We've had our eye on Atlanta-based photograher and provocoteur Philip Bonneau for a while now, so it's no surprise to Geeks OUT that his third Heroes + Villains show, funded by Kickstarter and devoted to fairy tale and favorite childhood characters, is another exciting, big-hearted triumph. Heroes + Villains #3's November 16th opening gala at i. d. LAB brought in more than $5,000 for AID Atlanta, the largest AIDS service organization in the southeast.
After exploring the sexy and surprising sides of Marvel and DC heroes in his previous shows, Bonneau goes beyond superheroes to include Star Trek, Star Wars, He-Man and She-Ra, and a handful of Disney bitches. Once again, the racy, funny images play upon childhood favorites, twisting and twerking these iconic characters into over-the-top explorations of identity, sexuality, and gender.
GO: SO! Now that the pictures are hung and the party is over, the tritest question of all: How does it feel?
PB: LOL. No question is ever a trite question to ask and I believe you are the first to ask me that. Now that the show is up and has been unveiled it is definitely a great feeling. This was the first time I have truly hidden the pieces I was going to reveal for the show. Most of the models themselves did not even see their pictures chosen. There was definitely a sense of anxiety building up to the opening. I was truly going on what I felt to be right vs. what was popular based on views. With the show up and the reception very positive, if anything it seems like a giant weight has been lifted and for the first time in 5 months I am relaxing a bit.
I appreciate very much that you embrace escapism. It's such a pleasure to be excited, transported! How do the models react when they see the finished photos?
There were some that I was just waiting for them to come into the door to see their reactions. Funny how even through 5-600 people at the opening, I was still able to be there for most of the models initial reaction to the pieces. Overall, the models were very pleasantly surprised. Some even had to do double takes to make sure it was them. The transformations of some of these models was so incredible that their best friends or partners did know know it was even them. Once the models got to see the series as a whole, one or two even cried because they knew they were a part of something so much bigger than themselves and their individual shoot.
I know you've been asked this a lot, but what did the Kickstarter funds enable you to do or have for this third shoot that you didn't have before? Better cameras or film? Professional make-up?
Kickstarter really was a game changer for me. The amount I was asking for was in the scheme of things very very small for how large this show was going to be. From it I bought a more professional lens, better lighting equipment and was able to have a budget to really flesh out concepts and hire a makeup artist who was able to help translate the ideas that I just did not have the capacity to be able to do on my own. Prior to Kickstarter, I was doing these characters with a budget of 15-20 dollars, this changed the game to on average about 100 dollars for props. It was important for me to continue to have the challenge of working within a small means, but even with a little I was able to do a lot with this series. I think most of all though, the success of the kickstarter gave me a sense of confidence I may not of had before that people believed in what I was trying to do and supported me on the journey. I had strangers support me financially, artistically, and in other realms to see Heroes + Villains #3 come to life.
For H+V3, you opened the concept beyond comic book superheroes to include Disney fairy tale characters, Star Trek, and cartoon icons from the 80s such as the Smurfs, He-Man, and G.I. Joe. Can you tell me about the backstory behind a few of these in particular?
Sure, with the past two series focusing solely on Marvel and DC comics, for this issue I had to really open up my world of what is considered Heroes + Villains. If I did not it was going to be a rehash of characters already done or I would of started to get into obscure B and C characters of the comic world that would of made the whole show niche. By opening up to be pretty much anything from my childhood, it began to take a chance on something to make it a more universal appeal experience for everyone to see it. Not everyone read comics growing up, but everyone has seen a Disney cartoon and Star Wars. It was important to show the world fully expanding to whatever it was meant to be.
You've said that the alternate, comic book print of Uhura in the wig w/ the guys making out in the background was one of the most popular works from the show, but I love the quiet, regal grace of this one. I think the model really captured what a LADY Nichelle Nichols made her.
The Uhura shoot was really hard for me. It was the first time I was shooting a character portrayed by someone who is actually alive. Nichelle Nichols and Uhura are one. I knew going into what she represented to the African American community. I knew the story of how Martin Luther King, Jr. asked her to stay on the show when she wanted to leave. She represents strength and really rising from stereotypes. I loved her comic book print. Everything about it just worked as an image, but in the end I felt that it ultimately did what she never wanted to be... a stereotype. My Kirk model offered up his home for the shoot. He designed his entire downstairs based on Star Trek sets. You DO NOT pass up an opportunity to shoot in that environment. The image that was chosen for the actual show was done with the utmost respect to Nichelle Nichols and what she means for the black community. What I wanted to do with the image was transcend her original message and have it speak on some level to gay African Americans and about staying strong in being who you are. That ultimately is what Heroes + Villains is about. I believe it is still fairly taboo in the African American community to be gay and it is hard to come to terms accepting that with some. We did the whole shoot with the model with the wig, but both the model and decided in order to not be completely literal for the character she had to be bald, which was also a popular hairstyle in the 60s. In the end it just became this beautiful portrait that nails not only Uhura, but the message of strength and inspiration she gave to the community.
God knows I love an over-the-top bitchy 80s villiainess, and Baroness was one of my favorites. This demented tea party, what are you and the model exploring here?
You know growing up I was never really a G.I.Joe fan. I tried... I just never was. For me it was He-Man. You can definitely see that in this show. When I was not playing with my He-Man figures, I was stealing my sister's My Little Ponies and the few Barbies she owned (she actually HATED Barbie in every way possible).
Never had a Battlecat figure, but a My Little Pony was a nice substitute at times. I think growing up there were definitely boys out there that preferred to play with Barbies and tea sets instead of army men and war games. Pretty much always it is encouraged for them not to play with these toys. That they were to have a football and go blow up G.I. Joes. It would of been a missed opportunity if I did not include that in this particular issue. The Baroness, by definition is a wife to a baron and of some form of nobility. So I thought of the Barbies as her subject that during the shoot she would boss around. We even had her destroy some of them during the shoot, but in the end ultimately it was about finally letting boys play with Barbies.
Thor: What a transformation!
By Far, Thor was at the top of the list for transformation into a character. Once she turned around from the makeup chair I was blown away not only by her unexpected transformation, but had this feeling where I was like DAMN!!!!! It's Gandalf! I mis-cast it! She rocked it out as Thor. We did a whole normal photoshoot with her. This was the first character I had already explored before with a different model, so it felt almost rehashed for me. At the end of the shoot we decided to shoot these still shots of her unmasking because no one would believe it was a woman. When it came time to process and decide what image to put in the show I kept coming back to those final shots. That was the story. Unmask yourself and reveal who you are inside and out.
Nightcrawler, how beautiful! This guy's a professional aerialist who performed in character at the opening?
Nightcrawler was very special for me. It was definitely a more cerebral experience for his character and one that I always felt sorry for in the comics.Kurt was born different. Considered a demon and hated. Kurt was very spiritual and even was a priest. He never lost his faith in humanity to one day accept him. The model, Chris Knightes, is a professional aerialist that jumped at the chance when I asked him to be Nightcrawler. I mean even his last name has night in it. But what interested me in Chris most for the character was that he was first and foremost a performer. He got to live the dream of growing up and join the circus. How awesome is that? This was truly a collaborative effort between two artists and two different mediums. I wanted the spirituality of the character to come out when I shot him. I went through tons of music to get the right feel of what I was looking for and ultimately got lost on listening to "Space Weaver" by Lisa Gerrard. We based the whole shoot on the passion of the Christ with the final image that ended up in the show was the crucifixion of the demon for being different. The performance at the opening took it a step further where the crucifixion was the midway piece and then we went through his resurrection with Judas Priest's "Nightcrawler" blaring. It was the first time in the evening I cried just seeing it and knowing what it was, even if the performer and I were the only ones to understand the story.
And Disney! Maleficent, Snow White's wicked queen, Ursula, and Cruella DeVil—of them all, Maleficent is definitely the ultimate high-fashion evil diva.
One of the things I sought after with this show was to have more of a high-fashion look to these pieces. To me, high fashion is about creating this unbelievable outfits or props that just would not work in the real world and making them work somehow momentarily for the camera. For Maleficient's shoot it was those horns. Those horns were real 3 ft. animal horns I purchased from Africa that I proceeded to paint with metallics and purple...but how the hell do you get those to stay on someone's head? Needless to say I figured it out. The model was Edie Cheezeburger, the only professional drag queen in Atlanta to agree to be a part of my show. We had the advantage of seeing the early stills of Angelina Jolie as Maleficient, but in the end I think she pails a bit in comparison to what we came up with. It's almost like the cartoon came to life.
Your frequent and thoughtful, almost journal-like, updates really kept the project's donors plugged in to both your inspirations and the very real insecurities that accompany a self-taught artist as he blows up. Was this born naturally from a desire to stay connected to your supporters or were you really working through something in real-time?
I think it came down to just really being myself. With kickstarter, I was asking people to take a chance on me. Last thing I ever wanted to do was leave the donors to make this dream in the dark. I kind of tackled it as well I already got physically naked to see this come true...why not do the rest? I was told often to journal my thoughts prepping up to the show and I definitely did, publicly and privately. In the end if I was going to send a message that you can do anything you want if you have the strength to be yourself, I felt it best to represent that you never fully know if you are on the right path. There will always be doubt. There will be success and failure... but if you want a dream to come true you work past that. Some people have written me saying they love my work. They understand it more because when I write out my thoughts and my intent they start to understand me a bit and they can start to see the things I was trying to do that otherwise would of gotten lost. The opening was already a visual overload to handle, but with the updates I feel people were more prepared for what they were getting into.
Kickstarter update #49 read, in part: "In the end all that matters is that I live up to my promises to all of you. May 17th, 2012, I promised that there was going to be an evolution. I promised that I was going to create something special and different... not just for Atlanta, but for everyone." That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself! Based on the success of the opening and the public reaction to the show, how do you feel you did on that promise?
I've never asked for anything in my life—let alone money. When the kickstarter was going to fail I did what I had to in order to make it a success and was surprised by others that jumped on what I did to do that. For me having this funded was a gift. It was something that could not of happened without everyone else's help. I owed it to myself and to everyone to make sure I delivered on my promise. To me it was an integrity thing. Futhermore I was reminded of one particular person who I never met that got naked with a sign for me. She wrote, "When the whole world is watching and listening....what would you say to it?" Now I know the whole world was not watching, but I definitely had the attention of quite a few people. To me I really feel that Heroes + Villains can make a difference. I've tried to make it a difference and it has made a difference. I feel that I did everything I could of to deliver my promise. I know my models have been touched. I know that the show was a success and that if I am lucky, doors will continue to explore this passion of photography even further. The opening once again just solidified to me that I am not perfect, but I never try to be and people see that in my work and my embracement of it. The only negative I heard from the evening was it was too crowded. It was a giant warehouse space with over hundreds of people in it. I think I can rest in saying that I did what I sought out to do. Find myself, help others find themselves...and give the show back to the community and raise money for charity.
The Advocate loves and has twice featured your work; Fenuxe Magazine & Project Q, both local organizations, have heralded you as a notable Atlanta citizen; and I'm guessing a hoard of other curious and creative groups like us has taken notice of your work. How has the culmination of this project changed you?
I think it has changed me by making me feel like the random big girl from "Mean Girls" saying, " I just have a lot of feelings". I cry. I get overwhelmed at times. It truly is a blessing to have people supporting me and interested in my work. I think personally, I am not sure if I deserve it. But it definitely motivates me to stay on this path and just keep swimming. I'm humbled by it everyday. I used Heroes + Villains to help rediscover who I am and to escape to a happy part of my mind. All the press received has just helped me understand that there is something good there and that I am not alone in wanting to escape from time to time.
Heroes + Villains #3 was ultimately very, very successful, correct, in terms of fundraising? Tell us about the Atlanta Cotillion?
It definitely was. We raised about $5,000 on opening night for charity. Atlanta Cotillion is just a small faction of AID Atlanta, the ultimate beneficiary to the show. I've donated my design services to Atlanta Cotillion for over 5 years now and they were the ones that really pushed me to explore photography so many years ago. What I love about the Atlanta Cotillion and why it was important to have them be the beneficiaries was because when the organization was created 11 years ago, it was created to give people a chance to be themselves. All year long debutantes raise money for charity and then it all ends with the crowning of the new queen of Cotillion, which was always in drag. The concept for the cotillion echoes Heroes + Villains....allow a space for people to be themselves without fear of being persecuted.
Part of what Geeks OUT is about is the empowerment of the queer geek community wherever it's found. I know Atlanta has a reputation as something of a queer oasis in the deep South, but is there a queer geek community? What's that scene like?
We are the home of Dragon.con. There is definitely a queer geek community present here. We have a couple weekends dedicated totally for it. I forget off the top of my head the name of it, but I recall it being something fairly large. What is awesome about dragon.con in particular and what I try to echo in my own work is that both embrace love for the characters in comics, movies etc. Most do not care at all if you are gay or straight. Seeing a city overrun by fiction for a single weekend is truly one of the coolest things to experience. All are always welcome.
Without giving the haters too much attention, you did say in our back and forth that you've received your share of shitty hate mail. There's so much joy in your work and it doesn't have anything to do with anyone else. What's not to like?
You know. You were right. Call it artistic doubt at the time. If there were haters this time, they kept it to themselves. No doubt as the images are now online, there will be talkback about the images. But I just stressed in my artist statement for this show is that it is never about sexuality. I try to represent and focus on people's individuality. The past 2 shows have been kind of clumped together to be called the gay superheroes. When this one hit, I think people are still trying to figure it out a bit, but it's hard to call it just gay. There are definitely gay elements in it, but thats how it is supposed to be and I think that people are starting to see that in this body of work. To me personally, gay art has mostly come to just be categorized as homoerotic work. If the model is hot, he must be shirtless. He must be in his underwear and must be in some embrace with someone. If you are a gay artist, that's kind of how it feels you are told to be. I've challenged people on that in this series. For me what I think the evolution of gay art should be and what I think it should be is more about the individuality. But then again I also try to do human art vs. gay art. The sex shock is no longer taboo. Seeing two men kiss is not unusual. What is unusual is people revealing who they are on the inside and what their dreams may or may not be. There will be those that see a single image of mine and throw me into that category. I try not to think about those that hate on my work, but then again...if they are hating on it...they stopped to noticed it. But I am very anti-bullying and these people all put themselves out there to be photographed like this. It's hard for me to bite my tongue when criticism is not about my work, but calling one of the models ugly. They are all beautiful.
I was excited to read that you're ultimately hoping to publish a book of the completed Heroes + Villains project. I can totally see it. Have you considered self-publishing? It could be another phenomenal Kickstarter campaign.
I have not looked into the specifics of printing the book yet. But definitely will leave almost all cards on the table to do so...even if it is kickstarter. For me the first go round with kickstarter took so much out of me to see become a reality. But I did it because there was geniunely a need for it and to see a dream come true. My artwork has always pretty much paid for itself and I feel that when the time is right, it will be right. There is a chance to publish the kickstarter updates, talk about each shoot and really explore what already has over 100+ characters. I definitely want to see it come to life, but it's something I feel almost overindulgent for kickstarter to see it come to life.
I know you've got exciting plans already in the works for what's after H+V #3, as well as a well deserved break, but let me put you on the spot for something. Last March, Geeks OUT held a very successful art show and fundraiser called Takei Back the Night, wherein we anointed and celebrated George Takei as a bona fide queer geek icon on the occasion of his 75th birthday. More than 30 artists submitted original works inspired by Mr. Takei's legacy and persona and the works were raffled off as the climax to the evening. Next March, we're doing it again, this time as Dream Weaver, celebrating Sigourney Weaver for her unparalleled contributions to sci-fi cinema and her longtime advocacy for the LGBT community. We're asking our artist friends to participate by giving us an original work to include in the show. Do you have a favorite Sigourney Weaver moment and would your schedule allow you to participate? I, for one, would LOVE to see what you could do with Dana Barrett from Ghostbusters, Ellen Ripley from the Alien movies, or the Director from Cabin in the Woods!
You had to throw this in there didn't you?! That's one way to take me off break so soon. Sigourney Weaver is one of my all-time favorites, not to mention Ghostbusters being my favorite movie of all time. I absolutely would be honored to give it a shot. If anything it would also give me an excuse to visit NYC. I definitely will have to start considering models for it as there is a good chance that Lt. Ripley or Dana may make it into the final Heroes + Villains.
Select (big, beautiful) prints from the Heroes + Villains #3 gallery show can be found in Bonneau's etsy store, just in time for Christmas!