Blind Magazine : photography at first sight
Photography at first sight
Close this search box.
Elsa and Johanna: Self-Portraits in Limbo

Elsa and Johanna: Self-Portraits in Limbo

The French artist duo known as Elsa & Johanna are releasing their first photographic book for H2L2 editions: a series of self-portraits staged in the city of Calgary in Canada, for which they are seeking support through crowdfunding.

“Cochrane”, Beyond the shadows, © Elsa & Johanna

Staging as a language

“We love to tell stories. Beautiful, sad, unreal, realistic, autobiographical, fictitious, aesthetic, banal stories.” It was through this shared passion for these fundamental principles that Elsa Parra and Johanna Benaïnous met in New York, in 2014, on the benches of the School of Visual Arts. Elsa had studied at the School of Decorative Arts of Paris, while Johanna was a former student at the Beaux-Arts.

The connection between the two artists led to their first creative collaboration, “A Couple of Them,” a series of self-portraits in which they play fictional characters, and which foreshadowed an approach and a theme that went to become their signature: the art of staging the shot.

“Playground”, Beyond the shadows, © Elsa & Johanna

“We produce narrative series where themes of identity, gender, and collective memory emerge through staging and characters that we create and embody ourselves,” they point out. Don’t look for the influence of Cindy Sherman in their work, but rather that of Alfred Hitchcock, David Hockney, or the latest series the duo might have binge-watched. 

The book being published by Éditions H2L2 is no exception to the rule they have set for themselves, and it also features fictional texts by young authors inspired by the world the duo created. They are planning on a print run of 1,000 copies of the book, and here is how you can order your copy and support the project in the process.

“First Floor”, Beyond the shadows, © Elsa & Johanna

Calgary: soaking in the area

For the series “Beyond the Shadows,” Elsa and Johanna chose Calgary as their playground, a Canadian city located between Vancouver and Winnipeg, i.e. more or less in the middle of nowhere. 

“We were drawn to Canada right off the bat, and in particular to the city of Calgary, one of the largest ones in the country, which was mainly a cowboy town up until the 1970s. It has undergone spectacular economic growth and now has a population of over a million,” the artists explain. The city’s richly varied landscape, which ranges from hypermodernity to suburban districts and rolling hills, is one they found to be particularly conducive to artistic expression.

“Temptation”, Beyond the shadows, © Elsa & Johanna

It would take them a full month of immersion to find the right settings and backdrops, which in turn would inspire the scenes they stage. Then came the task of dressing the sets with a lot of accessories found in thrift stores, and with a lot of lascivious attitudes where melancholy merges with boredom. “We are like sponges that absorb landscapes and which, as soon as we squeeze them, spit out a colored liquid,” they summarize.

“Evening Cleaning”, Beyond the shadows, © Elsa & Johanna

Chronicles of ordinary idling and collective boredom

We would love for something to be brewing and about to happen; for these ordinary interiors to be the walls at the beginning of a crime thriller à la Fargo. But no, we wait, again and again, just like the two characters from “Beyond the Shadows,” who populate the parking lots, playgrounds, and pavilions of Calgary. 

Whether it’s sitting in front of the TV or standing at a sink, whether in the chlorinated water of an empty swimming pool or the oppressive comfort of a scratchy armchair, they’re just there, idling.  (ajouté car phrase incomplète). And that’s precisely what makes this series so powerful: not only because of its detailed and referenced aesthetic, but above all because it (re) plunges us into our own daily state of limbo.

“The Sunnyside”, Beyond the shadows, © Elsa & Johanna

By Charlotte Jean

Charlotte Jean is a journalist and author. A former contributor to Beaux Arts Magazine and the founder of Darwin Nutrition, she graduated from the École du Louvre, where she majored in in contemporary art.

“Picnic at night”, Beyond the shadows, © Elsa & Johanna
“Sidewalk”, Beyond the shadows, © Elsa & Johanna

Elsa & Johanna, Beyond The Shadows
H2L2 editions
Support their work here and find out more about them on their website

Don’t miss the latest photographic news, subscribe to Blind's newsletter.