The Elysian Fields were the ancient Greek's answer to heaven. This found photo project from photographer Jordan Madge takes the same name, but the his Elysian Fields are something else entirely. He made the series from two old photographs he found in country op-shop. They were of an entire town lined up in their Sunday best, a lot like those whole-class portraits you had to take on photo day.
Once he took them home, he started to pull his favourite faces from the crowd. It was around then he realised that everyone in the photos was probably dead. We spoke to him about whether that's a problem, and what this nameless, ownerless collection of photos means to him.
VICE: Hi Jordan. Can you tell me some more about the photos and where they came from?
Jordan Madge: I found them in an op shop in Inglewood, up near Bendigo. They were two long photos of an entire town. I sat with them for three or four months and eventually scanned in every single face—there were probably about 80 faces. I got a bit attached to them, and definitely had favourites who'd I make up stories about in my head, but they never left there. I didn't write much about this actually though. I think people can see that as a bit of a cop-out, especially with found work. Maybe they expect mounds of research to go along with it.
Do you worry about that, people thinking you've appropriated a bunch of photos from history?
I've thought about that, sure, but I don't think that it's a cop-out at all. Curating this work used the same eye as taking original photographs. I made changes to images too, enhanced them I suppose. That helped me feel as if it was my own work, because that tension [around appropriation] is always going to be there. But when you create a brand new story from a photograph, a story that it didn't tell originally, you become an author. You're the author of that work, and that's not a cop-out. Sometimes that doesn't happen: you play around with found images and try to find the narrative but there isn't enough there to make it your own. With Elysian Fields, there was.
Is this your most successful experiment with appropriation?
My last three bodies of work have used appropriation to some degree, but there's been original photographs in there too. It's interesting to now only use appropriated or found material and still try to tell a story or convey a mood. It's actually more freeing. It feels much easier to chop and change because you don't have that attachment you do to your own photographs. It's a bit more fun really.
I suppose it's also much simpler.
Yeah, Elysian Fields probably cost me $10, you know? Other projects cost hundreds, and that's just to get the film developed. It's another grand if you want to make 15 copies of a book. Appropriated works are so inexpensive, it's a really accessible way to make something. You can play around with things much more when you know they're not driving you broke.
Aesthetically, how does Elysian Fields differ to the work that came before it?
Elysian Fields definitely doesn't look like the pictures I used to take, but now I've found my own work moving toward that aesthetic: getter darker, a bit creepier. I'm chasing that.
Creepy is a good word for it.
Yeah, I found it kind of interesting that a lot of these people would be dead now. That's where the title comes from, Elysian Fields is a paradise for the soul, but I've painted a picture of them in a really eerie way. So this is paradise but it looks like hell. That's something I don't usually think about much — souls and all that.
Sure. You don't seem like a particularly morbid person.
I'm not really, but I do have my moments.
What does freak you out?
The internet can be scary. I mean, not deeply, but it creates a pressure that isn't really there. Instagram can be a killer, because you'll see people posting work all the time and get to thinking "well, what am I doing?" I tend to sit on work for quite a while. In the long run, though, people don't expect you to bring out a project every year. And in the meantime the internet is fucking scary.