Trapped in a state of limbo, we yearn for change and connection.
It is the peculiar quality of art to speak from the individual perspective of the creator to the personal experience of the viewer. Each viewing is a unique conversation between two people through the artwork. It is this that separates art from illustration: its intimacy. Yet, as with conversation, such intercourse requires a shared language that, while it may be used in subtly different ways by each interlocutor, ensures the traction that generates affect and meaning. The poet uses the language of everyday in new juxtaposition, evoking in that realignment a nuance that feels both fresh and genuine. For it is not simply the construction of the novel recombination that energises an artwork, but its sense of authenticity.
It was thoughts of personal connection and authenticity, of the relationship between the familiar and the innovative, that came to mind when I first saw the work of the Spanish artist Andrés Gallego. His images borrow the narrative or visual architecture of other stories, other pictures, animating each with the personal in ways that evoke new meaning. In the very familiarity of the tales and paintings referenced, he establishes a shared frame in which each subtle innovation, each personal idiosyncrasy, amplifies the sense of authentic connection. It is not, after all, that in conversation we meet each interlocutor as wholly different from all others, but rather that we seek within them those elusive differences that make them unique and, in that realisation, reach toward them through a sense – often unconscious – of how our own unique differences and similarities mesh with the other.
As social creatures, this is of course important. But there is something more. For it is in the interstices of such realisation that we also extend the dialogue within ourselves, drawing on the interpersonal to explore the intrapersonal. In this way, contemplating an artwork is both a discourse with the artist through the image and an exploration one’s sense of self reflecting in it. In Andrés Gallego’s most recent work, we see this unfold at one remove as the artist discovers the authentically personal in the interplay of his imagination with the paintings of Edward Hopper, in turn creating photographic rearticulations that encourage the viewer to explore their own internal resonance within this double echo.
What first drew you to photography as your medium of expression?
I took my first steps in photography in 2017. Although I had been attracted to classical painting, I never gave shape to my artistic interests until I found in photography. For me, it is a medium of endless creative possibility. Each time I begin a project the process of working with photography opens the door to new challenges, new opportunities.
How would you describe your approach to making images?
Our lives are saturated with images. Most are retouched, manipulated in the computer, and now even shaped by artificial intelligence. In contrast, I blend the physical craftsmanship of scenography with painting and portraiture to build a picture from things that actually exist before the camera. This approach to photography allows me to control all aspects of the image in the moment, in real space. In this way, I seek to create an atmosphere of the tangible that will encourage the viewer to pause, breathe, visually read the image, and meditate upon it.
How did your series ‘Grimm Stories’ begin?
These are my personal interpretations of some of the classic fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. These stories have been transformed over the course of time – in the telling and retelling and, more recently, in various cinema versions, especially those by Disney – to accommodate the tastes of the day. I was motivated to get back to the original purpose of these tales, which contained darker underlying ideas and social criticism. At the same time, I wanted to evoke the visual beauty of the Old Masters of painting.
What ideas did you want to bring out in this work?
I have incorporated narrative elements from different versions of these stories. For example, there are several versions of the story of Sleeping Beauty, including one by Giambattista Basile which predates that of the Grimm brothers by almost two centuries. On the one hand, I wanted to represent the female role as originally portrayed in folk tales, and to emphasise the way in which modern interpretations such as those by Disney have changed the role of female characters, made them more passive. On the other hand, I bring out timeless themes such as inequality, dominance, and that element so recurrent in my work: loneliness. In this way I want to challenge the viewer to read these different interpretations woven into the image and look again carefully.
In this series you blend the contemporary and folkloric. For example, Sleeping Beauty is about to be woken by a man in a motorcycle jacket and jeans. What it is you wanted to suggest through this temporal slippage?
These are not simply recreations of old folk tales. My subconscious mind plays a vital role in my work, shaping both my perception of the world and the images I make. Immersed in the realm of creativity, my ideas and perspectives swim within the internal sanctuary of my mind. It is through the exploration of dreams, emotions, and past experiences, that I seek to bring these visual ideas to life.
I want to go beyond the logical rules of what we know. I want the viewers to question why the various elements appear in the scene, each of which has a purpose. For example, while a garland of red flowers is decoratively pleasing, it can signify other concepts such as blood arising from rape or childbirth. A raven is considered a symbol of evil, death, or darkness…
Where was this series shot?
The location is a small, abandoned school in a village in the province where I live. It served the young children living in the farmhouses scattered around this rural area. So, what better place than here to recreate the stories of our childhood? The place itself is a story to be told.
I used a fixed frame to bring the stories together and to provide the creative challenge of transporting the viewer to different worlds while staying in the same place. The essence of the place has strong symbolic elements: three windows and a door. Windows suggest the five senses and, especially, that of sight. A door marks a threshold, an entrance or exit, the way into a world beyond.
In the series ‘Untitled #1’ you have created a tight series of tableaux within what appears to be a padded cell. How did this begin?
This series was inspired by the work of Jan Saudek whose images broke taboos, creating what was in the mind of the artist without societal limits. I had a personal need to externalise a range of feelings through these images. It is true that they have a darker emotional tone than the rest of my work, but it was an enriching experience. It disinhibited my creative style, allowed me to explore beyond the constraint of social acceptability. And, in turn, it has helped me come to know myself better through developing in images what I am unable to express in words.
Their meaning I leave open to the interpretation of the viewer.
Who are the characters within these scenes, and who are the actors who play those roles?
It is difficult to draw the line between characters and actors in my work, as both are often interconnected. In the case of ‘Untitled #1’, the characters could be any one of us if we look deeply enough into our desires.
As to actors, I don’t like to work with professional models. I have done it occasionally, but I find it much more interesting to work with the people around me, where the developing narrative suits their personality.
The setting suggests an asylum, the characters a circus troupe, and the action has a sort of dark, erotically charged psychological undertow. Can you talk about your choice of these elements?
‘Untitled #1’ was born of long introspection. I am someone who, since I was a child, has found it hard to open up my feelings to others. I don’t know if this arises from my education or if it is intrinsic to my character. Whichever it is, I have found that with photography I am able to tell stories – some of them mine, some not – that I would not otherwise be able to externalise.
If we were to represent graphically that place in our mind where we hide our darkest thoughts and desires, how would we do it? In this work, the mise en scène, the atmosphere, the characters, the erotic and psychological charge were born from that part of the psyche into which many of us are afraid to look.
Tell me about the series ‘Hopper Essence’. Why did you select Edward Hopper as the artist on whose work you based this series?
The work of Edward Hopper has fascinated me since I was a child. I can identify with many of the situations depicted in his paintings. He has been an influence in many aspects of my life and, consequently, on my artistic vision. From an early age we are educated as social animals, we have to act according to social norms, and we are constantly being evaluated by others. This requires us to play a role; a role we only stop playing when we are alone, out of the sight of others. In many of his works, Hopper deals with just that theme. As Sartre said, “hell is other people”.
What did you seek to explore in this work?
Mainly that sense of alignment with the world that Hopper depicts. The feelings it evokes. Much of the time I have those feelings myself. So, I wanted to explore his visualisation of those feelings and make a personal mediation upon them through photography.
Do you see these images as in some way autobiographical?
In most of these images, my wife Jessica is the main model, just as Hopper used Josephine as a model for his paintings. Indeed, my wife and I are the ones represented in all but two of the images in this series. So, it could be said that there is a lot that’s autobiographical in this project.
Many of the early pieces recreate paintings by Hopper in which I see my own experiences reflected. More recently, the images have taken on a more personal narrative, capturing moments from our lives, and exploring the complexities of relationships, emotions, and introspection. Through this fusion of Hopper’s aesthetic and my own experiences, the project becomes a reflection of our journey together, blurring the lines between artistic and personal expression.
But I don’t like to give long explanations or reduce the work to a single idea or message. I would like the viewer to be active within the image, to make it their own.
As we can see in the above video, your way of creating an image is a blend of set construction, painting, lighting, make-up, and costuming executed in the physical space of the studio. In these days when so many images are put together digitally in a computer, why do you choose this way of working?
It is true that nowadays in the photographic and artistic world, there is an increasing focus on the use of digital techniques… and now also artificial intelligence. But ever since I started in photography, it has been my goal to get the final result in camera. I don’t care if I have to spend months working on a single image, as long as it represents everything I need to express, both narratively and technically. It is, of course, difficult to escape from digital techniques completely. However, although I rely on a small amount of digital retouching to complete my work, its importance within the image as a whole is minimal. What you see is essentially what I saw through the camera as I was shooting.
Why make photographs that recreate paintings? What is it that happens when the one medium is exchanged for the other?
The ‘Hopper Essence’ project has transformed my artistic style by introducing a metalanguage [in this case, a form of visual language employed to describe or analyse another visual language] through the blending of photography and painting. This project aims to explore the intersections between both mediums, creating images that defy traditional boundaries. By combining visual elements from photography and painting, a dialogue is established between reality and imagination – though I am not simply saying that one medium speaks for the real and the other for the imagined. Through this questioning of the convention that usually separates photography and painting, I want to capture Hopper’s distinctive visual style while evoking a sense of mystery and nostalgia.
For me, these three series, although different each from the other, share certain qualities: a sense of characters caught up in situations beyond their control, of waiting within a suspended moment of time, of a kind of loneliness or disconnect. Is that your intention?
These series serve as a poignant reflection on the human condition, highlighting the vulnerability and powerlessness we can feel in the face of circumstances beyond our control. Trapped in a state of limbo, we yearn for change and connection. It is my hope that these projects speak to the universal experience of grappling with the complexities of life, suspended in a delicate balance between hope and despair.
In making these three series what have you learned about yourself?
Basically, these three projects have taught me everything about myself, to see myself from different perspectives. Each has helped me grow and understand who I am.
Andrés Gallego was born in Melilla, an autonomous city of Spain in North Africa, in 1983. He has a law degree from Nebrija University, Madrid (2017) and is self-taught in photography. He has exhibited in France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, and Spain. In 2021, he won the LF Award at Rebela’t Festival, Barcelona. In 2022, he won gold at the MUSE Photography Awards, the London Photography Awards, and the European Photography Awards; he also won first prize in the fine art section at Tokyo International Foto Awards and was named their Discovery of the Year. In 2023, he was awarded first place in the Fine Art Photography Awards. Photographs from his series ‘Hopper Essence’ are held in the collection of the Museum of the City of León, Spain. He currently lives and works in Castellón de la Plana, Spain.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.