Monday January 14th, 2013
by Maria Luci
Always on the lookout for interesting photography, I recently stumbled upon a series from Wonderful Machine photographer Cheyne Gallarde that made me look twice. Cheyne has taken on an ongoing self portrait project, but what made his series stand out from the others was that, instead of being himself in his images, Cheyne transforms into a “kaleidoscope of characters”. He calls the project “Universe of One” and he creates each character himself, using just make up and costumes without computer effects. Cheyne’s characters range from Mayans to Mary of Nazareth and just about everyone in between. This ambitious series has caught more than just my eye, and will soon be featured in an interview on Tumblr (which, of course, will include a photo of Cheyne as Tumblr CEO David Karp) and is also being turned into a self-published book. But before all that happened, I got in touch with Cheyne to interview him myself. Enjoy!
Where did the idea for Universe of One come from?
It started as a self-portrait project, with me shooting images that convey how I was feeling at particular moments. I got bored shortly after the first month of doing introspective pictures. With so many talented and young photographers out there doing the same thing in the form of 365 projects, you really need to be mega-creative or mega-popular to stand out—so I stopped taking self portraits for a while. After I took an impromptu trip to the SFMOMA to see the Cindy Sherman exhibit, my creative spirit was rejuvenated and the project evolved into something more magnificent. The real turning point happened when I threw vanity out the window and made the pictures less about me and more about individual characters that inhabit this universe.
What did you hope to accomplish with this project?
The goal of the overall project is pretty ambitious. The Universe of One is a conceptual way to link humanity—to showcase how we are so different, yet so similar in a lot of ways. Personally, my goal is to try and stretch imaginations by being as many different people as I possibly can. Cindy Sherman rarely did male characters, but here I am doing both male and female characters!
How do you decide which characters to portray?
When I first started the project, I would look at ethnic stereotypes or historic icons as starting points—so anyone from a Rembrandt painting to Nikola Tesla was ripe for impersonating.
Currently, I try to work in “sets” or “themes” in which all the portraits created during the week have a common thread linking them. Sometimes they’re topical like the Native American series I did in honor of Thanksgiving, but the majority are made up as I go along. Now I’m starting to poll the fans to learn what they’d like to see—and they’ve come up with some great challenges, which I love!
Who handles makeup and wardrobe?
I do all my own wardrobe and makeup. I have experience in production design since I style all the shoots for Firebird Photography assignments, but makeup was something I needed to teach myself. I am currently addicted to reality shows like “Rupaul’s Drag Race” and “Face Off” on Syfy, which are both great resources for transforming myself. Because the makeup and wardrobe can be so heavy, most of the time I’m shooting these portraits in my underwear! It works out since most of my portraits are from the waist up anyhow.
What has the response been? Are there any portraits that have particularly stood out?
The response has been very positive! Complete strangers have even commented that I’m a modern-day Cindy Sherman, which is extremely flattering. Each time I post a photo, people say it’s their favorite—until I post the next one! It’s pretty neat to sense anticipation from people waiting to see what I will do next.
Which has been your favorite portrait so far?
This is going to sound cliché, but I love all the portraits I’ve shot! Getting into character for each photo breathes life into them and it makes me proud to be them. I can say, however, that I am most proud of ones where I look like an entirely different race—you have no idea how difficult it is to transform this brown asian boy into a blonde-haired, fair-skinned caucasian girl!
What is your plan for the photos?
I currently have a photo exhibit scheduled in March 2013, and of course the book coming out in February. To date, the project is almost 200% funded with more people backing every day! The book will include all of the photos shot in 2012 as well as a special section where I dress up as the people who backed my book on Kickstarter. The promise of me doing a caricature of backers has been the biggest draw. I’m pretty excited to pose as them for a photo too because I know most of them and they’re a visually diverse bunch!
Have you faced any challenges creating this project?
Each set of portraits comes with its own unique set of challenges. For example, one of the upcoming themes is “End of Days”, which are portraits inspired by the Ancient Mayans, so I am working on elaborate headdresses and jewelry for those portraits. One of the perpetual challenges has been pressing the shutter timer, then running into frame and conveying a deep emotion before the shutter clicks!
Have you learned anything through working on Universe of One?
I learned about all the beautiful intricacies of faces — from the slightest wrinkle to the way someone smiles, it all contributes to the uniqueness of people’s faces. I really wish people saw themselves as others do, because then they’d appreciate their unique traits and wouldn’t try to change them.