Street View is a fashion series in which Isa Giallorenzo spotlights some of the coolest styles seen in Chicago.
Photographer Maurene Cooper and fashion designer Suzette Opara joined forces to present “Runway to Reality,” a photo and garment exhibit on display at the Washington Park Arts Incubator until June 10th. Cooper’s series, entitled “The Audition,” portrays south-side kids going to the prom, a ritual she found fascinating. Her photographs are complemented by Opara’s luxurious creations, which will be featured in a fashion show happening on June 5th at the Stony Island Arts Bank. Read an interview with Cooper and see more photos of the stylish opening attendees right after the jump.
I interviewed photographer Maurene Cooper via e-mail:
Isa Giallorenzo: You mentioned, “the power of adornment to transform and elevate is at the core of the history Suzette and I share.” So I gather you don’t consider fashion a superficial matter. What does style mean to you, and why is it a central theme in your photography?
Maurene Cooper: That’s a great question! I am interested in fashion from the perspective of street style and from the DIY level. I don’t follow the huge design houses and labels. I look at what women wear on the train and walking down the street. I am interested in how looks are pieced together and how women use color, texture, and pattern to enhance their best features. Mixing vintage and contemporary garments and accessories are interesting to me as well. I follow a wide range of blogs. At the moment Flight of the Fat Girl is my favorite—she wears great patterns, her makeup is bold and complementary and her hair is on point.
Why did you decide to focus on prom dressing in this series? Do you usually prefer to portray special occasions?
I wouldn’t say that I am specifically interested in special occasions—rather my interest is adornment and decoration, and those two things happen to be present at formal occasions. I have been interested in custom garments, especially as they relate to the prom since the early 2000s. My first exposure was through my mother’s stories as a prom chaperone at the Catholic high school where she taught in Philadelphia. In my 20s I accompanied her several times as an extra chaperone, so that I could photograph the custom gowns and suits the students wore. Between 2005 and 2010, it wasn’t a formal project for me. After many years of being involved in the nail-art scene on the west side of Chicago and having that community as the core of my subject matter I became curious as to whether there was also a custom [gown] prom culture in Chicago. My early attempts to connect with Chicago teens going on prom was through Naughty Nailz, [a nail salon] where I have been photographing. Nail salons as a point of contact garnered fly nails, but not a custom gown. And it was the custom gown I wanted to photograph.
Why only cover the south side? Would the North Shore kids, for example, interest you at all?
My level of access to teens was dependent on finding a contact that would continue to vouch for me. I was blessed to be introduced to garment designer Suzette Opara, a Nigerian-American designer, through the manager of the Textile Discount Outlet. Many girls who have their gowns custom-made for prom buy their fabric at the Outlet, and I knew that connecting with a designer through that shop would be my best bet. Suzette works out of her south-side studio and her clientele is predominantly women who live there. As a visual artist, I am particular drawn to pattern, design, and precise details and Suzette is a master of detail and pattern placement. Ultimately, she has given me access, but at the same time, I fell in love with each new gown and innovation I saw on her young clients. The photographic series has now become very specific of the designer and her African-American clientele.
Did you get to participate in the whole ritual of getting ready for the prom? What was it like?
As a freelancer and adjunct photographer instructor, I’ve gotten very good at piecing together gigs. Over the years I have shot a lot of weddings and I approached each prom event like a wedding job, photographing from the moment the makeup artist arrives till the couple leaves in their car. I tend to be more of an observer in there photographing the young women and the community. Part of this is that there is so much attention directed to the young women, and observing and composing around the activity is challenging enough. However, when photographing the young men, my process is more formal and directorial. Consistently I have the boys engage the camera.
For African-American communities on the south side, the prom send-off is a coming-of-age event, much like a Bat Mitzvah. There is food, a DJ, decorations, a fancy car, friends and family, and sometimes prayer.
What do you intend to achieve with this project in particular, and your work in general?
Initially, I wanted to make environmental portraits of teens in gowns. It’s almost like I had the pictures made before I began the projects. But as experience always changes the process of image making for me, I become fascinated by the community and the fanfare and the rituals of each family. I became a witness and not a director. This work is about culture, joy, pride, and power. The dress is merely the aperture through which to view individuals and community.
Is there a website dedicated to this series? Where can people find more about it, and your work as well?
Please visit my website hmcooper.com. A new prom season will begin at the end of April and I can’t wait to grow the work more.
See more Chicago street style in the Chicago Looks blog.