In 2010 Marcella Kligman, a photographer from Maryland in the USA, and Corinne (Cor) Portmann, a university student studying English in Zurich, Switzerland, unknown to each other, watched the first series of Sherlock and were hooked. By 2013 they’d exchanged jokes and notes on tumblr, and by 2015 Marcella had proofread Corinne’s Masters thesis, Mirage, Mirage on the Wall : Wallpaper, Infantilization, Hallucinations and the Mirror Stage in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”. Corinne decided to spend her holiday visiting Marcella near Washington, DC. In other words, they became friends. Corinne is known in the Sherlock fandom for her academic knowledge of wallpaper, and Marcella for her professional knowledge of lighting and photography/cinematography, each contributing blog posts to the fan culture of knowledge-sharing known as “meta.” They decided to combine their interests in a photoshoot celebrating the distinctive wallpapers of Sherlock and its innovative cinematography.
All About the Wallpaper!
Mary Jo Watts: Corinne, how did you become obsessed with wallpaper?
Corinne Portmann: My interest in walls and wallpaper came gradually. The very first wall that ever caught my attention was on the cover of Stephan Eicher’s 1999 album “Louanges”. I still consider it one of the most beautiful walls in existence, but back then my appreciation did not go deeper than “This is a really pretty wall.” At university, I first started thinking about wallpaper and its effects when I wrote an essay on “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I chose it as my topic because it was the shortest text on the syllabus and because I had read it before. Little did I know what effect this assignment would have on my life! Right around that time someone showed me some William Morris wallpaper patterns, and I started appreciating wallpaper patterns as works of art.
My interest in wallpaper and its possibilities as a tool of expression grew out of my thesis research a few years later. Production Designer Arwel Wyn Jones’ set designs for Sherlock and the Sherlock fandom’s habit of analyzing every single item on the show proved to be an ideal playground to further develop my ideas after my thesis was done. I keep learning and thinking about wallpaper. My library is growing steadily. I recently attended a conference on Chinese wallpaper in London and I am about to travel to Paris to see the wallpaper exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Some people might think wallpaper is the most boring thing on earth!
Corinne: It may seem incredibly boring but once you learn more about it, you realize that wallpaper is much more than just some paper on a wall. People simply do not give it a second thought. When I did the research for my thesis on “The Yellow Wallpaper”, I was astonished that I could find only one text that actually talked about the wallpaper, even though it’s the only thing mentioned in the story’s title. I decided to take a closer look at the yellow wallpaper, which first required a lot of research into the history of wallpaper design because you need to know the rules in order to notice that someone breaks them. My thesis ultimately focused on the ways the protagonist was infantilized and how she went through a second childhood to develop into an adult woman once again. I understood the wallpaper as a mirror that, in connection with Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, made this development possible. At first the protagonist does not interact with the wallpaper at all, then she starts touching it and by the end of the story she sees a grown woman breaking out of it. This process is similar to the way small children interact with mirrors until they learn that it is themselves they see in the mirror. Charlotte Perkins Gilman used wallpaper as a catalyst for a process her protagonist needed to undergo in order to break free from the prison-like situation she had been put in.
Movies or TV shows don’t focus on wallpaper in a way that “The Yellow Wallpaper” did. How does that influence your approach?
Corinne: My approach to wallpaper in movies or TV series is very different from the one I took in my thesis. The material I can use is very different. In the short story I only had descriptions of wallpaper I could work with; on screen I can actually see the patterns on the wall. There is also more than just one pattern because there are different rooms the story is set in. I tend to approach set designs from several angles. At first I look at the patterns the set designer used. Are they appropriate for the period the movie is set in? Do I expect to find this pattern in this specific room? Is the wallpaper pattern generic or does its motif have a connection to the story? Does the wallpaper actively match the tone of the show or is it just a ‘passive’ bit of paper on the wall? I also look at the different choices the set designer made and compare the individual wallpapers in terms of availability and price. In sum these points form a system of signs that I then try to untangle. The best way to describe how I see wallpaper on screen is that it works like film music. Ideally you will not notice that there is music in a movie, but it will inevitably influence your feelings while watching a specific scene because it has been chosen to do exactly that. A good set designer can do the same thing with wallpaper. Well-chosen wallpaper gives you a lot of information about a character before even meeting them. Set designers who understand the power of wallpaper can even use it like a Greek chorus and have it comment on the plot. In my opinion Arwel Wyn Jones really understands the semiotic power of wallpaper. Paul McGuigan, who directed four episodes of Sherlock, does too.
Recently, a friend who does not know anything about wallpaper other than that I am interested in it, told me about a movie with a lot of wallpaper in it. While watching it, my friend noticed that the wallpaper somehow fit the tone of the movie quite well. He then gave me three guesses to find out who directed said movie. I got it in one. Paul McGuigan. I love this anecdote because it shows that, when people know about the potential expressive power of wallpaper, they will start noticing it, and that is ultimately the goal of my writing.
How did “Projections”, these portraits of Corinne, come about?
Corinne: Marcella’s and my friendship started thanks to discussions about different aspects of Sherlock. We both came into the fandom armed with specific knowledge that we would share with other people. Marcella wrote about light, I wrote about wallpaper. When I visited her it was logical that we continued our discussions and consequently started creating something together. We can work on texts while being an ocean apart, but a photoshoot is only possible while being in the same location, which certainly influenced our decision.
Marcella: I first knew Corinne as “the wallpaper writer.” As our friendship grew, not only did I learn a hell of a lot about wallpaper through her, but I even proofread her thesis on “The Yellow Wallpaper”, so we already had quite a history of collaborating on this subject.
I love working with friends on portrait shoots, and one of my favorite challenges as a photographer is to create a portrait that reflects a person’s personality. When Corinne decided to visit me, it seemed inevitable that we would combine our interests to photograph the wallpaper that consumed her and the show that brought us together online as friends. I wanted it to be fun, a fan work of love, an ode to the show and all its creators, but also serious portraits that would fit in with my body of work.
Corinne: Projections of wallpaper were the obvious choice for our collaboration since they are basically wallpaper that is made of light. These projections not only lend themselves well to being photographed, they are also the combination of our respective fields of expertise. On top of that I had just finished my studies, and after having spent two years of my life writing about “The Yellow Wallpaper” and how said wallpaper had caused a woman to go insane, it was quite cathartic to turn into the woman behind the wallpaper myself.
Marcella, what was your approach to the shoot – both as an artist and in technical terms?
Marcella: I’ve found in my years of fandom that people project parts of themselves onto characters in a work, or they project the characters onto their own identities. This is sometimes seen in cosplaying or “self-insert” fan fiction. This photo series was our version of “self-insert” fan art.
Since we didn’t have access to more than small squares of these (very expensive) wallpapers, I turned to projection as a way to cover the picture plane. I could have added them digitally, but part of my intent was to actually create a physical space where the image of the wallpaper was on Corinne’s body, as if it were emanating from her mind or her presence. This technique is more related to filmmaking in using light to create and define space and shape, so it felt like an appropriate nod to the cinematography I admire in Sherlock. I would be using light itself to replicate my experience of the show through the reference to its distinctive set design. I also wanted to be able to see the interaction of the projection with the model in real time. The projection technique allowed us both to see the end result as we were shooting.
We searched online for a reproduction of each wallpaper pattern from the Sherlock set that was large enough to be printed on 8.5×11 transparency material at the local FedEx-Kinko’s. I’ve printed on transparencies before so I knew to enhance the clarity and contrast in the print because some of those aspects would be lost in the projection process. For each wallpaper pattern, we collaborated on choosing an outfit, hairstyle, and makeup look to complement the wallpaper. I knew I wanted to use color in the final images, so I shot each with a black and white transparency to allow for the most options later. The most difficult part (aside from finding the space in my house for a blank wall and the projector facing it) was overlapping the pattern onto Cor’s face and body in a way that made the wallpaper and the portrait subject “talk to each other”. I tried different sizes with the projections and different poses with Cor to create stories of the two interacting. For a projector, I used a vintage (translation: from my basement) overhead projector, the type that used to be used in schools. Each image was shot with only this one continuous light source on my Canon 5D.
Marcella’s behind the camera and Corinne in front of it. How were your experiences of the shoot different?
Corinne: I think we had very different experiences during our photoshoot. For one Marcella is a professional photographer; she is used to that kind of environment. I, on the other hand, am not used to having my picture taken. We also had a very different experience because from where I was standing I could only see parts of the projections while she got to see the entire picture.
Marcella: My biggest challenge with shooting portraits of non-models is giving them encouragement and making them feel confident enough to let their personalities show. We started with the fun 221B Zoffany shot, which was a joyous, fandom-inspired image (and fully clothed).
That got both of us smiling and energized and ready to move to the more challenging images. I tried to draw on Cor’s relationship with each wallpaper–her challenging thesis with the yellow wallpaper image (“Projections III: Yellow”), for which we picked the Devil Damask from Irene Adler’s bedroom in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” and the sensuality of the toile. I kept shooting each set until I knew I had captured something unique with each wallpaper. I know the person in front of the camera can be a bit mystified by what I ask them to do (turn your head an inch to the left…… half an inch…) but I have enough experience by now to keep it light, and I answer any questions they have.
Art by Fans or Fan Art?
Is the “Projections” “art” or “fan art”? Does the distinction matter?
Marcella: I have thought about this question for a long time. The origin of the portraits was in as fan art; Corinne would not have come to visit me, and we would never have met each other, were it not for Sherlock. In a way the portraits are “fan art” of our friendship as much as of the BBC show. Even though most fans would recognize the most famous of the wallpapers (the 221B Zoffany) I don’t think many fans would consider the portraits to have enough of the actual show in them to be truly “fan art”–which tends to focus on the characters. The spark of inspiration may have come from that one pattern, but the series of portraits I consider part of my body of work, and I would not call it fan art. I do respect fan art tremendously; I have seen very moving and highly skilled fan art images. What’s beautiful about fan art, for me, is that the process of creating art is about joy; fandom is also about joy, about finding your joy, sharing it with other people, and creating fan works is validating one’s joy. The distinction between fan art and non-fan art doesn’t matter to me. Most of the Western tradition of art is fan art of the Bible. Art is about a shared language, shared references, that allow people to recognize sublime moments of the human experience.
Why did you choose to use your real identities for this article rather than just your fandom names?
Marcella: Because I worked as hard on these portraits as I do on the rest of my work, I did not want to put these images into the world without my copyright. However, there is a stigma attached to being a “fan” that can be damaging, so I had to weigh the benefits of publishing against the possible drawbacks. In the end, I decided to just put myself out there and own the images as part of my portfolio, hoping for the best.
Corinne: When I realized that there is no research on the effects of wallpaper within a work of fiction, I knew that I had two options: a) to give up because the topic is seemingly not worth writing about, or b) to buckle down and do the work myself. In order to take on that work I knew I would have to abandon the pseudonym and put my name on my writing. This seemed as good a moment as any to step out from behind the wallpaper.