She is blessed with the ability to transmit beauty from either side of the camera, dates a rock star, and is one of the biggest models in the world. But Helena Christensen is not above life’s petty annoyances. “Oh my god, I just spent 10 minutes in a cab that was playing one long, new-age jazz fusion number,” she says, her piercing green eyes fiery with rage, as she strides into Dactyl Foundation gallery to discuss her current photography show “Far From, Close” (up until the end of January; she’s pictured above with Dactyl’s Neil Grayson). “It was a live concert, so people were yelling and clapping the whole way through. It was so bad, I literally wanted to leave the cab.” After that harrowing journey from her West Village digs, the Danish beauty, dressed head-to-toe in black, sits down to chat and notices her fly is down. “I’m always doing that!” she says with a laugh.
The show has a quiet power and meditative quality about it. I cannot meditate or do anything of that sense with myself, but it’s nice to know I’m doing it with my work. I really find it peaceful to take photographs, but there is no way I can just sit down and zone myself out.
Is your brain always hyperactive? Totally. My body might not be, but my brain is. It’s pretty hectic in there.
Where do these images come from? A lot of them are from my home country, Denmark. Then there are a lot of from upstate — from very calm areas. I didn’t set out to shoot these for something specific. I just selected the ones that had that calm to them.
Are they all your residences? The ones in upstate New York and in Denmark are my little cottages, but the others are just nature that I happened to pass by.
Where is your place upstate? Near Phoenicia.
It makes me so curious to hear you say that you can’t really have a meditative quality in your own life. I can’t. I can’t switch it off. Literally from when I get up until I go to bed.
These photographs feel like individual meditations to me in a way. I like that so many of them are one being in expansive surroundings. I did have a psyche in mind of people that you can’t really identify with. They are so far away, and most of them are turned away so they become part of the scenery. For me, it’s healthy to define a photograph by whether I would like it hanging on my wall. I don’t want to look at something that’s too intense every day. I want it to put me in a state of calm, and for it to be something that doesn’t create a whole lot of emotions inside of me, but makes me feel mellow. I find it so exciting that you can literally shoot anything and create different emotions for the viewer, but when it’s about hanging them on the wall, I think people make definite choices of, “Okay, what do I want to look at?” I like old school paintings, because they’re all pretty calm and mellow, and I like faded colors.
What kind of old school paintings? Well, I really like portrait paintings by Egon Scheile and Lucien Freud. I bought a painting yesterday from the antique market on 26th Street from the 1920s, and it’s literally just houses and nature. And that, to me, is just perfect. I like when it’s serene and the colors are tones that I would want to paint my wall with. Of the photography that I have hanging on my walls, the ones that are of humans have their faces cut off. I do not want to look at something that’s too personal.
What else inspires you? I really love spaces. I love lines and texture. If you saw my apartment, you would also understand, in a way. There’s a lot going on. I think that the photography is a little oasis of calm in the midst of all the chaos.
What’s your apartment like? I collect. I’m always finding little pieces. I have a job that, for many years, I did nothing but travel, and I would just pick up objects along the way. I’m very, very attracted to curious objects. Textures, colors. Things that make you wonder why you like them, and make you want to analyze. I have a lot of strange objects, but at the end of the day, all of them together make me feel very happy. The way that they’re all working together is very harmonious to me, and I really feel like I’m at home in the midst of my objects. Everything I look at makes me happy. There are a lot of things that get thrown at us during the day that makes us feel pretty damn depressed. The media, newspapers …
New Age music in a cab? That made me seriously down. If I had been on my way home, I would have just run up and immediately thought, “This makes me happy. I can forget about that confusion.”
It’s interesting that you say you don’t want to focus on the faces in your own photography. Does that have anything to do with being a model and being the focus? It may be in a way, but I think in terms of magazines, there is some intense face staring at you on every page. That’s been my job for the last 18 years. I don’t want any limits to anything in my photography. I want to have all of the emotions to be there. I want to feel moved or aggravated or somehow, I want it to touch me. This is only one side of my work, I could have picked photos where there’s more aggression in people’s faces, or where it’s more intense. That will be the next show. So, we’ll meet here again in a couple of years and we’ll talk about how I really love the aggravated faces on the wall.
The landscapes are the focus of many of these pieces. I really like catching moments. I guess a lot of these are more the stillness of the world, of life. Nature always evolves, but it always goes back to the same, and that for me is an important ideal. I envy nature. It dies in the winter and it comes straight back. I know people who believe in reincarnation would say, “Well, that’s what we do.” But we’re meant to become ashes first. We really have to die. A tree will still stay standing and then start blooming again. If I choose to look at it pessimistically, I would think, “Then how the hell do we know if we’re gonna come back or not?” And, “Who says we’re going to come back as what we want to come back as?” But, a tree always comes back to itself. Maybe I’ll come back as a tree in my next life, and I’ll be happy.
What motivated you to take pictures in the first place? I was just shooting like everyone else does. When I started traveling a lot with my work, it became really interesting because I would go to places all over the world and just wanted to capture visually where life took me. It was very hectic for a long time, and this was my way of stopping moments, and freezing seconds for later on. I’m very fascinated by the whole technical side behind photography where you can freeze one moment and put it down in a flat piece of paper and keep it forever. That’s why photography is more inspiring to me than moving images. I’ve never actually picked up a video camera and filmed anything.
What do you shoot with? I think there are seven or eight different methods in here alone. Polaroid camera, Pentax, Lyca, my mobile phone, and Holga.
What’s next for you? I’m working with the Opus people, who make the huge special-edition books. Over 60 percent of the images have never been seen before. We’re working on a book on Dubai. I went to Dubai to photograph his Excellency, the Sheikh, riding horses in the desert, and then I went up into the largest tower in the world — 163 floors. The next book is on Ferrari, so I’ll go to Italy to the Ferrari factory where Enzo Ferrari created the first models.
Are you interested in cars? I’m into vintage cars. I’m going to have a hard time buying a modern car at some point. I like the organic shape and the colors of older cars. For the Ferrari shoot, I’m thinking: nature, garden, factory. I want the juxtaposition of something industrial in the middle of Enzo’s grounds. I’ve proposed to them that I want to shoot at dusk so I get the car almost as if it’s in a painting.
Do you ever go on tour with your boyfriend, Paul Banks of Interpol? Do you do any rock and roll photography? I’ve shot many of my friends that are musicians. I’ve gone away with them and taken photographs as I follow on tour. It’s always interesting to shoot because it’s the same scenery — in a way — but always different. You get different reactions with people in the audience. I did shoot Interpol a lot on their last tour.
Where is home for you? I am in the West Village. For ten years. I was lucky to get Jim Dines’s work studio, ten years ago. He had it with Diana Michener — who’s an amazing photographer. I walked into the space, and all of their artwork was hanging up on the walls. I said, “Wow, these people are really good.” Not knowing it was them, and I thought, “I hope they leave something.”
Did they leave anything? Not even a paint spot anywhere. Have you seen the exhibition of Jim at the Pace Wildenstein gallery? It’s really inspiring. He is a very productive older artist. There’s not one empty space on the walls. It’s all over, covering everything, even the ceilings. I went straight from the exhibition to hang my own and I asked, “Should we hang something from the ceiling?” Mine is the complete opposite, so for a moment there I was like, ‘”Maybe we’ll just take all the objects from my home and hang them.” And I thought to myself, “Calm down, this is one thing and that is another. And maybe next time we could just do a show with things hanging from the ceiling.”
It’s good to take a step back sometimes. Like Paul actually said yesterday, “You have to sacrifice your children sometimes.” Meaning, sometimes with something that seems like a great idea or that could be some great work of yours, you just have to go away from it and show something else. He was doing that with a song. And I said, “I’m sure a woman didn’t say that.” You know, you have to sacrifice your children sometimes. There’s some kind of beauty in sacrificing something so profound. But what the hell.
All profits from Helena Christensen’s show go to CCPI Chernobyl Children’s Project International and The Point; additional works will be available soon on CharityBuzz.com to help support these two children’s organizations.