I Am Legion: Universe of One
Cheyne Gallarde was born and raised in Hawaii in the 80s, but he claims “my soul feels like it was born in the 50s.” His affection for midcentury Americana is plainly evident in the fashion photography of Gallarde’s studio Firebird Photography. Gallarde’s work combines a love of theater (and the theatrical) with maximalist colors and a kinetic feel. All of these elements came together in his Universe of One project, where Gallarde photographs himself as various characters using all the tools at his command, from makeup and wardrobe to lighting and backdrops. After testing the waters with his Tumblr, Gallarde decided to transform his transformations into a book via Kickstarter, with a modest cash goal that was funded almost immediately. Before that’s even done, he’ll spin it off into a second book, Twinsies, which will get its own Kickstarter very shortly. To demonstrate his skills, Gallarde offered to incarnate our own David Karp, and the man himself graciously accepted. The results and process may be seen above, and our talk with Gallarde appears below.
When did you get interested in photography?
I’ve always been involved in art — been sketching since I was a child. Photography seemed like a natural progression, which combined my theater experience and graphic design background. I’ve been shooting professionally for five years now.
Who would you describe as your influences as a photographer?
I try not to follow other photographers because I feel that influences my work too much, so I turn towards other types of artists for inspiration. My biggest influence is actually American painter Norman Rockwell. His ability to tell a rich story in a single painting continues to inspire me to be a better storyteller. Photos for me should be self-contained movies.
You also aren’t afraid to get in front of the camera.
Actually, I’m extremely self-conscious. However, there was a turning point in my career where I realized I needed to get over that irrational fear. I believe that in order to be a better director, you need to experience what your subjects experience.
All your photo work is very humanistic — lots of portraits, lots of tableaux involving people as characters.
It definitely stems from my theater experience and love of films. Storytelling has always been one of my strong points, so I feel that by including thematic elements or characters, it conveys the story better. There is almost always a protagonist in my photos.
When and how did the idea for Universe of One come about? You mention Cindy Sherman as an inspiration.
Cindy Sherman’s art was the creative catalyst for Universe of One, but it evolved from there. After reading a magazine interview with her, I became obsessed with her art, and that obsession finally came full circle when I went to view her exhibit at the SFMoMA a couple months ago. I set out to create a self portrait project that continued the spirit of her work. In my opinion, her more powerful images were ones that reminded you of someone you may have met or known personally. I wanted to play with that blurry line that made people question “is this person real or not?”.
Had you ever tried doing something like Universe of One before?
Like most photographers, I’ve definitely shot the occasional self-portrait — but it was never at this grand scale! Luckily I had experience doing wardrobe and styling for Firebird fashion shoots, so the only difference was that I was the subject this time.
Were you always thinking of doing a book?
I started posting the photos to Tumblr, which was like my virtual archive. But the thought of “what next?” started to frustrate me, so it felt like a book was the most natural progression. Taking the leap from screen to printed page is exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.
What have some of the reactions been like to your various characters? Are any more popular than others, particularly?
The reaction has been very mixed. There are people who appreciate it on an artistic level because they’re just aesthetically nice portraits to look at. Then there are people who know what I truly look like and they appreciate it on a deeper level because of the amount of work that went into each portrait. Recently though, some people have been in an uproar over some images they perceived as offensive. But that’s fine with me because I’ve always believed art should provoke … otherwise it’s not worthy of being called art.
Which character was your favorite to create?
Definitely Lindsey, the 80s blonde chick. I actually love being the female characters. There’s something very relaxing about putting on makeup and transforming. Twirling my hair is also fun!
Other than “acting” as each character, the Universe of One photos also seem like they must require a lot of technical work in costuming, makeup, props, and especially lighting.
Each portrait comes with its own unique set of demands. I never like doing anything too predictable, so even if a portrait is pretty straightforward, I try to think of creative ways to up the anté. For my recent Great Gatsby series, I could have easily bought some vintage flapper dresses, but chose to make them out of newspaper instead. Creative decisions like that help to elevate them beyond ordinary. But I must confess that sometimes when I’m sweating off my makeup wearing a fragile outfit that’s tearing at the seams and setting up my hot lights that I regret making those decisions! But in the end, it’s all good as long as it looks good!
Were you surprised at how quickly the book’s Kickstarter was funded?
Indeed! My network of friends definitely came through with their support, which I am so grateful for. It also surprised me when complete strangers backed my Kickstarter, which was awesome!
Any plans to tour with the book or any other special promotion?
Currently, I have a photo exhibit scheduled at Honolulu’s Loading Zone gallery in April, where some of the props and costumes will be on display. After that, I have a few clever ideas for book promotion involving some recognizable celebrities.
Do you think you’ll still continue to make and shoot characters like those in Universe of One?
Definitely! The project was designed as an ever-expanding catalog, and there’s an endless amount of inspiration in the world. The world is full of lovely faces. Lately, I’ve been signing off my emails with “I look forward to being YOU soon.”
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