SHELBY DILLON INTERVIEW
Updated: Aug 17, 2019
BY MARTA DE LA PARRA PRIETO
TRANSLATED BY VANESSA MÚRIAS
Shelby Dillon (Minneapolis, 1994) is a storyteller firmly committed to art, feminism, narratives and visuals. She builds stories through both, moving and still images, or as she puts it her art is “either a single frame from a film, a moving photograph or both”.
As a filmmaker, she holds a B.A. in Film Studies from Wesleyan University. Among other studies (for instance, French Cinema by Yale Abroad Program in France) and experiences (such as, Naomi Ko´s intern). As a photographer, She had interned for Magnum award-winning photographer Alec Soth. In addition, she has also worked as a behind the scene photographer (Cunningham 3D feature film).
GdM: When you set yourself within the art system, you identify as both a photographer and a filmmaker, in this sense, you state your work to be “moving and still images”, what does define one? the other? Where do they converge? What does draw them apart?
SD: I think my photography work and my film work speak to each other but are still separate artistic expressions. The major difference between the two mediums is the fact that film is a time-based art form while photography is not. In this way, I look at my films as a series of photographs stretched over time, while my photographs are stills from a film. Some of my stories are told better through
limiting time (i.e. a photograph), and others require elongated time (i.e. a film).
GdM: Your photography fluctuates between Street photography and Conceptual photography, and both meet with filmmaking. Which one did you fall for first? and how did the others came along? how did they came together? Do you move from one to another? Or do they cohabit? What kind of dynamics do you articulate between them? Do you see them as a whole? Or do you understand them separately?
SD: Film was my first love. I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker ever since I can remember. Literally. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to make films. Photography came to me while in college disguised as a creative outlet. The film program at Wesleyan is very theory-heavy, and I didn’t have many opportunities in school to create films. So I took some photography classes to learn about
cameras and get the chance to make something. Turns out, I loved photography. So I dove in.
For me, my film work and photography work are separate practices. Like I mentioned before, different stories require different mediums. I usually work on multiple film and photography projects at once, but rarely on the same day. Most days are either a film or photography focused, but overall the project development is happening at the same time.
GdM: It feels like narratives, stories are vital in your exercise as an artist, both in film just as much as in photography. Tell us a bit more about your approach to narratives. What are your influences? What are your goals? How do you formulate narrative/audience connections?
SD: I love narratively driven art in all mediums. I have a lot of respect for the nonnarrative, but I gravitate towards story. Narrative takes a lot of different forms in my work, though. While my film Self Creation is the most avant-garde piece I’ve created, it’s still heavily narrative—we follow a central character through a surrealist landscape as she encounters obstacles in her environment. There is no dialogue in the film, but there’s a clear development of her emotional state and the changes that occur in her responses to the same places. You can also track a beginning, middle, and end, though the piece is constructed to play on a loop. So, I would still call Self Creation a narratively driven film even though it’s avant-garde.
I have so many influences it’s hard to distill them down to a few words…With regards to film, I would say I’m heavily influenced by European art house cinema and classic Hollywood films. All the way from Wings of Desire and Hiroshima, Mon Amour to Singin’ in the Rain and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Though I’m also very influenced by Japanese cinema (Woman in the Dunes and Yojimbo are big sources of inspiration to me) and some contemporary American film (Lost in Translation and The Last Temptation of Christ are two of my favorite films). There are so many films and filmmakers that I love. I could continue this list forever.
GdM: Female Characters seem to be strongly and continuously present, for instance, your shorts Restock or Self Creation. Not only female characters, but also feminist narratives are also present in your work, for example, your photography series Ritual. I think it is right to call you a feminist. Firstly, we would love you hear more about those female character and feminist narratives. Also we would very much like to learn more about how images, narratives, and feminism work in your practice.
SD: My Ritual photography series actually directly addresses the limitations of the male gaze by drawing on the concept of a “muse.” Since the series is made up of self-portraits, I created a place of power where I could unpack imagery of the female body which has been continuously exploited in art (and beyond) for centuries. I subverted traditional images of the female form as seen through the male gaze, specifically in the western painting cannon. I embedded a narrative arc structured by the central character’s journey through an esoteric ritual in the images so as to externalize her internal transformation from “her” to the version of “her” that the world values: her body, not her entire being.
With regards to film, all of my lead characters in my films have been female because as the old saying goes, write what you know. Female-centric stories are the stories I want to tell, at least for now. I think my natural inclination is to tell stories with truth in them. Since my stories are driven by female characters, each story becomes an examination of that character’s truth and their reality’s truth. In examining these characters and their ways of being in a complex and authentic way, I try to give a voice to female characters who previously had none. So often we see women represented in a one-dimensional way, or in a way that becomes an overt male fantasy. Women are so much more than that, which is why I want to tell stories that anyone can watch and connect with because of the ingrained truth in the narrative. I don’t mean true as “oh, that really happened,” I mean the kind of truth that communicates instinctually to the viewer.
I also make a conscious effort to populate my film crews with as many filmmakers who identify as female, Indigenous, Black, and POC. It is incredibly important to me as a female artist to support and collaborate with female artists and other marginalized groups, partially because merely 1% of top grossing American films had women and POCs in top positions on film sets, according to the annual celluloid ceiling report. We’re all in this together, and I actively want to support other filmmakers.
GdM: While film is all about teamwork, it looks like your photography run more along the lines of a practice in solitude. Am I right? How do you face one and the other?
SD: I think I can be a person of extremes, and that translates to my dual usage of film and photography. Right now, my photography work is very much practiced in solitude, or at least anonymity. Film is inherently collaborative so I am surrounded by people on set and working with them to create my vision. I think both arts balance me out.
GdM: With Ritual series in mind, it looks like you play the part of both the photographer and the model in your conceptual photography work. Am I mistaken?
SD: I do model in some of my work, including the Ritual series. I wouldn’t say my natural place is in front of the camera, but since I was taking the photographs, I felt comfortable modeling for myself. That series was very much about experimentation, so it felt right for me to model since the process included a lot of trial and error.
GdM: Goya, Matisse, Coppola, Dali, Titian, Fellini, Wilder, Caillebotte. Tell us more about influences.
SD: Yes, always to all of the artists you listed. You pretty much listed all of my favorites. I’ll stick with listing men and list my inspirational female artists next. P.T. Anderson, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Caravaggio, Brassaï, Henri Cartier Bresson, Luigi Ghirri, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Nikos Kazantzakis, John Singer Sargent, John Berger, Joseph Campbell. I could keep listing forever.
GdM: I will like to lay emphasis on your female influences.
SD: Definitely. There are so many. Agnés Varda, Sofia Coppola, Maya Deren, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Claire Denis, Jane Campion, Rachel Maclean, Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Vivane Sassen, Sophie Calle, Es Devlin, Cindy Sherman, Jane Austen, Edith Hamilton, Elizabeth Vigée LeBrun, Louise Brooks, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Isabel Allende, Patti Smith, Mary Oliver, Tarsila do Amaral, Leonora Carrington, Elizabeth Price. Once again, I could keep listing forever.
GdM: A show.
GdM: Something to read.
GdM: Something to listen to.
GdM: Something to watch.
SD: The Color of Pomegranates. It’s an incredible film, and not enough people know about it.
GdM: Provincetown International Film Festival is coming soon. Tell us a bit about it.
SD: I love PIFF. It’s one of my favorite film festivals. My film Self Creation is actually going to be in it this year, which I am so excited about. Provincetown is the oldest artist colony in the US, and it’s on the very tip of Cape Cod. The festival doesn’t have the pretention that a lot of the other well-known festivals in the US have. Everyone rides bikes around town, John Waters lives there year-round so he’s always hosting big parties and going to the films. The festival also hosts a Women’s Media Summit every year, and there’s a huge artist and LGBTQ population, so it feels like a very open and space place. They actually just expanded their Next Wave Award Program, which my piece is included in. The program features “filmmakers with shorts or features in the festival [and] filmmakers exploring other disciplines as a means to enhance their artistic prowess (books, visual arts, installation pieces).”
GdM: Lastly, tell us secret, upcoming projects.
SD: I’m shooting a film at the end of the summer that’s about the performative nature of human interaction. The piece utilizes a lot of flowers and continuous visual abstraction of the actor’s bodies. I’m excited about it.
Her photography has been exhibited and published internationally, and her short
films have been screened in the USA and abroad. Her work is now being screen
at M.A.D. Gallery, Milan, and it will be until November 2019. Soon, next June,
another one of her short films will take part in Provincetown International Film
Images courtesy of the artist.