Many of the photographers who now appear in art-world galleries, fairs, and auctions began in the commercial realm, particularly in fashion, which offers the widest latitude for experiment and originality. Hungry to transcend expressive limits altogether, they export their high-end skills to “fine art” photography, with its distinctly different dialogues and gauges of merit. One New York–based married duo who has made the transition with great success is Formento & Formento, who conjoined their respective skill sets to develop a “third eye” that combines their sensibilities into a signature vision. BJ Formento is a photographer raised in the Philippines who has worked with Richard Avedon, Mary Ellen Mark, and Annie Leibovitz; and Richeille is a London-bred fashion designer and art director, who hired BJ in Miami on her first US job. “The biggest difference with fine art,” says Richeille, “is that it’s not about producing work but having quiet time with yourself, and experimenting, and the work comes out of that.”
Upon meeting Richeille, BJ circled back to his original passion for fine art, documentary and street photography, though with a full arsenal of commercial artifice. Their work has a dramatically lit polish that heightens visual detail and accentuates sensual tones. Says Richeille, “My background is fashion so I’ve always had an eye for pattern and layout. BJ has really put the art into my commerce.”
Their transition was also triggered by the 2008 recession, which made them weigh their options and decide to embark on a cross-country trek in an Airstream, curious to explore flyover America and lured by their shared love for its classic American design of the 1950s. “It was a case of survival really; we got to a point in our career where we weren’t achieving what we wanted to. It was born out of self-discovery.” That prolific journey became their first series, Circumstance, a photographic record of their encounters with women whose lives were overturned by hard times — a morose Zeitgeist made lyrically iconic.
Out of that life-changing experience, their passion for conjuring cinema-inspired “big stories” that offer a vivid sense of place led them to their next project, Japan Diaries (on view at Fahey/Klein Gallery through August 30). Their mission was to unlock some of the arcane mystery of that culture whenever possible. Richeille: “Japan is quite a closed society to the Westerner, and the moment someone tells you you can come in and take pictures, it’s Candyland.” Through canny persuasion they were able to take viewers, for instance, inside ancient Buddhist temples and restricted sentōs (communal bathhouses).
So far in their collaborations, their sole subject has been women, the natural convergence of Richeille’s background (“In advertising, a woman is used to sell everything, and relates to many more people”) and BJ’s unabashed love of the female form. She shepherds and styles them, and he shoots them, and the results are very often hauntingly evocative while embodying the unique spirit of their destinations (series in the works: Cuba and India). The images often embrace surreal setups that blend traditional Japan with postmodern fetish. In many cases, the Formentos invite their models to suggest places and poses that allow them to contribute their own emotional grace notes. They are encouraged to freely envision and represent their own sexuality on-camera, as a way of exploring the erotic beyond the cliché.
The Formentos’ silken Japanese demimonde had two touchstones in particular, says BJ — “[Nobuyoshi] Araki because of his love for the women and bondage and kimonos, and his spontaneity; and [Daido] Moriyama speaks to me very loudly because of my documentary background and my earliest desire for street photography … We try to channel the masters and then put our own twist on it.”
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