“I saw the sign. Like, Ace of Base vibes,” says photographer Cleonette Harris of the first portrait in her Neon Paradise Los Angeles series. The picture shows her girlfriend and collaborator, Eileen O’Brien, in front of a massive neon display that happens to compliment her zebra-striped dress and shock of yellow hair perfectly. “It was very spontaneous. We were like, ‘You’re cute enough to just get shot in front of it, so let’s just do it.’”
The portraits in the ongoing series set unique individuals against LA's abundance of glowing signage. It's an ephemeral, 3 AM feeling, featuring outfits that evoke Party Monster (well, the good times at least). But, Harris says, the pictures are highly personal and political. We talked to the artist ahead of the opening of Neon Paradise Los Angeles at San Francisco’s Hit Gallery on May 19, and she gave us a bit about each of her subjects:
VICE: How do you choose who you photograph in your series?
Cleonette Harris: I’m focusing on artists who are queer and artists who are people of color because I am a QPOC artist and I believe these are marginalized groups. Their image and story needs to be documented. Part of the goal is to document prominent people in the queer and underground scene and to shine a light on them as such, but also as artists and friends.
You’ve been throwing club events for the past ten years in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and New York—Club Clit, Club Fist, an annual John Waters party—how does that tie into your work now?
That put me in contact with a lot of artists and performers. A lot of the people I shot for Neon Paradise were in one way or another a part of my club event—either I’ve booked them or they were a supporter—so in a sense it is an extension. I’m bringing them into another form of my artistic life.
What’s your approach for who goes with which sign?
I try to be kind of crafty in matching certain people with certain signs. It’s a major thought process that I have to sit through and do research on. It’s totally like matchmaking. Some people are really down for the signs I choose for them and some people are kind of like, "Oh, maybe I want this one instead…" People get very picky sometimes. It’s funny.
When did you start taking photos?
I started when I was younger. I always had a camera. My dad took photos all the time and I picked up on that. One of my art teachers… I told him I wanted to be a psychologist and he was like "Well, that’s like flushing shit down a toilet…"
Your teacher told you that?
My art teacher Mr. Olson. I’ll never forget it. I was like "Well, jeez." But he gave me a camera and was like, "Go and shoot the seniors for their graduation." And I was like, "No way, I’m way too shy, I can’t do that." And he was like, "Well, break out of it." And I did it… I’ve been taking photos ever since.
Below, Harris walks us through the photos of Neon Paradise.
Cleonette Harris: My girlfriend Eileen O’Brien is fashion designer in LA. Half the time she’s making the clothes or helping me with styling them. So she can actually use the photos for her own personal work too. It’s another form of me supporting her as an artist.
James Flemons is a fashion designer in Los Angeles, focusing on recycled denim. He’s wearing one of his outfits. It’s very '70s with the hair, with the facial hair, the whole thing together with the Frolic Room. There’s something about that sign and that place that gives me old school vibes. If you go in there, there’s all this memorabilia. Apparently it’s one of the last places the Black Dahlia went before she died.
On the left is Jillian Gnarling and on the right is Hollow Eve. They both do drag and are artists in the queer and drag community in San Francisco. The concept behind it was, "Alright we’ve got the Universal sign—what do you think about when you think Universal?" I was like, "Maybe we could do dead movie stars." So we wanted to give you dead Marilyn Monroe and dead Charlie Chaplin vibes.
JaJa is a trans woman and rapper who resides in Los Angeles. Something about her just says "I can get on a pole and do some tricks and make you stare at me." She’s just very captivating for me, so I had to shoot her at this location: Seventh Veil Strip Club in Hollywood. Most shoots that I have, there’s always someone out there who’s heckling us, but we power through. We get it done. You can see that she’s very strong in the face and she can take a lot of shit, and she does—because as a trans woman that’s what happens.
Yes. Here we go. I love this one. Can you guess why? Look at him! He’s hella beefy. He’s buff, he’s a dancer, he works on his bod. He’s a really amazing dancer. I saw the sign and I was like, "Who in the hell can I shoot here? I was like I have to shoot Austyn Rich." He’s buff. At first I didn’t want it to be too posey. But I thought it would be funny if he’s like OK lemme show you my muscles because I’m in front of this beefy Arby’s sign.
This is Neon Music. She’s actually from New York. I booked her for Club Fist maybe two years ago. She’s a musician, she’s been in bands, and she’s doing her own solo project at the moment. She also DJs and she’s a designer too. She’s also a trans woman. She’s been a very prominent figure in the punk scene and queer scene. For this sign we thought it was cool to pull a leopard moment. If you meet her, she’s such a strong character. Very glam. She gives you classic rockstar vibes. And considering Vivienne Westwood is such an iconic designer with the whole punk aesthetic, I thought it was perfect.
That’s Sesen D., a model, wearing a jacket and dress that my girlfriend made with her signature crystal nipples. Maybe she’s going to pawn her wedding ring? It’s really up for interpretation.
This is the Circus Liquor in North Hollywood, which is down the street from my house. It’s in one of my favorite movies, Clueless. These two folks, Lizard and Dad, are extremely fashionable. They’ve done drag at my club a couple of times. They do a really good job styling themselves, makeup and everything. I just wanted them to give me glam but clown. Like, "Let’s blend in like you’re hanging out with your friend." They gave me the best clown they could. They didn’t want to do too much clown makeup. They gave me light clown.
Celeste X.X.X. is a good friend of mine and my girlfriend’s. She’s got the contacts in like as if she’s having a psychic moment. Imagine Raven-Symoné in That’s So Raven, where she’s like, "Oh shit I just saw the future." It’s kind of like that. Also Celeste has psychic abilities—we bond on this—so it’s very fitting. She does makeup and she’s also a musician.
Clarys Biagi is a dancer. She was just in one of Janelle Monáe’s latest videos, she’s danced for Beyoncé, and her and my girlfriend are working with Eve right now on looks for the LA Pride Festival, because she’s going to perform there. I love red and green together. People make fun of me, like, "You look like Christmas," and I’m like, "no."
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