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

Cindy Sherman – Contact

A new book by Jeannette Montgomery Barron presents a different, less fictionalised side of the American photographer 

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron

In some ways, we’re all familiar with the face of Cindy Sherman, an American photographer known for her self-portraiture adorned with wigs, prosthetics and elaborate makeup. For the last four decades, Sherman has turned an inquisitive eye onto the concept of identity, deconstructing its codes into varying pastiche of art, gender and self. 

In a conversation with John Waters for MoMa in 2012, she said, “I wish I could treat every day as Halloween, and get dressed up and go out into the world as some eccentric character.” So it’s somewhat fitting, then, that Jeannette Montgomery Barron would end up photographing Sherman on Halloween in 1985, an annual event that sees America congregate in partying mass and embellished in fancy dress. Jeannette was invited to Sherman’s studio in the city, and it was in this very moment that she sat herself in front of the camera as her own subject – revealing a face without all the typical costumes and fictional characterisations.

This was nearly 30 years ago, and the pictures have now been brought into light with a new book, Contact, published by NJG Studio. A compilation of 40 images and four contact sheets, the visual tome presents a different side of Sherman, as seen through the eye of Barron who’s known for capturing portraits of many notable names from New York City during the 80s. Below, I chat to Barron to learn more about this meeting.

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron

Having lensed many renowned personalities over the years, what was it that captivated you to photograph Cindy Sherman?

When these portraits were taken in 1985, I had already photographed many people in the art world. Cindy was an artist whose work fascinated me. I just really wanted to photograph her. 

How did the shoot come about; was she happy to be photographed?

I called her up on the phone and asked if I could photograph her – that’s the way it worked back then. If someone wasn’t home, I’d leave a message on their answering machine and they would hopefully call me back. 

She seemed happy to be photographed. I really hope she was. 

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron

Was there a specific reason for photographing on Halloween in 1985? Does this date have much significance?

I’m pretty certain the date, 31 October, was chosen randomly. And I never really thought about the significance of the date until recently. 

What was the art landscape like in New York at this time?

Well, you know, we all tend to romanticise the past. But I remember Soho still being a bit rough and wonderful back then. One vivid memory was walking around a corner onto West Broadway and always smelling fresh pepper; there were warehouses still down there.  

I’d always stop by and say hello to Mary Boone when I was downtown, and also pop across the street to Leo Castelli’s gallery. I had two good friends who moved to a loft in Tribeca in the early 1980’s. If you can imagine, there was not one grocery store down there back then; it was kind of like the wild west. 

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron

What can you tell me about Sherman’s real-life character and persona? And how did this compare with your expectations?

Cindy was very quiet and reserved as I recall. I’m not sure I expected her to be any other way, even though her work may have led one to expect differently.              

What was the process like; was it much of a collaboration between the two of you – between a photographer and subject? How exactly did you want to portray her in the photographs?

My process was always much the same: I would arrive exactly on time with my Hasselblad 500 C/M and usually Tri-x 400 film (although for these portraits I used Ilford film, which was unusual). I had two Lowel Tota Lights with stands I always brought along. And I always used a tripod for my Hasselblad. 

I would usually find a spot where I want to photograph the subject and move around a bit, getting closer, going further away. Then sometimes I would change location and go somewhere else in the studio or apartment. 

I wanted to portray Cindy as Cindy without all of the costumes on. I imagine that’s what she wanted too, since she answered the door in her normal clothes.  

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron

What’s it like looking back on this moment in time; how does it feel to revisit these pictures again?

I have to say it feels just like yesterday. It’s been great to rediscover some of the images I never printed before.  

And how do you hope your audience will respond to the work?

I hope it will be a fun ride for those who were not around in the 1980’s, and a blast from the past for those who were. 

© Jeannette Montgomery Barron
© Jeannette Montgomery Barron
© Jeannette Montgomery Barron