In November 2009, New York-based photography duo packed their home and three Siamese cats into a 27-foot silver Air stream trailer and set out on a cross-country photographic odyssey. The United States was in the midst of the worst recession since the great depression and the Formentos decided they needed to see it, feel it, and photograph it. Seasoned fashion and commercial photographers, the couple established clear parameters: five months to cross 25 states and photograph 50 women (but in the end the project grew, and they shot far more). The resulting project is titled Circumstance, American Beauty on Bruised Knees.
In keeping with the recessionary times, they contained the project within a modest budget and did everything on their own. Looking at these images, it’s hard to imagine that the Formentos really did it all – from smudging eyeliner to setting up lighting to navigating back roads. Even harder to imagine is the women, so beautiful amid the ruins of their surroundings, are local ‘models’ from out on the road that the Formentos would meet and photograph in the same day.
Circumstance delves into the despair of the recession – loosing your job, your home, your sense of self. These photographs represent the terrible uncertainty of what your life is all about when the things that give structure and stability are suddenly gone. And in many ways, the Formentos were living this too – but by their own choice and clearly to a far lesser degree. As Artists, they stripped themselves of the comfort and structure of their lives in New York to see what happens when the familiar is gone. Adrift in their trailer, they were living their work. The photos are a lasting record of that which was born through this giving up: brief but beautiful connections with the people they met and photographed along the way.
“After concentrating on commercial work for the past years, I just really wanted to get back to expressing soulfulness and honesty,” BJ explained. The Formentos who met on a shoot in 2005 and were married 3 months later, are well versed in the world of high fashion photography. “We had been shooting commercial imagery for some time,” explained Richeille, “and were attending a conference in New York when it hit us: why are we producing such shiny happy imagery when no one is covering the real underlying emotions of how people feel or what they have gone through?”
“So much of the ‘producing’ America is now defunct,” says BJ, “back roads lead us to ghost towns and forgotten strip malls, to abandoned churches and motels, to rotting steel mills and theatres, prisons, airports and train stations. Luckily we found women in these towns to play our heroines. It has been such an amazing trip.”
These images attest to just how much the world around us can mirror the world inside. The Formentos abandoned building – as much a protagonist here as the women who inhabits it – it is a potent reminder of loss. The life energy is drained from its bones. Whatever lives were once housed within with their attendant hopes and dreams, they have faded. Loss is the prevailing message, and it’s a loss that we all inevitably face.The “models” in this series are so beautiful, so convincing in their noir femme fatale aesthetic, it’s hard to believe they are women the Formentos met along the way. Some seem to have just stepped off the screen of a Hitchcock film, their fifties wardrobe and smoothly coiffed hair is a testament to the Formentos impressive talents as stylists. But in their faces and postures, there is an unfeigned emotion that feels very honest and unposed – something deeper than the beauty of their clothes and hair. These are real women.
The Formentos explain, “Many women came forward from our blog and online gallery. We did searches online for women, and then some came forward through our chance travel into locations. Some women had modeled before, whilst others had dabbled in acting. But, the emotions were very real. What was surprising was most women came forward not expecting to unearth the emotions they did. Taking part in the process seemed to finalize a chapter for some, and start a personal journey for others.”
In some ways, this project led BJ and Richeille into an exploration of the fine line between commercial and fine art. They believe that true art takes things deeper, creating emotion and meaning for people. For them, what could have looked very much like commercial photography, morphed into something bigger because it became about the hopes, dreams and losses of real people. The Formentos found themselves in the midst of many juicy moments, the unexpected small joys that are possible when you give over to Life on the Open Road.
“We definitely take away the memories of those we have met and the places we visited, as well as having a photographic record of all of that,” Richeille says. “Every town has its own gem. I will always remember the Rib Co in 29 Palms and the hospitality of one model and her mother who had us stay with them for two days in Pennsylvania. There are so many stories to tell! The in-between towns on the way to California – like in Wyoming – had the best thrift shopping! We actually hit some stores twice; a year apart, and they still remembered us like it was yesterday. You have to love those kinds of places where time doesn’t seem to move”
And meanwhile, many, many women across the United States have had a chance to tell part of their story whilst playing a roll in the Formentos’ vivid exploration of American culture on bruised knees.