Updated: Apr 20, 2020
When I first saw the work of Kristen Grundy I was really interested in the work itself, but also the process behind making it. The art of set piece photography is one that’s largely lost, there’s photographers who stage a scene but not to the degree of Grundy. The sets and sceneries in Grundy’s work are so detailed, macabre, and out of this world that you’re stoked to take in every little element. Perhaps the most enticing element is that even with all the pageantry of the staging, these photos still feel like an unexpected snapshot of an event. The characters are so deeply into their actions that it feels like they don’t even know a photographer’s there. Even in the photos where the character is looking at or near the camera, their positioning and gaze is placed in a way that they’re looking through the camera, past that plane and either right through us or right at us. As a viewer you feel like you’ve stumbled upon something that you weren’t supposed to and that feeling is often amplified by the dark nature of the photos.
Grundy’s work is a truly incredible example of set design, costume design/selection, and excellent model direction coming together to create thrilling and engaging photography. As I said in the beginning, when I saw this work I just had to hear more about it. So, I was excited to get to talk to Grundy about all that goes into this wild body of work. Grundy gave great insight into how her work came about, how it’s developed, and all that goes into it. She’s also the second member of the DAWN 1111 collective, alongside Dave Glass, so it was cool to hear about that project from the other side as well. Hearing more about this group got me more excited to see what is to come from them and I’m sure you’ll understand why when reading. Enjoy!
1. I always begin with background, so what got you started in art? Any schooling? What helped shape you into the artist that you are today?
I grew up in Orlando, FL, amongst the character culture of Disney, so the concept of environment and character creation has been instilled in me since childhood. My background is very music oriented, so when I started shooting with an old film camera in the 90’s, I was mainly shooting live bands with black and white film, along with a lot of street photography. I just loved it as an escape into my mind, following the light and shadows of my surroundings. I went to photography school in Daytona Beach, Florida, at the end of the 20st century, and then ended up moving to Philadelphia and taking a hiatus from photography to play music. A decade later, I got tired of playing and touring all the time, and felt my wrist deteriorating, so I decided to go back to school to learn the ins and outs of digital photography. I moved to San Francisco and enrolled in the Academy of Art University. However, that is not what shaped me into the artist I am today. Without sounding cliché, it was and always has been my life experience. It was crazy, rebellious, and on the other hand very dark and oppressed. I was confined in an abusive relationship for 15 years, and still trapped in it when I made a lot of the work you see – which also kept getting darker and darker as my entrapment grew. A few years ago, while running from that situation with a restraining order which was constantly violated, I was also preoccupied in my mother’s losing battle with cancer. I had already been unable to create new work for awhile at this point, and this brought on another hiatus to my art. The past couple of years have been a whirlwind, but I am now in a new life and living back in Philadelphia, and although it took some time, I have finally been creating again.
2. You've got an incredibly bold style of photography and video, what inspired your photo work? How did your style develop into what it is today?
When I got to San Francisco and started studying other photographers, as well as looking around at what my peers were doing, I decided to do something completely different – ignoring any naysayers that would tell me it wouldn’t sell. My only focus was to purge the visions from within, something that was completely mine. Also stemming from my history of watching old horror flicks growing up, I developed a very cinematic still frame sort of look to my photography. I also learned I needed to pay attention to every detail, to make sure the vision that I wanted to create was coming through. As influenced by Cartier-Bresson’s, “the decisive moment”, my images lie on the brink of something about to happen. I leave the viewer to decide what’s next. For the longest time I was living with a walking on eggshells, waiting for the shoe to drop kind of feeling. It just so happened the work kept getting darker and more obscure, with underlying themes from my life – entrapment, oppression, and control. Like an impending nosebleed about to burst out of my face, the truth behind the imagery remained unaddressed other than perhaps it comes from a dark place. I was never before able to answer where it really comes from. I’m expressing something real that comes from within, and I am not afraid to make images that most people will not want to look at.
3. What goes into these wild set pieces?
A lot of prop borrowing, renting, and finding. In the case of my gold prospector character shoot, that set was a hole in a sub basement where you could see Mission Creek, and then brought in props and set pieces (even dropped gold spray-painted pebbles into the water). And for the conspiracy theorist shoot, I spent an entire day placing every scrap of paper on the wall (which are all strange things) and bringing in the props and putting together the set before shooting the photo and the film the following day. The girl with the treasure chest was also a case that took the entire prior day to bring in furniture and props to set up the girl’s bedroom. My work has a good mix of sets created, locations I’ve scouted, and composite images of the characters shot in studio with photos I’ve taken of places. For instance, Stand Your Ground is mainly composited of the Christian Science building in Berkeley, with webs I shot on a back patio wall and the witchy woman in the studio.
3 (cont’d). How do you design/create these macabre characters? Once your set pieces and characters are ready to go, what is the shooting process like? Is the shoot a collaborative experience with the models you use or do you remain primarily in control?
A lot of them came from dreams or visions that I had, so I often have a very specific look in mind. I pick out a wardrobe and cast who I can find that fit closest to what I envisioned. I’ve also worked with some great MUA’s that could take my crazy ideas and get it, and do an amazing job bringing them out. I give the models the entire rundown of the idea and suggest a pose and a look to base the shot after. I am always free to suggestions and at times have let models/actors run with something if I see something happening there. Once everything is set and I can see the dynamics with the character and model, there may be slight adjustments, which sometimes comes from collaboration.
4. There's quite a strong contrast between your characters and backdrops, how much are you manipulating lighting in these scenes? Does it vary depending on the effect you're trying to achieve?
The lighting could be manipulated more or less, depending on the effect. When I have a certain vision in mind I just run with what it needs to look like, and make sure that the lighting reflects that. I control the lighting in every shot, except for the outdoor exposures I take to use for composite elements. For characters shot on a set, I light the set and my characters separately, and on location I pretty much just light the character.
5. Going a little further into that, there's a lot of pretty crazy effects in your photos, so how much does your photography rely on post production? Does it vary piece to piece?
I am not a lifestyle photographer, but rather an image creator with a vision in mind for my art which often isn’t capable of being created without some effects used. I shoot with that in mind, so it isn’t that my imagery relies on it, but it is part of the production. I also have a post process that I have been using for awhile now, so I add my own little special touch at the end. The amount of post production varies a great deal depending if it is a composite or set/location shot. I have made composites with hundreds of layers, and I have single shot images that have been manipulated some more than others. But all are processed to finalize my vision.
6. Finally, PLUGS! Where can people find your work? Any shows/events coming up? I know you're a part of the DAWN1111 collective, could you tell us a little bit about that? Anywhere people can find your work and anything you'd like to share, fire away!
DAWN 1111 is a fairly new collective comprised of myself and Dave Glass (painter/illustrator). We share an unusual connection and have the same views when it comes to promoting our art, so we decided to work as a collective to get our work out there and collaborate on projects. We had some shows on both coasts towards the end of last year, and have decided to focus this year on making new art. We always have stuff for sale on our website, dawn1111.com, and I will sell prints of any image if contacted through that or directly though my site or IG. This winter I will mainly be staying warm in my studio working on a couple new projects that involve things instead of people, so once anything is finished I will be putting that out there on my website and through DAWN 1111, and eventually IG. The social media will most likely be last to get updated, as I am new to that game and really despise it. DAWN 1111 is hoping for and anticipating its demise, as we don’t see how a narcissistic popularity contest defines talent. I’m expressing something real that I have lived from past abuse. I am not afraid to make images that most people will not want to look at, and certainly not want to buy to put on their wall. I am an artist and not so great business person, but the website will remain updated. Thanks for the inquiries!