The other day on Instagram, Elle Muliarchyk posted a poem that, judging by its font, was captured from the New Yorker. The poem was called “The Novel,” and its centric lines read, “if this was its coming-out party, it mainly peered in- // ward. It wanted to jostle a reader’s heart”.
The line is about fiction, but it sums up so much of Muliarchyk’s work. The model-turned-photographer transitioned from former to latter when she began taking self-portraits in designer dressing rooms, discovering the fantasy of fashion through unattainable luxury goods. In her private stall of mirrors she transformed, bringing in props to fill out the frame. This was her coming-out party, but the photos mainly peer inward.
More often, Muliarchyk’s photos are quite expository. In her Darwin Diet series, for example, Sudanese model Ataui Deng poses alongside obscure proteins as commentary on both the elitism of American diet trends and the ignorance of our food sources. Muliarchyk’s most recent project, however, is much more personal than political. “Escapes from Paradise” is an online photo-story— complete with text, gifs, and soundscapes—depicting her roadtrip through forest and desert from New England to Arizona. Muliarchyk’s Southwest isn’t the desolate vastness that is so often associated with sandstone. It’s layered and intimate: wave upon wave of eroded terrain, confined crevasses, and looming, almost ominous, succulents. She wants to jostle her reader’s heart. And as both photographer and model, she compels herself to get the best shot, even if that means standing on a rock at the edge of the Atlantic, dressed in Chadwick Bell silks, waves crashing upon her.
I met with Muliarchyk in her uptown apartment to discuss “Escapes From Paradise,” but the interview evolved into so much more. I have been working as a model for the last three years, and I have met very few people in the industry as personally enthralling as Elle. She made modeling and fashion her object, when it is almost always the other way around. If fashion has ever spurned you, excluded you, or made you feel small, read this interview. Look at Elle’s photos. And maybe, like me, you’ll discover that fashion can be about more than consumer goods, that dressing up can be about more than looking good.
How did “Escapes from Paradise” start? What made you decide to use a website as your platform?
I actually love the online medium. Even as a photographer, I hate seeing my work printed in magazines. I spent two days retouching each image, and it looks so amazing on the computer screen, and that’s how I see it and understand it. The website happened quite organically. As I was on the road, I started writing this diary, which I then had adapted to fiction by my friend Anne [B. Kelly]. I would send her an entry and she would send it back to me, and it would include my story and a lot of the stories from her life. And that would inspire me for my next images. It was kind of like a chain. Simultaneously, the composer Superflux contacted me. He had just done a short film with support by Yohji Yamamoto. So I thought, Ok, let me check him out. I listened to his work and it was really serendipitous. The sounds, the whole vibe of his work, it was exactly what I was hearing on the trip: the birds, the sky, the ocean, the wind blowing through the sand. So, as I was taking pictures and writing, I was working with him over the phone to create sounds.
I came back to New York and I had all this material, and I wanted to make this online little world that it could all live in. I wanted it to resemble a book, because to me, reading is the most intimate. The moments in my life that blew my mind have always been contained on a piece of paper or in a book. The greatest things can be condensed in the small space of a text. I showed the work to art director and graphic designer Jacob Wildschiødtz and said, ‘Would you help me to lay it out?’ and he said, ‘Of course! I love it!’ It was the greatest validation because I had never really thought of the work as this whole body.
Any particular reason for using Tumblr?
Yes. Every multimedia website I was looking at seemed so complicated. You don’t know what to click, it takes forever to load, and so on. I was always frustrated by that. I wanted to create something that was like the road. Like, you’re driving down the road and it unfolds in front of you. Or like an ancient scroll. When T Magazine started, their website was so successful because you could just scroll through [continually]. Tumblr and Instagram are the same. It’s just so organic.
In your email synopsis about “Escapes”, you wrote that you hope the project encourages and inspires other women to discover themselves through fashion. How do you feel like it does?
“Escapes” is my first experiment in how fashion can be told and experienced in a new way. My goal was to create a certain feeling, one that I discovered when I found fashion for myself, on my own terms, during my dressing room project. That’s when I fell in love with fashion. I got feedback [on that project] from girls and women, from 90 years old to like 5 years old. When a woman goes to a boutique and tries on this dress, she is expected to come out and have the salesperson say, ‘Oh, you look fabulous.’ If you’re easily affected and convinced you’ll think, ‘Ooh! I can buy it.’ And it’s not an intimate experience anymore, it’s not a transformation. It’s communication. I wanted to shoot in the expensive stores because [the project] was about this love for fashion that is unattainable to most people.
There’s a fantasy that surrounds the luxury good.
Definitely. The pure valor, the cost, somehow transforms your experience. Taking those photos in the dressing rooms was the only way I found fashion. It was so intimate. I had never experienced it that way before or after. Unfortunately, from then on, I only saw the negativity of fashion. You’re always dressing for somebody else. In the best case scenario you work out a compromise between your environment and your personal style in which you feel the most comfortable, but there’s always the thought of how you will be judged by what you’re wearing. It’s kind of like an abusive relationship.
How did modeling affect your views on fashion?
I had no understanding of fashion growing up. I came to California for high school, then started university and went to Milan to do some modeling. After making some money, I went into a designer boutique for the first time in my life and bought Gucci sunglasses. When I came back to California with those sunglasses, I remember thinking, ‘I’m the shit. I’m the most sophisticated person in America’. By the time I came to New York, I felt naked if I wasn’t wearing a thick layer of makeup, a push-up bra, very tight jeans, and my Gucci glasses. I looked for an agency and started with Supreme. They said, ‘Here’s a bar of soap. Take all [your makeup] off.’ I came out of the bathroom not even wearing mascara, my skin raw red. They took my photo, which then became the front of my composite card. My booker then took me to H&M, got me the cheapest jeans, the cheapest [knock off] Converse, and a hoodie, and said, ‘That’s what you’ll wear to castings.’ It was just completely stripping. The value, the numbers… my whole outfit was probably $20. Then he took my Gucci glasses and threw them in garbage.
In “Escapes”, you don’t really show your face. What’s the reason or motivation behind that?
Playing into the idea of escape, I completely wanted to distance myself from my self. I wanted to completely be a blank slate. I didn’t really want to see ‘Elle in the black wig’. I just wanted to see the images. Also, to be honest, I’m kind of tired of people thinking of me as a self-portrait artist. I’ve only done three self-portrait projects in my life. I love taking portraits, especially when this person is not a model, they don’t like to be photographed. It’s the greatest feeling when they look at the photo I’d taken of them and say, ‘wow, I’ve never been captured like this.’ My dream image is to take a photo of a person that is as intimate as a self-portrait. That’s my ideal picture.
So, how did you start taking photos? Did you want to be a photographer?
Not at all. I studied to be a scientist. My dream was to spend the rest of my life in the laboratory wearing a white coat. My denial of fashion, in a way. I thought, ‘if I wear this uniform, I can wear a uniform for the rest of my life and I don’t have to wear a push-up bra or stuff my bra with Kleenex.’ Becoming a model was actually a completely narcissistic, fame-driven thing because I was thinking more of going to clubs and knowing all these people. When I actually started modeling, I realized that I could help photographers take a better picture. But [as a model] you’re not supposed to participate in this process, so then I got interested in the world around modeling. I thought, ‘Wow. I can be an amazing model. I did my best on set, I’m keeping the morale up, making people feel great, helping everyone. Still frustrated by being unable to help make the image better, I thought, ‘Well, I can take this picture. I can create this perfect image myself.’ I was the model, I had amazing hair and makeup after photo shoots. The only issue was clothing. Some people would go to a store, buy an item, and then return it, but I didn’t have even enough money to buy and return. I had, like, $100 a week from the agency as an allowance, so, that’s when I decided to go into stores, use the clothing, and take pictures in the dressing rooms.
Was it hard to transition out of modeling and into photography?
Yes. It’s still hard because people still think of me as a model. The photographers who are, lets say, at the same level as me right now, they had been assistants for six to ten years, and then they quit their job and immediately had this whole bag of clients who see them as photographers. So when I stopped modeling and entered this world, I did not have the experience that those guys had, and everyone else saw me as a model. The fact that I was a model was not negative, but the fact that I was not an assistant for ten years, that was definitely not good.
Who are some of your influences?
My pure inspiration comes from books. But visually, there are some people that I really like. For example, Araki. He was so obsessed about documenting everything around, including such genuine, painful moments. He photographed his wife when she was dying of cancer, and took pictures of her in her coffin, and then again as she was taken to be buried. Also Terry [Richardson]. When he was taking pictures of me, there was a moment where I felt so real. I discovered things about myself I didn’t even know were there. It’s not about being crazy sexy or taking your clothes off. I love what he brings out in people.