Interview with Rose DiSalvo: Creating Photorealistic Worlds

Rose DiSalvo came to Chicago in 2001 after attending UCLA and majoring in philosophy. Painting on her own at home in California helped get her into graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2004, she received her MFA degree and has taught college courses in painting, art history, and humanities. Her artist practice has evolved into self-created worlds of photography.

Cowboy 1
Courtesy of the Artist

ArtStyle: Could you describe these ghost-image cowboy series you have been working on? What are you trying to capture in these images?

Rose Disalvo (RD): I've been shooting a series based on the cowboy figure. These are mannequins and window displays found throughout the city. They're meant to have a kind of ghostlike quality.

It's eerie how I feel as if I'm in the Southwest, and the mannequins have such a surreal human likeness to them. Besides the Western theme coming across in the dress, and from the props in the window displays, the reflections from the sky helped a lot. It was a sunny day and the blues came forth pretty strong to hype up the warm tones. I shot in the late afternoon for a more golden light.

I also wanted to explore how emotion could be assigned to these inert objects. I was intent on capturing an emotional quality in these photos — the melancholia of the cowboy. I wanted to suggest not only the cowboy's emotional state, but to have that melancholy be the feeling of the whole photograph. If the cowboy rides off into the sunset, there's something he rides away from. I wanted to suggest a relationship between the cowboy and what's left behind. Cowboys don't disengage from the world. They sing sad songs. They're not just floating off into nirvana detached; they carry stuff around with them.

Cowboy 5
Courtesy of the Artist

ArtStyle: Do you take photos directly from your exploration of Mexican-American Chicago neighborhood stores?

RD: It's interesting that these stores exist in the urban setting of Chicago. People aren't wearing this stuff to work downtown. It's a sort of fantasy costume. I think it symbolizes an urban fantasy, as an alternative to the rigors of social constraints. The cowboys represent lone, independent figures who dealt with the wild and unknown frontier, which brings up conflicts between wildness and taming, and desire and civilization. The cowboy is a symbol etched into American and Mexican consciousness, but historically, this happened when the Wild West had become a myth, and it had been explored and tamed. I thought the cowboy was a way to deal with nostalgia, a symbol that recognizes a past, and one that decorates it, and lies about it a little.

ArtStyle: It seems like this is a pretty direct approach to photography. How do the elements of light and reflection play into these photos?

RD: In this series I was using pretty straight photo techniques — cropping and value adjustment. No high-end digital manipulation. There is a bit of the documentary style here, but there are some factors that go in to complicate the images.

The flares make a light haze, and this gives a sort of other worldly quality, like halos or spirit photography. The reflections on the glass bring in imagery from the other side of the window. Formally, this collusion of worlds fit together more seamlessly than I had expected it would.

Courtesy of the Artist

I first shoot the Chicago street scenes, then I insert the athletes digitally. This relates to another work I did where I inserted my own interiors into Chicago buildings. At the end of the day, though, I don't think these are specifically Chicago. I was more drawn to looking at the idea of heroism and banality.

ArtStyle: Do you know what athlete you are going to add to each photo before you take a photo?

RD: I often have specific ideas of the athletes that are to go with the scenes, but each photo is not totally fixed. I respond to the street — the figures and compositions — that I find there. Sometimes they suggest a certain athlete to me. Other times I know I want to work with the high jumper, for example, and I find the scene that best fits that. I also have to find the right high jumper to fit the scene. The process is negotiating multiple sources of imagery, and this can at times change the original blueprint. On the street, I work more at a suggestive level. Selecting images to integrate becomes more deliberate and limited. Photography, especially on the street, can be like hunting or fishing. You know what you're after, but you also have to be able to negotiate what you actually find.

Athlete 2
Courtesy of the Artist

The hurdle jumper fits only really high up in the picture. I worked with this image to achieve a certain level of believability even if it's an impossible image. Size, colors, edges, and other factors are digitally manipulated in Photoshop to integrate the athlete. There are arched shapes against straight ones, darks and lights, and color contrasts that bring the high key colors of the athlete's clothing into contrast with the subdued greys of the city, and so forth. One thing about working with the athlete is that they are often putting their body into these wonderfully geometric poses.

ArtStyle: Could you tell me how the photo manipulation works?

RD: Once I've gotten my images together to integrate, there are various adjustments to be made: shifts in scale, color, clarity, light direction, and so forth. In terms of dealing with edges, I don't always want the fact that it's digital to be obscured, but I want those kinds of seams, if they're there, to make sense, in the same way that splashy paint carries meaning and effect.

Athlete 3
Courtesy of the Artist

The long jumper landing in the middle of a leisurely crowd in Millennium Park is more integrated visually with the others because there are so many figures. In addition to the rest, I also added shadows to make her float.

ArtStyle: There is some type of duality with people passing on the street, going down the subway station, on their own destiny and then this heroic athletic feat is happening and people are oblivious to it. Could you tell me more about this dialogue?

RD: Nobody notices these athletes' feats. I wanted a kind of ambiguity as to whether the athletes are actually there or not. If not, what are they, an apparition? A glitch in the matrix? Projections of people's desire to do something great? A hero of the mundane? There does seem to be a marked contrast drawn between those people who are sort of asleep or going quietly and those pushing themselves against fate/nature. The athlete was originally tied to warrior cultures, as strong bodies could protect the clan, whereas today, the motivation for physical rigor is aesthetic or entertaining. Sometimes a really mundane thing can feel heroic, or there could be a total lack of heroism in this context.

Light 2
Courtesy of the Artist

ArtStyle: You also have these photos of strings of light. What are they? How did you capture these images?

RD: These are light drawings, light objects, and lightscapes. They are all taken of light sources at night. These are captured by moving the camera with an open shutter. I have worked both digitally and on film with this process. I can move the camera in an intentional way, but ultimately, the image is not fully known until developed. It's much less controlled than other ways of shooting. I try to influence the image, but many of the best ones are where the camera mis-reads the information out there, and it's hard, if not impossible, to predict this. It's as if the machine becomes a poet instead of a reporter. The sources are porch lights, car lights, street lamps, disco balls, campfires, and so forth.

Light 4
Courtesy of the Artist

The element of time becomes apparent. The sitting figure is carved from time where the camera is moving. It's sculptural in a way, and the image is built with time and memory.

ArtStyle: The last series I want to ask you about is of these falling people in place. Why is it a blank room and how did you capture them without a blur if they are falling?

RD: This format is also time based. I worked with the grid format for a while, where the multiple images add up to a sort of Muybridge table, yet each frame is also a particular image, and can be explored as such. I was interested in meaningful gestures with a minimum of cultural codes. It's a kind of theater acted out without props. The blank room allows the body language to dominate. Not being very determined, it's also a space of possibility. The simplicity of the room gives the physical and performing gestures a kind of succinct eloquence. There's no blur to the bodies because the figures held onto a rope between them to support each other. I Photoshopped the rope out, so there's a kind of invisible magnetism that anchors them.

Courtesy of the Artist

ArtStyle: Does your teaching humanities influence you work today?

RD: It has definitely played a part, both consciously and unconsciously. Myths, arts, philosophy, social and political climates, music, all these have influenced my work. I've long held an interest in intellectual and mythological material.

Rose DiSalvo can be contacted at

For more of Rose DiSalvo’s artwork, click here ArtStyle Blog Gallery.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bookmark on

No comments yet. Be the first.

Add a Comment

Your comments will need to be approved before appearing on the blog. Some comments may be edited. Thanks for your patience.

You must be logged in to post a comment.