By Eric Jones
I can see my mother. She’s in her twenties standing in our kitchen in Oakville, Ontario, mixing yellow food coloring into white margarine in a Pyrex bowl. She’s telling me that some day she’ll go back to university to get the degree she gave up when she had me. I was four.
Cheyne Gallarde is too young to know that housewives used to hand-tint their margarine, but it’s the kind of detail that he would probably get right. This young Honolulu photographer has an art director’s right-brain and a cinematographer’s left.
Great photography says something about the subject and something about the photographer. Growing up engulfed in a continuum of iconic and pulpy images, one looks for cultural alignment. Am I part of that continuum? Am I too a stereotype?
Cheyne is fixated on a style that waxes nostalgic for an era when photographers made images rather than “capturing” them. Practiced lighting, wardrobe and settings researched and rehearsed, with improvisation only as a minor note.
My own Dad carried a Speed Graphic 4x5 camera as he chased down Lena Horne, back when the word Paparazzi was still Italian. He carried seven sheets of 4x5 film, flash-bulbs the size of eggs, and had an assistant who just carried the battery. No motor-drive, no wasted shots. The art was all in the premeditation and anticipation.
Cheyne's equipment is modern, but not particularly sophisticated. He proves that the eye and brain make the shot, not the lens and sensor. Trawling vintage boutiques, scouting locations, sketching compositions, the man knows what he wants. Throw in a guerrilla mentality of shooting without a studio, using city parks and industrial sites as backdrops, and you have an integrity that belies the camp.
What’s your background… did you go to art school ?
I grew up in public schools on the plantation side of Oahu, Hawaii. I couldn’t afford to go to the bigger art school at University of Hawaii, so I went to Honolulu Community College. I slacked off and wasted my scholarship on video games, which rendered me broke when it came time to shop for art supplies.
During my academic hiatus, I got a low-paying graphic design job at a local gay publication. The $20/week wasn’t enough to pay my student loans back, but that was my foot-in-the-door of designing for bigger publications, eventually landing a design gig at the Star Advertiser & Midweek. Throughout my life, I’ve always chosen the path of real-world experience over the classroom experience associated with academia. As far as I could remember, I’ve always been this way, rejecting the traditional route in favor of practical hardship and growth. That being said: I’m a completely self-taught photographer. I’ve never taken a photography course in my life, but I don’t regret any second of my tumultuous journey.
How is your work contemporary?
Culinary Fusion is such a trendy and contemporary thing - my photography works the same way. I combine east and west, old and new, traditional and bizarre to create new forms of art. If that isn’t contemporary, then I don’t know what is!
Is your imagery a deep seated idealization of your parents, or are you just having fun?
I grew up in a single-parent household where my mom worked hard to provide for me and my siblings, so I can see where that might have influenced my work, my mind transforming my past into a picture-perfect version. That’s not the case, though. I think looking back at everything, it was the photo albums that my mom kept that influenced me the most. The way the photos were tinted and degraded over the years combined with the fashions documented in them were what led me to be start creating my own legacy.
Aside from technical issues, what makes you reject a shot?
If it isn’t true to my vision and voice, I don’t share it with anyone. I do a similar filter technique when shopping for my personal wardrobe: If something won’t match my existing closet, I don’t buy it. Rare exceptions have been when I recognize a need for a new style/direction, I break out of my box and try something different.
Are you one of those guys that spots all the art direction mistakes in the movies?
Yes and it bothers me! Not only does the mistake bother me, but the fact that I can’t watch a movie without noticing it bothers me even more. Since stepping behind the lens, I can’t watch a movie the same way ever again. I notice lighting patterns and even anachronistic errors, which can get annoying.
You work outside a lot. Have you ever worked with large format in a studio?
No and I almost want to keep it that way. Almost. My work is inspired by more accessible film formats like Holgas and Lomos whereas Large-Format cameras are for commercial photography. I love the precise control that large formats offer, but adore the imperfections (light leaks, motion blur, scratches, etc.) often found in toy cameras and consumer-grade cameras.
Is play-acting part of your lifestyle, or do you save it for your images?
I act in local community theatre, so dressing up and playing a different character is definitely nothing new for me. Sometimes even I question the ensembles I put my outfits in. They are indeed brave souls for standing around in uncomfortable polyester shirts, tight-fitting bellbottoms or thick wool blazers in this warm Hawaii weather.
Do you have a secret ambition to make movies?
I would love to take Hollywood by storm, adding the additional texture of music and motion to my palette of tools. I’ve dabbled in filmmaking prior to doing photography. It was nothing like the work I produce now, but you could definitely see my fingerprints on it. It’s definitely more challenging to tell a story with a still photo, so that challenge keeps me motivated. The way I see it: If I can kickstart someone’s imagination with my photos, allowing them to form their own storylines, then in a sense I’m a cinematographer of sorts.
Kodachrome was discontinued last year, Polaroid is gone, and film in general won’t be around much longer. Since film characteristics nail the era, what will the future past look like?
With the planet and people’s wallets being taxed to the extreme nowadays, I predict more digital and eco-friendly technology to take the forefront. I think film’s value will only increase in the future, making it either be more expensive or more inexpensive to acquire. There will always be a place for film in our hearts, like 8-bit video games in a 3D Digital world, there will always be a home for it.
What other characteristics of the present day will future photographers find nostalgic?
If the future looks anything like Tron or other Utopian versions, I think architecture will become a form of nostalgia. We’re already seeing it: fire escapes are replaced by glass elevators, telephone booths removed indefinitely and marquees with hand-lettered signs replaced with LED scrolling equivalents.
Is nostalgia a dirty word?
It can be, depending on who you ask. Waxing nostalgic is definitely a subjective act, but I don’t think it is. However our memories manifest themselves is all acceptable. Personally, I find the term “vintage” to be a much more dirty word because it’s being thrown around without much thought. A photoshopped sepia photo is no more vintage than the deflated balloon from your last birthday party.
Contact Cheyne Gallarde at