this epic journey) that you want to share?
BJ: Philippines. My home. So under the radar, with over 7,000 islands you can livefast and walk quietly.
R: Our honeymoon in Egypt. It was a spiritual awakening that we as beings have been on this earth for so many years, and many before us. Leaving such a lasting impression with monuments that still stand from BC to the present day, makes you want to be remembered as both a person who never wasted a moment, and one who wants others to really question who we are as individuals.