Artists in Motion, an occasional series featuring local visual artists: Michelle Gemma
Name: Michelle Gemma
Now Lives: In a house near the Mystic Seaport where “I’ve been living with my husband Rich Freitas (a local Mystic-based musician) since 1994.”
Her art in a snapshot: Gemma’s black-and-white photographs display a consistent cinematic aesthetic that seeks to portray drama through the use of stylized models.
The concept of time is a major contributing factor that plays through Gemma’s work. She selects her models, most of whom are local, and styles each one before a photo shoot with a personal collection of vintage and antique costuming. Such clothing, she says, helps to give the photographs a sense of timelessness while also paying homage to the past.
“There is this nostalgic point of view, but I’m using a model, which helps me capture the present moment as well. It’s a metaphysical standpoint because I’m not just looking towards the future and I’m not aching for the past. I’m trying to capture the present tense with maybe a look back but while simultaneously not trying to be in the past.”
Gemma is a self-taught photographer who has been seriously pursuing the art form since 2000, though she started experimenting with photography in the early 1990s after becoming involved with and chronicling the Mystic art scene. Her photographs are set within various locations around the area, a certain fascination of hers. Gemma will use three cameras, a Minolta X-700 with 35mm film, a Mamiya 7 with 120mm film and a digital Nikon D3200, throughout her photoshoots.
“I feel like my photographs are always paying homage to where we are, so that’s the depth that can be seen in them. It’s a real feeling that we are doing our best to honor this place. It’s almost a religious experience and it’s sacred. It’s an intense connection made in the photograph."
Discovering photography/the a-ha moment: “I would attend all these artistic events in Mystic, but I wasn’t an artist myself. I remember at one point in 1992, two years into my relationship with Rich, he had said, ‘Well what are you going to do? We’re not just hanging out here, we are producing art.’ It was serious, and everyone took themselves very seriously. It wasn’t just art for the sake of it, they were all going somewhere.
"I then went to Scotland with a friend, and I brought a camera and a roll of film. I took a couple photos there, and when I got back, I asked my friend Mat, who had a darkroom, to help develop the roll of film. I remember him looking at the negatives and saying, “These are really great.” I felt, in that moment, this spark of enthusiasm from getting this certain praise that artists seek. He told me that he would help me learn, but he also said I needed to take a photography class. Even though I had already graduated from UConn, I took a class at Conn College to learn all the basics. After that, I just set up my own darkroom, and it started from there.”
Crafting her aesthetic: “I found that I was really intrigued by the older charm of Mystic, the Victorian era. I also found that I admired Greek architecture and Victorian architecture and the houses around here. The first time I had ever used a model, I dressed her in a Victorian dressing gown, and later, when I was showing the photographs to a fellow photographer, he said that it looked like Julia Margaret Cameron (a Victorian-era British photographer) and that I should check her out.
"I started looking at her work, and I found it to be dreamy and powerful. She was very dramatic and stylized, and I felt this emotion when I was looking at her work, and it helped me realize that I was really attracted to using models to convey human dramatic emotion.
"Living around here has inspired me to capture what I see as this old glory of Mystic and to continue to use it as a backdrop so that future generations can see it. No matter what happens to those locations, it will be captured in this moment.
"Before a photoshoot I always prepare visually with my models. In the "old days," once I booked a shoot and had planned around an idea, I would photocopy images from books from the library as inspiration to study and dream about.
"For me personally, Greek mythology is also a huge deal. The concept of the feminine warrior and goddess is intriguing to me."
Latest Project: “In 2002, I did a series called ‘Personal Universe’ where I photographed 12 models to represent each of the 12 astrological signs. Then it came to me in the beginning of 2017 that I really have a lot of good models right now — I have 12 people that make up my model staple. So I decided to redo the series and, coincidentally, it’s exactly 15 years later after my first series." The new series will also be called "Personal Universe."
"Larger influences of the planets and who you are as a person and the many influences that shape us are so interesting to me. I just wanted to represent the twelve signs and use the birth charts for all twelve models to shape the photographs I take.”
What’s next: “A photography book featuring a sequence of photographs taken of model Morgan Vail (a local model who has exclusively photographed for Gemma) from the time she was 12 years old to the present. She is now 31.”
Top five artists: Julia Margaret Cameron, Sally Mann, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Rollie McKenna
You’re locked in a museum for a night — which one? “The Smithsonian (National Portrait Gallery) in Washington D.C., specifically to see the Sylvia Plath exhibit. I love her poetry and her work. 'The Bell Jar' is one of the most amazing works ever. I love her biting sarcastic manner.”
Favorite album: “'Astral Weeks' by Van Morrison. A timeless classic.”
Which artist, living or dead, would you most like to hang out with? “Rollie McKenna. She was a Stonington-based photographer that I had the chance to work for towards the end of her life. She photographed poets and writers for 50 years. She photographed artists such as Sylivia Plath, Anne Sexton and Dylan Thomas, among many other accomplishments. She was a force, and in the 50s, there weren’t many female photographers, and she had a way of getting to the most reclusive writers ever and photographed them. She would catch them in their natural habitats.”
If you go
WHAT: Selected photographs by Michelle Gemma
WHERE: Wayne's Barber Shop, 3 Pearl St., Mystic
WHEN: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.
CALL: (860) 245-5245