Orejarena & Stein

What’s it really like working with your other half? A photographer and video artist discuss

Andrea 2020

Some could say that working with your other half is as polarising as Marmite; it can either break or make you, with half thriving on its divisive flavour while the other forever steering clear. For two creatives Caleb Stein and Andrea Orejarena (aka Orejarena & Stein), their partnership is like spreading it on toast; it’s a logical pairing and natural mediation between communication, flexibility and a shared vision (to name a few benefits). Caleb, on the one hand, is a photographer who was born in London. He lived in New York for a decade before moving to Poughkeepsie in 2013 to study at Vassar College, which is where he met Andrea. He’s gone on to explore many wondrous and timely topics such as memory, mythology and narrative in relation to the United States. Meanwhile, Andrea is a Colombian-born American video artist who looks at play, fantasy and the American dream. Combined, they’re a powerhouse. And their ongoing project Andrea is pinnacle of that. 

Ever since their first meeting in university, Caleb has continued to take Andrea’s portrait. And what first started out as a documentation of their time together – not to mention the early stages of their relationship – soon evolved into a long-term collaboration between them both, aptly named Andrea. Below, I chat to Caleb and Andrea to find out more about the series and, more importantly, what working with each other is really like.

Andrea 2018

I’d love to begin by hearing about how you both met.

Andrea: It was great. We met on our first day of our freshman year at Vassar College. Caleb’s mother was dropping him off at the dorms. She flagged me down and asked if I could show them the dining hall. I happened to know where it was and I walked them over. When we arrived she said, “good I’ll stay here, and now can you show my son to his dorm?” It was hilarious. 

Caleb: She’s a yenta.

What’s the process like while working together? What roles do you take on, and how is it split?

A: We move fluidly between roles, without rigidity. We are working towards a shared vision, making something emergent that neither person could make on their own, something that could only be made between those two people. In terms of the physical act of photographing or filming, we are both involved in all of the decisions. The conceptual framework for the work stems from long term, in deep exchanges with each other. People often ask us who clicks the shutter (we both do). We pass the camera between each other and we never have two cameras on site.

C: That fluidity is very important, it allows us to remain open. In many ways, working as an artist duo is an exercise in questioning conservative (but still widespread) conceptions of authorship, and it’s an effort to move away from an individualistic, ego-driven practice towards something more collaborative and meditative. 

Andrea 2021

Tell me about your ongoing series, Andrea. What’s it about, and what stories are you hoping to share?

A: Andrea is a selection of portraits made as an artist duo. When we first met, Caleb began photographing me in passing and I wouldn’t mind or give it much attention. I grew up with my father recording every moment—we have hours and hours of Wiseman-style footage— so I am comfortable with the camera and I forget it is there quite easily. Eventually, for some reason, I started getting interested in the photos Caleb was taking of me. Then I started having opinions about them, and then, when he continued to ask for feedback, started directing him with the photography in the same way I directed him as the cinematographer for my videos. He’d take his photo, then we’d give it my take, then we bounce off each other’s ideas until it snowballed into a photo we both loved. The collaboration started quite smoothly and it took us a second to realise it was happening. There was a moment where it began to blur between Caleb asking me for advice, and me becoming invested in the formal aspects of the photograph from an auteur perspective. That crossing of the blurred line was what interested us. Blurring these lines is a way of challenging and subverting the male gaze and the long history of men photographing their partners. 

C: Yes, that’s an important aspect of the project – pushing back against a one-sided, only-male perspective. The photographs are made as a collaboration with a realtime, live monitor facing Andrea so that we can both contribute in equal parts to the final image. In other words, all of the creative decisions about the image, including the post-production process, are made as an artist duo. 

A & C: We are interested in questioning the traditional idea of who has a say in how their image is made. This work is also a personal archive intended to function as a set of lyrical, personal documents of our creative and romantic partnership.

Andrea 2018

What’s it like switching from photographer to model?

A I get to skip the step where I have to articulate a creative concept because I am directing myself. Caleb and I basically read each other’s minds so that doesn’t count either. In some ways, this work is a self-portrait, but made as an artist duo. I feel comfortable moving between the roles and blending the two. Apart from anything else, it’s a fun way to make work as an extension of our relationship. It’s also a natural extension of our life; we’re always photographing and filming, so this work comes about, just by living and embracing life. 

Can you share any stories or anecdotes from working on this series?

A: The curtain?

C: That’s a good one.

A: Ok, so, probably one of the first photos that I asked Caleb to make with my ‘take’ was of me behind a curtain. He was photographing me with my hand sticking out and then I asked him to take one for me, where I totally hid behind the curtain and then called it a self-portrait. We thought it was hilarious and had a lot of fun with this and then this opened up to us collaborating in making the photo of me behind the curtain with my face showing and looking directly at the camera. 

C: We were on the floor laughing about this. It was just a photo of a curtain, no one in sight. Very “conceptual”.  

Is it ever difficult working with your partner?

C: No! 

A: Not at all. There’s no thin ice.

What are the benefits?

A: We trust each other very much. Living life and making art get mixed together in a way I’m drawn to.

C: As am I. We talk about this often, and it feels like our love for each other finds a way into the work. 

A: Making work can take many forms, but we’re both interested in working from a place of love. That’s what it’s all about. 

Andrea 2020

What advice would you give someone who’s looking to work with their partner?

C: Listen to each other and let go of your ego as much as possible, it will open up into something rewarding and surprising. 

A: Have fun with it, don’t compromise – keep talking and debating until you both have a shared epiphany, then move forward with this decisively and with energy. 

What’s next for you both?

A: We are working on our next project American Glitch, which is a look at the slippage between fact and fiction and how this manifests in the American landscape. We are traveling to every state in the U.S. and living out of our car for the next year. We’ll also continue to work on Andrea throughout the year. 

Andrea 2020
Andrea 2021
Andrea 2020
Andrea 2020
Andrea 2021

Photography courtesy of Orejarena & Stein

Tony

Photographer and filmmaker Timi Akindele-Ajani sheds light on his latest short, a monochromatic display of a photographer struggling with money

“Fuck it, let’s make a film,” thought Timi Akindele-Ajani, a photographer and filmmaker based in London, while devising the story for his latest short Tony. With a spontaneous energy brewing in his bones, Timi called in some favours and proceeded to build a film with all that was available, with little to no budget. The result of which is an anxiety-inducing yet effectively simple display of a photographer who’s struggling to pay their rent.

The story is something that many can relate to; it’s the end of the month, the bank is dry, and if you don’t pay then the landlord is going to evict you. The tension rises quickly, so you write a list and call up some people who might be able to help you out. Meanwhile, you’re rushing to edit the images for a client due on the same day. Calls and calls later and you reach no conclusion, and the client won’t accept your work. You call your dad to let him know that you can’t send him the money this month. What now?

Tony follows the everyday struggle of a creative – a character so developed and relatable that many are bound to feel something from this narrative. As Timi explains, it’s a visual and empathetic inquest into the “complicated nature of humanity,” particularly shining a light onto the stigma of money and financing. Before developing the film, Timi binged all he could on the Canadian filmmaker Joel Haver, landing on his YouTube page to watch a self-distributed indie feature named Pretend That You Love Me. “I was so inspired by his own ‘fuck it, let’s make a film’ energy that I just dove head first into this project.” Sometimes, though, the best results can come from endeavours less planned and thought through.

Timi has built a healthy career telling tales of human nature, pointing his lens at the intricacies – the social, political and cultural – of life around him. “I like to tell stories that complicate people who appear easy to judge at first glance,” he says. “For me, something interesting happens at the intersection between dramatic situations and complex people. When these two elements interact, you get an amazing opportunity for empathy.” This becomes paramount throughout the breadth of his work, notably within his personal projects like the past film The Dynamics of Black Single Motherhood. An audio and visual exhibition comprising portraits and a 40-minute film, the project highlights the challenges of being a Black single mother in the UK, using his visual platform to empathetically tell the stories and experiences of his subjects. 

As for his latest release, Tony, it’s a project that first blossomed a few years back in 2017. It was while Hana Elias and himself co-directed Cora Kirkthe actress who plays Malaya in Tony – in a small experimental film shot in a “real run-and-gun way”, i.e. using one camera, no script and no budget. “Just three mates with an idea type of thing.” The film never lifted off but the trio had unleashed a free and “uninhibited” method of working, which is something that became even more desirable after the gruelling year of 2020. “I was keen to see if we could make something using the same techniques but with a bit more structure.” 

Thereon, Timi contacted Rosa Kimosa, girlfriend and co-writer on the film, to assist with the story. Shot during the second edition of lockdown and over the course of a weekend in November, it required little shoot time or production for the making. In fact, Cora and Timi were the only crew members on the two shoot days. “All the other actors joined us via Zoom,” he notes. “But because it was just Cora and I, we both had to wear many hats. I did the camera and sound, alongside directing, while Cora did costume and continuity, as well as absolutely smashing it as the lead in the film.”

As mentioned prior, Tony follows an impeccably simple format: it’s shot entirely in black and white, and follows the protagonist as she embarks on many awkward calls made from her desk. Emphasis is placed entirely on the character; you become so heavily intwined in her life and turn of events, that it’s almost as if you’re there with her in the scene, equally experiencing the ups and downs of the photographic journey. “Interesting characters are extremely hard to write,” he says, citing how he wanted to avoid the typical cliches of a photographer. “One of the ways to make that process easier on yourself is to draw from your own life and the people around you. When you see photographers in films, they’re always kind of embarrassing, it almost feels like they’re being written by someone who’s never actually taken a photo in their life; camera swinging from their neck, performing ballet to ‘capture the moment in amber’. I wasn’t interested in that.”

Rather, Timi steers the focus to the graft and struggles of the photographer, illustrating the exact moment when the client isn’t happy with the work and shedding light on a gruelling moment of not being able to pay your rent. “Both of these things I have deep personal experience with, so I won’t go as far as to say that the character of Malaya is based on me or anything like that, but you have to write from what you know.”

Tony marks Timi’s first short film created since 2016, and plenty has changed since then. Learning hard truths about himself and settling into his own identity, his films nowadays tend to have much more to say, just like the polarising and convoluted topic of money. “For me, it’s less about breaking down the stigma around money and more about complicating the conversations that surround it,” he adds. “The goal with all of my films is to present the inherently complicated nature of humanity or the human experience. And money or finances are a huge part of that experience. Money is only ever really spoken about within the context of dichotomy, you either have it or you don’t. I wanted to examine that and show people how that view is just too simplistic.”

Timi’s film Tony can be watched below.

Cast:
Malaya – Cora Kirk
Paul – Samuel Rintoul
Lydia – Estrella Mabika
Vicky – Lauren Drennan
+44 – Gavin Dunn
Louis – Miles Paloma
Tony – John Vernon

Written by: Timi Akindele-Ajani & Rosa Kimosa

Shot, directed & Edited by: Timi Akindele-Ajani

Julian Schnabel: New York’s Renaissance Man

Port meets the Brooklyn-born artist, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, father and man about town during an afternoon at his home and studio Even if you don’t know who lives there, the home and studio of the painter Julian Schnabel is a familiar sight for denizens of downtown Manhattan. As the West Village stretches out toward the water, a pale pink tower rises out of blocks of low apartment buildings and townhouses. This is Palazzo Chupi, a residence that Schnabel designed and built in 2009, so called after the nickname of his second wife, Olatz López Garmendia. The structure, with its stepped-back floors, curved windows and arabesque arcades, resembles a cross between a modern condo and a medieval castle in Convivencia Spain. 

To visit Schnabel, one must first make a procession through Palazzo Chupi’s imposing wooden doors on the ground floor and into a tall, dark elevator that features a wall-size mirror, pointed ceiling and a woven bench, in high Gothic style. The doors open on to a sudden mirage, or so it seems: a room of billowing red velvet curtains, stone tiles and enormous paintings covering every available patch of wall – the domain of a deposed monarch in exile perhaps, or one of the best-known and yet least-understood living artists in the world.

Two summers ago, Schnabel was visiting the cemetery where Van Gogh is buried, in Auvers-sur-Oise, to the north of Paris. ‘There were these rose bushes with these pink roses, and there’s this black wall around the cemetery that had little white stones in it,’ he says. The scene provided the impetus for some dozen paintings, which hang, stately, at Pace, like a room of Monets at the Museum of Modern Art, pre-historicised. ‘There’s a work ethic in these paintings, a paintedness that is a very old-fashioned way of being a painter.’

The grandeur of Schnabel’s current surroundings and the Pace exhibition is all part of the artist’s carefully cultivated mystique. As a representative icon of 1980s New York City painting, in all its excesses, and the mascot of the neo-expressionist wave that preoccupied painters at the time, these days the artist is famous for being famous. The New York Times called him “the carnival man of contemporary art” as far back as 1982. Schnabel and his several ex-wives and art-world model girlfriends, and his now-adult children – son Vito and daughter Stella – have been mainstays of the society pages ever since. 

Another factor has increased Schnabel’s public notoriety. He leveraged his fame into Hollywood as well, tapping friendly actors and funding films with his own fortune. The results, movies like Basquiat (in which Bowie plays Warhol) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, display a unique visual sensibility. A new film project will explore the life of his most recent inspiration, Van Gogh, succeeding his paintings.

Yet Schnabel’s new rose period presents a mystery. These are quiet, contemplative paintings, more introverted than anything Schnabel has done in decades. What happened to the bad boy of the 80s, the builder of pink towers, the unrepentant enfant terrible of the art world?

Schnabel’s salon, the room where I meet him, is hung with paintings from the various phases of his long career: an autobiographical solo exhibition that continues throughout his home, hung between eclectic artefacts like a toreador costume and a Chinese idol. In the kitchen is an inchoate work from the 70s, a dark canvas fixed with shelf protrusions and painted with wandering lines, somewhere between neo-expressionism and Arte Povera. Two of the more recent series much in evidence are the ‘Navigation Drawings’, maps with sweeps of thin, translucent paint; and the ‘Goat’ paintings, in which a photograph of a stuffed version of the titular animal is set against a swatch of 19th-century wallpaper and daubed once more.

The rose pieces represent another turn. Schnabel reclines on one side of a long couch and I sit in a throne-like chair beside it, positioned like a therapist to his patient, but the painter gestures for me to sit with him. He eases back further. ‘I want things to be able to be different and address other things, rather than make the same thing over and over,’ he says, gesturing at the work around him.

When talking to artists, there are certain patterns that emerge, no matter what kind of work the artist makes, no matter how famous or obscure they are. One is that they don’t like to be tied to their influences, even if they are undeniable art historical reference points. Hence Schnabel’s dismissal of my initial suggestion of Cy Twombly as a comparison for his rose paintings. Schnabel is a fan of the late painter, whose play between figuration and abstraction his own work echoes, but Twombly’s flowers aren’t his favourite, he says. 

Another reality of conversations with artists is that any attempt to describe their work to them will inevitably fail. This constant falling-short brings to mind the paradox of trying to interpret art in the first place: the experience of viewing it is never the same, nor often remotely similar, to the process of making it, of having your nose up to the canvas and your brush in the paint. The piece often doesn’t mean to its viewer what it means to its creator. ‘You’re doing something and people are all around you, but they don’t see what you see and they don’t know what you’re doing,’ Schnabel says. 

It’s this gap that the artist hopes to represent in his film about Van Gogh, now that he has put an end to the rose series, he says. He can let the audience in on the process of art-making from the painter’s perspective, even as the characters in the movie remain distant from it. Showing the reality of Van Gogh’s life and work seems to be a way for Schnabel to reconcile his own fame with the fact of his ongoing artistic practice, though his own career couldn’t be more different than the post-Impressionist’s – Schnabel has sold far more than one canvas in his lifetime. 

‘The movie’s about painting. Van Gogh as a human being has been highly mythologised; his death and his ear have been mythologised. It would be nice to make a movie about a guy everybody thinks they know about, but maybe they might be surprised,’ Schnabel says. Over the course of our conversation he pauses for longer and longer moments, either fighting sleep or diving into an inner landscape, imagining the work to come.

By this point, the long afternoon has overtaken the city, the sunlight is starting to dim, and Vito’s living room is hushed and enclosed, an unreal space filled with the living detritus of culture. The roses, to offer up my own paltry interpretation, are an effort to seek solace in the rush of time, a way to begin to find a place in history, if there is one to be found. That the blooms the paintings depict will fade is inevitable, but Schnabel has captured them, to set against every image of every flower that will ever be made by an artist. Here is his enduring offering. 

‘Painting seems to last a long time. It’s a wonderful refuge. The painted world is a place where you can reside outside of the world of everything else,’ Schnabel says, and pauses for the longest time, reclining flat on the couch, eyes closed, searching for something internal and then coming back up with it, a vulnerable twinge in his voice communicating a universal ache. ‘In there, there’s a great freedom. Obviously, there’s this crazy relationship with eternity. It’s a denial of death.’

This article is taken from Port issue 20. To subscribe, click here.

Photography by Michael Avedon
Styling by Dan May