The Beautiful Memories of Veronica Ibarra

Ibarra’s photographs try to “capture the real and create the surreal.” Her artistic process tolerates aberrations because, she says, “Even mistakes can be beautiful.”

In Features by Victor P. Corona 2011-08-22 print

Veronica Ibarra and Tommy TurnerAlthough Veronica Ibarra is still in the early years of what should be a remarkable career as a photographer, her work is already marked by at least two key qualities: the way that her images trigger visceral reactions in the viewer and the diversity of a repertoire that interweaves the frightful with the flamboyant. Consider the series in which she used a scalpel to redo a faded tattoo on Tommy Turner, who would later become her partner, or her own pensive performance in Conrad Ventur’s new screen test series. Ibarra has also completed vivid re-performative portraits of Ladyfag as Frida Kahlo and Darian Darling as Candy Darling. Many of these dramatic creations are viewable on her photography blog, “La Bella Memoria.” As the Spanish words for “beautiful memory,” the title of Ibarra’s chosen channel for documenting her practice is an explicit acknowledgement of the past’s power to inform the present. Begun as a diary, the blog catalogues a complex body of work that fostered my own curiosity about the young photographer and her compositions.

Recently, I was welcomed to Ibarra’s home in Queens with a quick and earnest smile that is perhaps one of her own most memorable characteristics. Fans of Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol will immediately detect a not unconscious resemblance to Jane Forth. With her curious cat lying near us, Ibarra and I spoke in the same home studio where she has shot Luc Carl, Darian Darling, and Miss Guy, among many others. Overlooking a lush backyard, the small but comfortable room would be the envy of any artist in space-starved Manhattan. As we discussed Ibarra’s aesthetic sensibilities, her past collaborations, and New York culture in general, several mannequin heads wearing colorful hats gazed at me from behind Ibarra. We gradually worked our way through her archive as she described a creative imagination that tries to “capture the real and create the surreal.” Hers is an artistic process that tolerates aberrations because, she said, “Even mistakes can be beautiful.”

Phillipe Blond

Looking through the treasure trove of Ibarra’s photographs and a self-published collection titled Clandestine Theatre, I asked about the process of developing and executing a shoot, particularly the inspiration that drives her compositions. Ibarra described becoming “possessed” by a kind of manic energy during a shoot and being preoccupied at the last minute with technical details that she overlooked due to “daydreams” about a desired image. When asked to say more about her attraction to the ugly and the violent (an affinity she shares with creators like Alexander McQueen and Tim Burton), Ibarra replied, “I never really think anything is ugly.” One possible accounting for this openness is that she spent six years dating a mortician. This time yielded a comfort with cadavers and fed an artistic disposition that brought together an appreciation of glamour with a desire to incorporate the peculiar.

In reviewing her work one can see hints of the deranged whimsy of Jack Smith or the ornamented femininity of Frida Kahlo as well as the attentive eye to styling and makeup that is required for successful fashion photography. Ibarra also described a fascination with the “dreamlike quality” of surrealist work by Salvador Dalí and Frida Kahlo as well as the complex and often lugubrious imagery of Irina Ionesco, Gilles Larrain, Sarah Moon, Ellen Rogers, and Joel-Peter Witkin. Growing up in East Los Angeles, Ibarra’s introduction to the world of photography, art, and music came about through high school classes and the interests of an older sister. Upon arriving in New York in 2003, Ibarra recalls that she did not start shooting right away. Instead, she spent time “soaking up the city.” Once she did pick up her camera again, a key collection from this period was the 60 Avenue B series shot at her Alphabet City apartment with friends like Annaleigh Ashford, Breedlove, Anna Copa Cabanna, and Kevin Wyzzard. Matching the production of their carefully arranged spreads to the flare they fed into their daily lives, the close group of friends sought to document a brand of Technicolor theatricality that mixed a love of vinyl, sequins, and iconicity.

Lady Starlight

Ibarra’s gateway to this madcap world of New York culture was the makeup industry, which is naturally vital to the city’s entertainment, fashion, and theatrical sectors. Having just started work as a MAC Cosmetics employee at Henri Bendel, Ibarra introduced herself to a colleague named Colleen Martin, known to most people today as Lady Starlight. Ibarra recalled having admired a look that was reminiscent of Peggy Moffitt. Curiosity about the city’s nightlife led to a close friendship with Martin, who would dress as Ziggy Stardust in an effort to “become the character,” even while riding the subway. Ibarra’s photographs of Martin’s re-performative homage are some of her most striking portraits and remain an impressive record of Martin’s efforts to “use the city as her stage,” as Ibarra recalled. Their friendship also led to the creation of Veronica Vain, a persona that Ibarra temporarily adopted in the nightlife scene as host of a party called Soundhouse. Bestowed upon her by Martin, the stage name alluded to the fact that, at the time, Ibarra wore a great deal of makeup and minimal clothing. Ibarra described this Vain incarnation as being “extreme” and, to my great dismay, doubts that she will ever appear again.

Given her social circles, Ibarra’s response to my question about people whom she would like to photograph was not surprising: Kenny Kenny and Kabuki, two original Club Kids who have since become near icons in New York nightlife and the makeup industry, respectively. Describing Kenny as an “amazing artist,” Ibarra remembered being in high school and seeing Kenny on a talk show. Although he sat alongside other Club Kids known for garish looks, Kenny immediately stood out to her. She recalled thinking, “That’s New York and that’s what’s happening now.” Growing up in East LA, it may not have seemed probable that she would eventually become so enmeshed in the New York scenes she first glimpsed on TV. Today she shares her Queens home with Tommy Turner, a legend of the Cinema of Transgression movement recently examined in the documentary film Blank City.Niki M’nray Ibarra has also photographed a diverse and colorful assortment of artists and personalities, including Marla Belt, David and Phillipe Blond, Carmen Hawk, Rumi Missabu of the Cockettes, Niki M’nray, and Angela Wieland. Anna Copa Cabanna, also one of Ibarra’s fellow screen test subjects, said that her friend “has an open heart and an open imagination. A true original with clear vision and a real flair for drama and beauty.” A recent subject of Ibarra’s lens, DJ and rock performer Miss Guy remarked, “Veronica is a beautiful person, lovely to work with and she has a very comforting way of bringing out the best in you while shooting.”

My afternoon in Ibarra’s studio concluded with piles of photographs strewn across the floor and a startling set of parting remarks: Ibarra believed that a photograph simply could not give the viewer the sensation or feeling that a memory could. Yet how can an up-and-coming image maker who upheld her work under the notion of “beautiful memory” admit to the weakness of a photograph’s power? While Ibarra recognized that an image “can punch you in the stomach,” a photograph by itself can only try to approximate the pleasure or pain of a memory, to push a person toward that moment of recollection that can be engrossing or horrifying. In the years ahead, Ibarra plans to develop her glam-gloom aesthetic through exhibitions and the publication of another photograph collection. Having established a strong reputation via her unique craft and intense collaborations with New York legends, Ibarra is poised to capture and create even more beautiful memories, even if they happen to be ugly.

Tracy Conti
Anna Copa Cabanna
Darian Darling

Victor P. Corona

Victor P. Corona. Victor P. Corona, Ph.D., (http://victorpcorona.com) is a sociologist at Columbia University, where he is finishing a book about New York nightlife. He lives in Manhattan. » See other writings

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