ArtSeptember 4, 2019

Things I Learned at Art School: Yvonne Todd


In the third instalment of Things I Learned At Art School, Megan Dunn talks to Yvonne Todd, the 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate who has received the Theresa Gattung Award for Female Arts Practitioners. Todd discusses fashion, Madonna’s aging process and what photography students never need to photograph again. 

What did you learn in art school?

After high school, I had to come to terms with the uncomfortable reality that I hadn’t achieved my potential. I had somehow ended up as an admin assistant at the Wattle Park Industrial Estate in Beach Haven. It took a couple of years to scrabble together a sense of purpose. I enrolled at Whitecliffe, which at the time was the easiest art school to get into – “write a short essay about yourself”, where I majored in photography. I learned to use a manual SLR camera, to develop film and make darkroom prints. Being able to control the focus and exposure and depth of field was a revelation.

My best work at Whitecliffe became a portfolio of images that I used to gain acceptance into the more rigorous programme at Unitec from 1994-1995. Where, with excellent teachers Allan McDonald and Dorina Jotti, I became increasingly ambitious for my work and started using medium and large format cameras and shooting with studio lighting. I learned the value of production, the care required to achieve certain results. By the second half of the first year I was orchestrating these lavish shoots, with carefully planned costumes, props, and locations. After Unitec, the plan was to show my ‘book of stills’ to a few magazine art directors and get lots of exciting paid work shooting editorials. But it didn’t play out like that.

Elam had a certain cachet that I thought would look good on my CV, so I applied for higher entry and started in third year. By this level, students were no longer cosseted and pretty much left to work things out for themselves. This suited me. I had worked autonomously for a few years. I avoided crit sessions and spent my time tootling around, getting Mike Disfarmer and Tretchikoff books out of the library, dutifully attending studio class but really just doing my own thing.

‘Angsty Self-Portrait from first year at Unitec’, Yvonne Todd, 1994.

What did you want to do at the start of your photography career?

I wanted to shoot exciting glamorous stuff like fashion and interesting documentary assignments. I always envisaged my work being in magazines. It’s like when you are a child and you imagine that you’re going to work in an office when you grow up. At Unitec I learnt that I could manipulate the look of the photos. I had this control over what I was doing, and I could make photos look like they were from a certain time period by using lighting and styling. My portfolio was filled with Bettie Page styled shoots but that’s not what magazines and art directors were looking for in 1996.

Most art directors now use Getty images and the big photo libraries. But back then you could actually ring art directors and trot in with your book and chat to them, that doesn’t happen now, they’re too busy for a start. It wasn’t a digital age, things took longer, photographers still shot on film.

I did an early fashion shoot for Pavement. When that was published, I was convinced that I’d get lots of phone-calls requesting my genius. I was quite confused that didn’t happen. I embarked on a wedding photography business with my friend and fellow student from Unitec, Geoffrey Heath. We had no idea of what to charge and failed to market ourselves aggressively, so our profits were minimal. I also started exhibiting on a modest scale, at artist-run spaces and this led to bigger institutional group shows and reviews.

Fashion photography is an important thread. In the mid-2000s you started buying elaborate designer costumes, often owned by celebrities, and that has now morphed into your own costume design and creation.

Yes, and I like looking at fashion photography especially the big budget creatively challenging productions from Vogue Italia. I like conceptual fashion. Some of my favourite designers are the more avant-garde Japanese designers like Comme des Garçons. I appreciate their work because in my everyday experience I’m surrounded by middle of the road mall type shops. Things beyond the everyday are interesting. I need spontaneity in my life and art.

Detail: ‘Morka’, Yvonne Todd, 2017.

Do you have a recent favourite photo?

From the last few years, Morka. I designed her dress and round headpiece. It was just such a nutty outfit and I really liked her expression. Humour’s an important aspect of my work.

Why as a society do you think we’re so hooked on women and fashion?

There’s endless ways of dressing someone. And you can borrow from different historical periods. It’s never-ending, there’s no limit to what you can create. I like the Sixties, the space-age era, but I don’t want my works to be faithful reproductions, I don’t see the point of that. In an essay the American author, David Sedaris talked about being nostalgic for the 1930s, an era that he wasn’t born in. So, it’s nostalgic for a time we didn’t experience, that’s a potent draw. In my formative years I was also inspired by Warhol, his films and his photography. I found his entourage of superstars fascinating. His characters were very image based. Each woman has a defining physical characteristic. So, I think reading about the Warhol superstars as a teenager, must have had some sort of profound life-long effect.

Your cast of women are like an entourage, aren’t they?

Sometimes I imagine that I’m an elderly woman on the verge of death and I wake up in a room and they’re all there. But then I saw this movie Youth starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel and that happens to one of the characters. He’s a film director and at the end, he’s surrounded by all the female characters from his movies. I thought, “That was my idea!”

That segues nicely into my next question: what do you think of Madonna’s aging process?

She’s not quietly withdrawing from public life. She’s making us take notice and that’s the opposite of how women are expected to age. So, her aging is provocative, there’s something defiant about it which I like. In the media it’s like we’re finally allowing women to be viewed in ways that they haven’t been allowed to be viewed before.

‘Chlora’, Yvonne Todd, 2001.

What is the worst criticism you’ve faced so far?

In 2002, after the inaugural Walters Prize finalists were announced, there was a blustering take-down of the finalists’ work, mine in particular, by a venerable Auckland art critic in the Sunday Star Times. It was dramatically titled ‘A Prize Sham’ with a large reproduction of one of my photos. It wasn’t that it was the worst criticism of my work; it was my inability to respond, my lack of agency. I saw my work through his eyes – he described it as ‘timid’ and felt totally deflated. All the positive things were eclipsed by this overwrought and rather poorly researched opinion piece.

In his essay, Sons and Lovers, critic Anthony Byrt says, “Todd’s work are a psycho-sexual form of self-portraiture” and that “Todd is the monster living inside her own labyrinth”. Comments?

It’s a good quote. I do see my photographs as self-portraits. I feel like me and the art are entwined. Art is like an extra appendage, a third arm or something.

Your survey Creamy Psychology opened at City Gallery Wellington in 2014. Did the survey change how you viewed your work?

I got pregnant with my first child not long afterwards, so I didn’t have a lot of time to process the show because I was straight into the next thing, which really was life-changing. Filling a gallery with flat, two-dimensional photographic works could have been a bit repetitive, but the survey was done really well: there was the sources room, the costumes were included, etc.

Installation detail: Creamy Psychology, City Gallery Wellington, 2014.

Have your photos changed since?

Maybe they’re not quite as heavy. There’s more playfulness and I don’t second guess myself like I used to. In the beginning, I found the art world quite terrifying. I think that’s why I was so bummed out by the early criticism around the Walters Prize because I was a newcomer. I felt that power balance for a long time, but you have to stop because otherwise, you won’t make anything. You get ‘analysis paralysis’, which as a photography lecturer I saw a fair bit of.

You made a recent video about your time teaching at Unitec.

I taught at Unitec from 2011-2016. I had a shared office with an iMac computer. Every day, I’d take a couple of low-res snaps of myself on the photo booth. It was usually during my lunch break, that’s why I’m shoveling a fork into my mouth in quite a few of the photos. During part of that time, Unitec was going through this very controversial restructuring, staff were facing redundancy.

I rediscovered the photos recently and as I flipped through them there was a sense of animation. I thought I could put this on a timeline with a soundtrack, it could be a video and I could put some cheesy effects in here and there.

I shot the photos for my own personal amusement, never thinking I would show them in a gallery yet there’s a real sense of performance in the video. It starts off quite optimistic and silly, but as time moves on it becomes more depressing.

When I did my Masters in Creative Writing, I wrote post-modern fairy tales and a male tutor looked at me wearily and said, “there’s always one”. Likewise, there’s always going to be a young female art student who’s doing dress-ups in some way.

I made a list of things that never need to be photographed by a photography student again.

  • Fairy tales
  • Girls wearing slip dresses or nighties holding lilies in graveyards
  • Girls in bathtubs
  • Friends smoking weed, especially from bongs
  • People and their geegaw collections
  • Abandoned/derelict houses
  • Underwater portraits
  • Childhood memories and nostalgia (dolls in particular)
  • Flowers
  • Angsty self-portraits (i.e. hunched in the corner of a room looking despondent).

This is the stuff I saw when I was a teacher and I did some of this when I was a student.

We’ve all been there. Tell me about Isabella from the new show. 

I had an idea to shoot a woman in a leather heavy metal-inspired ensemble. Isabella was recommended to me by her agency and then I found out she’s one of the top models in New Zealand. And she’s also an opera singer of some renown. Years ago, I read this great description of heavy metal as ‘a combination of Wagnerian opera and satanism.’ The best images just fall into place when you’re not trying to make something happen. Isabella is one of those.

I was looking at the Cosmopolitan covers that American photographer, Francesco Scavullo, shot in the eighties and nineties. They’re formulaic, everyone’s in a similar pose, big hair and tits and sultry pouts, but they’re really good. He’s got a real knack for the lighting and the posing. I wanted to replicate that glamorous quality in the Isabella photo. It almost looks like an album cover or an image that has a specific purpose, that’s been designed to reach a mass market.

‘Isabella’, Yvonne Todd, 2019.

How do you create something iconic that’s not a cliché?

The idea of familiarity is important. I often say, I want my images to look like they have been around, as if they’ve always been part of the visual landscape. I like to work with clichés and photographic tropes. I’m interested in advertising imagery. How do you create a connection? What are we looking for, what do we want?

Photography wants to be taken seriously as an art form, but I don’t care if it is or isn’t. I want to say to photography, don’t be so needy, don’t be so insecure. Get over yourself about the fact that you’re not painting or sculpture, it’s okay. That debate’s been going for a long time. We can all decide that photography is a valid art form and move on.

What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without…

My sense of the ridiculous.


Modern Independent Thinking at McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, runs September 4 -28, 2019.

Read another recent interview with Yvonne Todd on her 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate here. 


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