ELIZABETH DE LA PIEDRA: BLACKTOWN MEMORIES & HER PHOTOGRAPHY JOURNEY IN CHICAGO
Words by Christopher Kevin Au // Photography by Chris Loutfy
You know an interview is going to be enjoyable when you’re meeting at El Jannah, Blacktown. Over chips, pickles and a generous plate of garlic sauce, we’re here to chat to Elizabeth de la Piedra, returning to her home suburb (appropriately) wearing a full velour Sean John tracksuit.
After migrating here as a child from Peru, Liz spent many years in Blacktown before moving to Chicago. She’s a photographer, creative director and model who’s worked with everyone from sportswear giants like Nike, to fellow Australian talents like Anna Lunoe.
On her short visit back home to visit family, we quickly caught up with Liz to chat about some Blacktown memories, her approach to photography, and growing up in the Internet age:
Being back in Blacktown and walking down the main strip, what are some of these memories that are being evoked for you today?
Yeah, it's complete nostalgia. Every time I walk the streets, I feel like I'm 10, or 12, or 14, or 16, or 18. I know everywhere that I've gone in for after-school snacks, the kebab shops, the library. The old CD store that just went out of business, where I used to go find second-hand books and second-hand metal albums. I love the station because it always reminds me of the place I could go to get freedom. It was close enough to my house that I could just hop on a bus, get to Blacktown station and then I could go wherever I wanted. So, yeah, it's always been home for me and in a way, also a place that has also let me go anywhere I wanted. It's been a really good grounding point for me.
And how do you think the area's changed over the years? Every time you come back, is there a store that you think, 'Oh fuck, that closed down' or 'No, that's different.'
I feel like Blacktown was always ever-evolving. So when I first moved here, I was about four or five and obviously, it was a big immigrant town. At the time, it was very much Greek and Turkish, and then it went to Syrian, Assyrian, Middle Eastern. And then after that, it went to Islander, Samoan, Fijian, New Zealander and then after that, it went to Sudanese. So more than ever, I'd see cultures impacting the city which brings that great wealth of more culture, because there's remnants that stay from each culture. And it's just nice to see people find their communities here, even if they end up shifting and changing and moving around. It's always been a hub where people always come to build themselves a new home.
And being in America, what are people's perception when you talk about home? I imagine that a lot of people overseas think that it’s full of like beaches and kangaroos. They don't realise there's full suburbs here of Asian communities and African communities.
100%! Yeah, like they definitely have like a preconceived notion when they look at me because I look Latino, so they don't expect me to speak Australian, but there hasn't been anything that's impacted me negatively. In fact, they think I'm like this big exotic flower, which is great! And yeah, they do have this kind of notion that there's kangaroos everywhere still, and that we see them, and that it's beachy. But I do just say I'm from the suburbs, it pretty much looks like the South side suburbs of Chicago where my husband is from, so I've gone far away but I've almost found the same place in America.
You've always talked a lot about being a product of the Internet age with your LiveJournal, MySpace and stuff like that. So how does it feel to have your photography published in print, especially as someone who was brought up on the web?
It's very validating to see yourself in print, in any publication. Even coming up in the Internet age, anything on the Internet wasn't really validated up until the last few years. It wasn't cool that I was on MySpace, LiveJournal or DeviantArt. It was lame, it was even lame to have Internet friends at that time. So to see the way things have changed now, it's really good but I will always get goosebumps from seeing my stuff in print. It’s just something that you can hold onto as well. It's tangible. It goes into your records and nobody can take that away from you, so I think that's really important.
Do you remember what your MySpace song was?
Blonde Redhead, 23!
Even though people might think you're an Internet photographer, you did intern with Ryan McGinley and Magnum and you do have an actual legitimate photographic background.
It was important for me to do that, because all of the things that I like and all of the things that I do outside of what I studied, which was photography at COFA and then at RMIT. For me, it just felt like I always needed more, and I knew I wouldn't be a great assistant. I tried to assist people and they were always like, "You're weak girl. Do some push ups. You need to pick up some bags. You need to throw up some sheet, pull it back down!" And I was just not the best at that, even though I desperately wanted to be.
I always felt like I was letting people down, so I wanted to get under my belt as much in experience as I could. Magnum was great because I was in the archives there, and I was meeting all the photographers, and I was dropping things off and picking things up, seeing how they created things in digital and print media. Ryan was great because he had a diverse crew as well, so I didn't feel like I was the weak little girl. I just felt like one of the kids, and we were doing as much as we could do to help create a space for the artists to make their work.
So that was really amazing for me, because that was how I found my footing in that world. I was able to absorb so much about those businesses to take back home in Chicago and then start my own practice. People judge me because of the way I look and how I dress, because I like being girly or I like being fashioned. They might not take me seriously because of that, so I just try to be like, "Look at my history and look at my work, and then you can make up your mind."
So now we're at a stage where brands are doing full photo campaigns on iPhone, and people are making documentaries with an iPhone and a stabiliser. How do you think photography is going to progress from here on in, with the landscape changing so much?
So this was something a lecturer said to me when I was in RMIT. At the time, I was young and I was really into point and shoot photography in the vein of Hiromix and Terry Richardson. And he was telling me, "This is great but no client is going to work with you, you're cutting out a bunch of clients by sticking to this." And I said, "But this is what I like!" He told me to just be aware of fads, that this is a fad in photography. To make sure that you learn lighting, and make sure you learn Photoshop, and make sure you learn everything, so that you can do everything. And if you still want to do this, then do it.
And you've worked on some music videos for people like Anna Lunoe. tTell us about your relationship with her, and whether that's something that you want to get into more?
Yeah! I love Anna and I've been working with her for about three years now, she took me on as her creative director which is great. But it's an extremely collaborative process working with any artist, just like me and my husband collaborate beautifully as well. And I feel like with musicians, they already have so many ideas going on in their head, and my role is to just make that happen. Feed into it, show her the best possible outcomes of what her idea could look like, or how we could evolve it, and that's really fun too.
Being a creative when I was coming up in America, you kind of learn to do lots of different things within your world. I was doing my own shoots, I was styling them, I was creative directing them, I was doing all the retouching. And when you're young, you can get jobs in those things; it's all part of being a freelance artist, and it all leads to different things. it was great with Anna, because it started out as photo shoots and then developed into creative directing, and then we did the video. So she just comes up with an idea and then I source all the visual to show the director. I make sure that the chairs look like this, and the girls look like this. I'm just really crazy about the execution. It has to be perfect!
And what projects are you working on now?
Right now, I'm working on a big series about a woman's rights on nudes, in a way that challenges the social norms about the nude selfie. We're just learning to create a conversation about how, when women are the authors of their own nudes they're instantly seen as something less than; but when a man is the author of our nudity, it's galleries and in shows. So I'm creating sets and doing photo shoots around that idea right now. I don't know how long that's going to take, but I'm hoping not too much longer. I would also like to embark on something more documentary-based later on in the year.