Exclusive Interview with Ransom & Mitchell

by Nastia VoynovskayaPosted on

Entering one of Ransom & Mitchell’s photo sets is like walking into a painting. Rather than rendering a fantastical image on a canvas, the duo will build an elaborate set in their studio to serve as the backdrop of one of their fantastical photo illustrations. The products of unhinged fantasy and technical expertise, their photos hardly undergo any editing as Ransom & Mitchell arrive on set with everything from the backstory to the lighting meticulously thought-out. This coming Saturday, October 5, the duo will open their solo show, “die Familie,” at ZeroFriends Gallery in Oakland. Concurrently, they will be showing at Roq La Rue in Seattle alongside Laurie Lee Brom and Sail starting October 3 and next week, they will have work in the group show “Hallow Be Thy Name” at Bash Contemporary in San Francisco on October 11.

An experiment in folklore, “die Familie” is a portrait series of the members of the ZeroFriends artist collective — which includes Robert Bowen, Dave Correia, Alex Pardee, Quake, Chloe Rice, Skinner and Jonathan Wayshak. The backstory is part fact and part fiction: Stacey Ransom was cleaning out her parents’ home when she found a box of Edwardian-era photos of a strange family from Germany. Ransom & Mitchell created a variety of legends about this mysterious family and had members of ZeroFriends enact them for the portraits. They invited Hi-Fructose to join them on set, and we later had an email exchange about the concept behind “die Familie.” Check out our exclusive photos and read the conversation below.

“Die Familie” seems like a continuation of your artist series, but with a twist. How did you come up with the idea to dedicate an entire chapter to Zero Friends?

When we started talking with the folks at Zero Friends, some of whom we had already shot portraits of or had ideas for, it seemed like a good opportunity to explore this as an extension of our portrait series. We felt that to have a cohesive show it would be best to develop a narrative and then pull influences from the group. Stacey and I recalled a strange box she’d found years earlier in her parents attic and we quickly realized it held the narrative thread we were looking for. Stacey did a great write up of her discovery and subsequent investigation of this mystery box here. Long story short, the box led us to an obscure family that seemed to perfectly fit the personalities of the ZeroFriends — with a little license.

Robert Bowen on set

The photos in this series are deeply rooted in fiction and narrative. What was the process like of coming up with the fantastical backstory for each photo and seeing each narrative come to fruition in the image?

Because there were plenty of holes in the information we could unearth about the original family, we filled in the missing backstories with the influences and characteristics of the artists who would be portraying the different family members. This served as a great conduit for the creative, allowing us to focus on making choices that supported the narrative and complimented each artist. This is indicative of our normal creative process when shooting portraiture. The brainstorming time always involves a lot of back and forth until we feel we’ve honed the idea. The concept must be developed before we can put it into production or the direction for the image tends to suffer. Plus, with better overall direction and guidance we can assemble the best production team and lead them in the right direction.

Robert Bowen and his wife

Finished portrait of Robert Bowen, Meister Tier Verstarken

Do you consider yourselves avid readers? What are some stories that inspired the tales you created for this series?

Yes and no. We wish we had more time to read long form narratives though it seems much of our time these days is devoted to computer screens. However, Stacey has been a long time fan of surrealistic horror writer Thomas Ligotti and is actively rereading Noctuary. She also enjoys non-fiction, popular science by authors Jared Diamond and Mary Roach and other books relating to pathology, parasites and forensics (no shocker there, right?). We are presently reading the entire Harry Potter series aloud with our seven year old son and are just finishing book three. We all agree Sirius Black is a fantastic character (whose name is perfection). The next pile of books to tackle with him will be The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Reliving our literary childhood through him is such a treat!

Stacey Ransom working on a prop

Ransom & Mitchell reviewing the takes

It’s fascinating how you have used Tumblr and Instagram so thoroughly to document the work in the months leading up to the show. Do you see social media as a modern-day form of folklore?

We view it as more of a modern campfire where we share ideas, songs, and culture. We have always viewed our work more as a conversation than a statement, so it’s been natural to extend that into sharing the process of creating the props and other odds and ends that we use as part of our complete experience. We also have benefited so much from watching the process of others so we want to do our part to contribute to the community at large. We really feel like we are all in this together (artists, creatives… all humans) and the more we reach out to each other, the better we all will be.

Skinner in the make-up room

Was there a lot of craziness on set? Care to share any stories?

There are some stories only to be shared in person. Truth be told, production days are long and there’s a lot of work to be done. If there is craziness, it’s only to blow off steam, but mostly they are designed to not be crazy. The only way you can work through the amounts of content we try to capture is by having everything organized before we start, and then move through them as efficiently as possible. As these are self-funded projects, we have to keep the crew and amenities as lean as possible, sometimes forgoing an extra pair of hands or two that would make things faster or more detailed. We’re lucky that we have overlapping skills that compliment each other’s strengths, and can help work as the support team for the other’s lead. That being said, it’s this level of organization that leads to the possibilities of finding that on-set synchronicity where those amazing little details come from that pushes the project over the top. Some folks do have an idea that our sets are something out of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus or perhaps an ’80s hooker and blow party … I’m afraid they will be startled to find that our type of magic only comes from focus and work.

Skinner on set

Any last words?

Three quotes we live by:

Sucking at something is the first step at being kinda good at something – Jake the Dog, “Adventure Time,” 2013

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, but in the end it’s only with yourself. – Mary Schmich, humorist, 1997

Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand – and melting like a snowflake. ~ Frances Bacon 1561-1626

Skinner and Alex Pardee

Finished portrait of Skinner, Bruder Hausmeister

Chloe Rice getting her make-up done

Alex Pardee and Chloe Rice on set, photo by Shaun Roberts

Finished portrait of Chloe Rice and Alex Pardee

Finished portrait of Chloe Rice, Fraulein Liebling

Finished portrait of Alex Pardee, Kapitan NullFreund

Inside Ransom & Mitchell’s office

Stacey Ransom and Jason Mitchell, photo by Shaun Roberts

Ransom & Mitchell’s son, Ozlo, getting into costume, photo by Shaun Roberts

Detail of Jonathan Wayshak’s costume, photo by Shaun Roberts

Finished portrait of Jonathan Wayshak, Vetter Verstorend Vertraut

Finished portrait of Jonathan Wayshak, Doktor Schrecken Monstrum

Finished portrait of Dave Correia, Sir Gruselig Von Grab