Kourtney Roy: Bridging Photography and the Cinegraphic
25th August 2023
Kourtney Roy is best known for her dramatic photographic series in which she presents herself as outlandish and irreverent characters. For the series ‘The Tourist‘ (2020), for example, she transformed herself into an intensely glamorous, fake-tanned and bleach-blonde holiday maker on an implausible and decadent vacation. In ‘I Drink – New Orleans’ (2018), Roy played a dejected young suburbanite, embodying a sensuous drunken loneliness.
She has drawn influence from photographers like Robert Adams, much of whom’s work has documented the peripheries of American society. Centering on the Midwest, Adams portrays fringe (at one time frontier) towns and landscapes to explore the last areas in which nature remains resilient to the encroachment of a rapidly modernising society. These are spaces defined by their instability and continual transition. Roy’s own photographic work also explores the locations on the fringes of society’s reach, often using these spaces as the backdrops or settings that produce her peculiar characters. Roy is interested in locations such as motels, gas stations and roadside trucker bars: spaces designed for minimal and transitory habitation. As Roy notes in the description of her series Northern Noir, in these marginal spaces “mundane and anecdotal qualities are fetishised and magnified.” For Roy, the peculiar banality of these locations both mask and articulate malevolent undercurrents. Crucial to her practice is an artificial and manufactured world simultaneously disguising and describing a deeper sinister reality.
Roy’s photographic work is remarkable for its use of sensuous colours which give a visceral quality to her work, often hinting at erotic undertones. There is a strong connection with the work of British photographer Miles Aldridge who shares Roy’s preoccupation with the intersection of photography and cinematography. Both have spoken of Alfred Hitchcock as an artistic influence, with Aldridge acknowledging the directors ‘ability to make ordinary things seem very strange and sinister.’ Both Roy and Aldridge have similarly recognised the filmmaker David Lynch as informing the development of their aesthetics. Roy has been using film for commercial work for over ten years. She made her first short film, ‘Morning, Vegas’ in 2019 and it was shown in film festivals throughout Europe and the United States, winning the award for best experimental film at Brest European Short Film Festival. Her second short, ‘Slice of Heaven’, premiered at the 2020 Raindance Film Festival, London.
Roy is soon to release her first feature film, ‘Krypto‘. Described as a psycho-thriller, the production relays a woman’s search for a missing monster hunter and her growing realisation that she is inescapably linked to the creature being pursued. Shot on location in the Canadian wilderness, this dark work maintains much of the thematic content of Roy’s earlier photographic work while extending her practice as a visual artist into new forms of media. Manon Barat of XYZ Films (the company that produced Krypto) has said that “watching the film feels like being at one of Roy’s exhibitions with every frame a photograph.” Through examining the ever-present cinematic influence on her photographic work, one understands how traversing the boundary between still and moving image has been a ‘natural’ progression for Roy.
Roy has been explicit about drawing influence from the world of cinema. The visual resonance between some of her photographs and scenes from Lynch’s films is inescapable. For one example, Roy’s 2019 series ‘In Dreams You’re Mine’, luxuriates in an aesthetics and a visual language that are shared with Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ from 1986. This can be seen in the vividly colourful lighting that frames a character’s soft features, pronouncing a similarly afflicted femininity. In both works, the bright colours of bubblegum suburbia saturate the world. Indeed, the title of the series is taken from the song ‘In Dreams’ by Roy Orbison, the performance of which is used to create one of the most iconic and haunting sequences in ‘Blue Velvet’.
In an interview with the Centre Pompidou Magazine, Roy was asked in which other artist’s universe she would like to live. She identified, among others, Lynch, the French filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Melville, and the American filmmaker, Debra Granik. Melville’s subject matter is often gritty and sensational, his films populated by degenerate professional gamblers (as in ‘Bob le Flambeur’), criminals, sex workers and violent cops (as in ‘Un Flic’) or night-club dancers and ex-boxers (as in ‘L’Aîné des Ferchaux’). The characteristic glamour of the French New Wave saturates Melville’s universe and his gregarious characters exist in marginal locations, on the fridges of French society. Granik’s most influential film, ‘Winter’s Bone’, places actress Jennifer Lawrence in the deeply rural Ozark Mountains in Missouri. Her character, Ree Dolly, navigates an eccentric, impoverished and diffuse community living on the verge of the North American wilderness, nestled in small wooden houses deep in the forests and mountains. The resonance that Roy’s photography has with the films of both these directors is clear in terms of subject matter, mood and a certain audacious attention to social transgression, to fringe communities and the bizarre.
The connection between Roy’s photography and film is more extensive than the cinematic influences that she draws upon. In fact, the particular methodological approach that she employs to create her distinctive photo series resembles the approach of filmmakers. She has said that she utilises the same practice with filmmaking and photography. She will find a location for her photography shoots, allowing the environment to partially produce her characters and stories, seeing “every little potential of every place I drive by could be a film set.” She will travel to her chosen ‘sets’ for a predetermined period of time, giving intense attention to costume to create the characters and narratives that will be depicted in her photography. Creating her own world, characters, and narratives, she revels in the potential to play out imagined roles and ideas. This is of course a very different approach to other photographers who seek to document the world. Roy intends to create a world from her own imagination, to play characters she imagines as inhabiting her world and to tell a tangible narrative. She has said that “often the way I shoot is inspired by movements and shots from films, indeed the series ‘Northern Noir’ is intended to be a series of stills from an unknown fictional crime film, explicitly replicating classic Hollywood frames and shots.”
Roy’s approach to photography has long been a rather cinematic one. This has meant that her work has pushed the medium of photography away from pure documentation of the world, towards a more holistic creative enterprise. As Roy straddles these two disciplines, engaging her particular practice in both moving and still images, she draws the world of photography towards cinema, while luxuriating in her own creative imagination.