Have you ever wanted to make out with someone in a huge lava lamp? Well, guess what—you still kind of can’t. But LA-based photographer Maggie West’s debut art book allows you to better visualize that fantasy. “KISS” features 20 pairs of couples from different ethnicities and sexualities all sharing an intimate moment, surrounded by a prismatic, dreamy display of light. Subjects include model/singer Alexa Demie, “Party Rock Anthem” singer Lauren Bennett and Internet muse Niko the Ikon.
We sat down with West to talk about her upcoming release, the project’s creative process and playing spin-the-bottle in a Baptist church basement. The LA launch party for “KISS” will be held June 14 at the Ace Hotel.
This is your first art book—what makes “KISS” the perfect debut for you as a photographer?
“I feel like both the visual style and subject matter of “KISS” relate strongly to my work as a whole. I love using intense colors and intricate lighting to create sensual imagery. This project was really interesting to me because it combined elaborate, contrived lighting with spontaneous, genuine human emotions.”
Let’s swap stories about our first kiss—mine was facilitated by vodka and led to a sloppy make-out session in my friend’s parent’s bathroom that was adorned with various Russian figurines. What about yours?
“I was playing spin-the-bottle in the basement of a Baptist church in North Carolina. Me and another girl made out with a boy who was a total babe and, I found out years later, also gay.”
What was your intention with this peculiar, hallucinatory-like lighting?
“I wanted to remove the act of kissing from normal settings to allow the viewer to look at it in a more abstract way. By using a range of colors to highlight different areas of the subjects, I wanted to bring out details in the interactions that the viewer might not notice otherwise. The intense range of colors also serves to symbolize the electricity between the subjects. I believe with each embrace, however subtle, there is an exchange of energy between both parties.”
It’s abundantly clear there’s a lot of art centered on moments of intimacy between couples. How do you want “KISS” to carve its space in that world?
“Sexuality is such a huge part of our lives that it seems natural that so many artists have gravitated towards it as a subject. With ‘KISS,’ I hope that the viewer can appreciate specific aspects of a kiss through the color choices and extreme close-up angles. I tried to do something aesthetically different with a pretty universal subject.”
How do you want this body of work to be received by your viewers?
“To me, the most powerful thing about the book is how genuine the emotions are in the photographs. Because the act of kissing causes a physiological response, whatever feelings the models had going into it (nervousness, self-consciousness, etc.) kind of faded away after the first few minutes and I was able to capture some really beautiful moments. I was really moved by the beauty of these emotions and I hope the readers are as well.”
How did you select the models you feature in the book? Did you make each and every one of them kiss you?
“I am lucky enough to have a lot of good-looking friends who were willing to make out for me. Some of the subjects were models that I knew from my fashion and beauty work, but the majority of the people in the book are just friends of mine. It’s a really eclectic mix of people within the arts community: models, musicians, artists, porn stars, dancers. And yes, I kissed every single one of them.”
What was the energy like on set?
“Very interesting—one of the objectives of the book was to examine the dynamic between a variety of relationships, not just established couples. Some couples had been dating for years, some were just friends, some barely knew each other and so on. I did notice that there was a huge shift in the mood between the beginning and the end of the shoot. Initially everyone, no matter their relationship, was a little nervous. But kissing is such a physical act that within a few minutes the models were so engrossed in each other that they kind of forgot they were being photographed. By the end of the shoot no one seemed to realize I was standing there. One couple ended up eloping right after the shoot, which I’m taking all the credit for.”
Will you explore more intimate moments shared between two people any further? And if so, how?
“Possibly. The whole process was super interesting. For about a month, I had at least one couple a day come into my apartment and make out for about an hour. Suffice it to say, I am pretty comfortable photographing people’s intimate moments. I’d like to focus on other subject matters at the moment, but it’s definitely something that I’m open to in the future.”
Tell me about your release party at the the Ace Hotel in LA on June 14th. Will there be a kissing booth and if so, can I operate it?
“It’s going to be a super fun, awesome time and everyone is invited! The party will be on the rooftop starting at 9:30 P.M. All of the art from the book, plus a lot of other shots from the series, will be projected onto the walls and my friend Victoria Rawlins will be playing a really cool vinyl set. There is no kissing booth as of yet, but I’m guessing there will be a lot of spontaneous make out sessions, which you should totally come take part in.”